The Tragedy of Anonymous Comment Threads
posted by Dave Hoffman
Prawfs is running its annual Law Review Angsting thread. Like many such threads, it is dominated by anonymous commentators. That struck me as odd, and I said so. Several anonymous commentators immediately objected that I wasn’t understanding the reputational risks involved. They said that for pre-tenure scholars, “there is a distinct risk in publicly announcing that you have an article submitted for publication, at least before it is actually accepted.” The argument goes that the piece it isn’t accepted, and the person goes on the lateral or entry market, then the world will know that they are shopping around already rejected goods. Another commentator that if you talk about your article not getting offers, you might sway law review editors against the piece. Failure reeks.
I found these arguments surprising, and weak. But I don’t want to hijack Prawfs’ thread, which is now moving onto further productive hand-wringing. So, here goes.
1. This strikes me as a commons tragedy of sorts. If the norm was to sign your name as a part of an effort to be transparent about an obscure process, and both successful and unsuccessful authors repeatedly shared information about their processes, then journals wouldn’t take adverse inferences. But since that’s not the norm, people who do sign their names are fearful of being singled out as lemons. (I think that the real chance of a journal taking this kind of inference is approximately negative 1 billion. They can’t even manage to read real articles in front of them. Or be prepared for class. They are not reading the seventh page of a Prawfsblawg comment thread.) Similarly, if being open about your identity was encouraged, academics wouldn’t have the reaction that the commentators worry about. But it isn’t. So each individual commentator, acting in their perceived self-interest, is anonymous. The quality of information decreases. Free-riders abound.
2. In Paul Horwitz’s magnificent post, Courage, Prudence, and Tenure, he noted that young scholars are often too prudent and insufficiently courageous. He also said that it’s the job of more senior academics to push courage. This, I think, is a very small example of that phenomenon. Look. You can be as tactical and careful and strategic as you want. You can fret till the sun goes down about every shadow behind every bush. And that kind of strategic maneuvering might – might – pay dividends at tenure time. But it strikes me that if you live your life in that kind of crouch, you probably will not produce exciting scholarship, or be an inspiring teacher, or contribute meaningfully to the institution you are at. You probably will be an uninteresting blogger. In this regard, I think sometimes about an academic who, when he started teaching, had a ton of interesting ideas. You know the type. But he never amounted to much as a scholar in part because he was so very afraid of what others thought about his work. Would people realize he didn’t actually know what he was doing? That his ideas weren’t as shiny in written form as they had been when he first spun them out over coffee? What if he didn’t achieve his potential? Better, he convinced himself, not to write than fail to be a once-in-a-generation-colossus.
3. And even if you are fearful of seeming to fail, waiting for law review editors isn’t failure, and you shouldn’t see it that way. Law review submissions is a weird process – there is zero feedback, the timing is peculiar and random, the stakes feel high. People invent all kinds of reasons why it works the way it does, and what you can do to get control. Struggling with submissions is the norm, even for very accomplished people at very elite institutions. The person who gets three offers in two days is the exception. And it is the norm for established teachers and newbies alike. I’ve waited 18 months for a peer review process to end with an acceptance. And last year, we waited for Stanford Law Review for four, excruciating, months. This year, I’ve had an article out for a month – with basically no word – and another for a week – again, silence. The commentators at Prawfs make it seem like I ought to feel embarrassed or ashamed. I don’t. And if you are waiting for an acceptance, you shouldn’t either. It will come. Or it won’t. While you are waiting, you can write something else. Get back to work.