Blogging Etiquette

When I was starting this little soapbox up, I would kinda use terms like ‘on-the-record’ in a self-consciously jokey manner. The joke was that it would be at all relevant to apply journalistic standards to a little thing like this. But now I just use that language habitually. And with reason. This site is, er, rather widely read within the profession. When I moved to private hosting three weeks ago I got a whole new suite of hit counting resources. So I know that since then this site has been visited by people coming from more than 5000 different IP addresses, with over 500 of them visiting more than 10 times (or roughly daily if you exclude weekends and days I was away). So what’s said here is really not private.

One of the things I’ve heard about the blog is that I must feel very confident if I can give away ideas as frequently as I do here. Now that isn’t a real problem for me. After all, I’m not giving away ideas as much as trading them for enhanced reputation, much like everyone does. (That’s a fairly cold way to conceptualise what we do, and I certainly don’t consciously think about that trade when I’m working. But it seems to describe what we do from some perspective.) And while the reputation effect of a good journal article may be longer lasting, the short term effects of a decent blog post are more dramatic. For someone with a discount rate as steep as mine, that’s a reasonable swap.

So there’s no problem when I’m talking about my ideas. But what about when I use this site to talk about other people’s ideas? Then it isn’t so clear that everything is fair. Maybe the person whose idea I am discussing will get some benefit from being associated with a good idea, if I credit them properly and express their idea correctly. But those are big ifs. And there’s a cost involved. Once the idea is out, it might be harder to get a journal publication out of it for all sorts of reasons. (E.g. someone else might be inspired to write up a ‘similar’ idea, or just incorporate that point into a separate paper. Or the idea might just seem to be old news by the time it gets to a referee.) And journal publications are pretty important to philosophers without tenured jobs, and perhaps even more so to philosophers without tenure-track jobs. So this is a potentially serious issue.

Maybe if I started running daily horoscopes or something here I could drive the audience down to low enough levels that I wouldn’t have to worry about these moral issues. But that’s not going to happen so I better face up to the issue. (The horoscope idea, by the way, is similar to something Simon Keller suggested for a related, but distinct, purpose.)

Here’s the rules I’ve been running by so far, though these are far from set in stone. Some things are pretty clearly up for discussion. These include (in descending order of clarity) journal articles, papers posted on preprint archives, papers posted on personal webpages, papers presented at more-or-less public fora like conferences, commentaries at conferences and questions asked at conferences. Some things are pretty clearly not up for discussion. These include small group conversations (esp if there is booze involved), circulated manuscripts marked ‘not for circulation’ and student papers (unless perhaps they fall into one of the earlier categories).

But there are some borderline cases. In particular, what should I do with comments made by faculty and/or grad students in seminars or similar environments? Here’s my first stab at a rule of thumb. If someone was presenting an idea they’d worked on (either as a formal presentation or something effectively equivalent if less formal) and might want to use in future research, then it’s improper to appropriate that idea for this blog. (Unless they consent to it being reported on, in which case all this hair-splitting is irrelevant.) But if I’m just writing up an interesting discussion, in which I contributed a decent percentage of the content, and everyone’s more-or-less spontaneous contributions are duly credited, then that can be OK. At least I hope it’s OK because I think seminar reports like that can make for philosophically interesting posts. But maybe that’s a little self-serving on my part.

Just to show how seriously I’m taking this navel-gazing, I should note that all this meandering was prompted by a couple of conversations with philosophers concerned that we needed some standards for what goes on on philosophy blogs. (Though in neither case is the issue I’m raising really the one they were concerned with. One of the things that is dubious about blogging other people’s ideas is you never get them quite right.) In the context it might be best not to say who they were, so maybe I’m breaking my rules as soon as I write them.

4 Replies to “Blogging Etiquette”

  1. I want to go down, on the record, as willing to be quoted and paraphrased, as willing to have my beliefs and ways of expressing them described, no matter how drunk I was when I said what I said, no matter where I was when I said it, as long as the blogger in question uses 1) my name, and links to 2) my website. Am I an idiosynchratic nut? I don’t think so.

    First, trusting the physically proximate over mere virtual interlocheters is a mistake. I think that if I start worrying about people stealing my ideas on the blogs, then I should start worrying about people stealing my ideas at conferences, in seminars, at the bar, etc. If you’re already afraid of all that, I guess this reason won’t motivate you. Blogs reach a wider audience, so it makes stealing easier – but if I were worried about people stealing my ideas, I wouldn’t tell anyone but Derek. It’s not clear why the ‘someone else might go and publish this’ worry doesn’t apply to conference talks as well, or online papers for that matter.

    I guess, second, I also just trust my friends (don’t ask me why) to never blog about my worst moments.

    Third, the benefit of having a (credited!) meme spread is worth the risk of someone stealing it.

    Fourth, in my (very limited!) experience, those “lovers of wisdom” I know to have stolen ideas from other philosophers were wretchedly awful philosophers, who never amounted to much. The philosophers they stole from were terribly talented philosophers, of the highest caliber. I’m a one boxer. Steal away.

    Does this “old news” thing really happen? What is the referee’s thought process? Hmm, why this paper presents this bold (not-so) new argument in exactly the same way Weatherson said some grad student did a few years ago. What ever happend to that guy? And why didn’t he ever publish that bold argument?

  2. When in doubt, ask?

    I wonder why anyone would think that “some standards for what goes on on philosophy blogs” are needed. Shouldn’t the standards be the same whether you write about it in a blog, or write about it in a paper, a mailing list contribution, or a Usenet post? (Academics don’t seems to read Usenet anymore, but there was a lot of academic, and philosophical, discussion going on there before AOL spoiled everything.)

  3. This is quite an important topic, especially for those of us just getting into blogging. Of course, the “When in doubt, ask” answer is quite sensible, but is that advice really enough?

    One thing you may have underestimated is the fact that blogging is a form of publishing. Sure, it isn’t the form that is officially recognised by those powers that give out grants, money, jobs, etc. But blogs are a form of written document, and anyone involved can also vouch for who said what, when. In that sense, at least, it is a step above just taking ideas that may pop up in seminars and at conferences, and using them in your own work. Surely this happens all the time.

    Let’s imagine I am a well respected philosopher, whose thoughts on a topic are highly sought after. I’m at the pub, knocking pack a few ales with a bunch other of philosophers, and I say a few rash things I may later regret. Should you write about them in you blog? Maybe not, but then again the best philosophy is often conceived under these conditions, so it would be a pity to ignore what I said entirely.

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