On May 8 I wrote about three articles by Eran Shor, Arnout van de Rijt, Charles Ward, Aharon Blank-Gomel, and Steven Skiena. (My post is here; the articles, in chronological order, are available in full here, here, and here.)
Eran Shor, associate professor of sociology at McGill University and first author of the papers in question, has sent me the following response, which I agreed to post unedited. I have not heard from the other authors, and Shor does not claim to speak for them here. I’m not responding to this now, except to say that I stand by the original post. Feel free to make (moderated) comments below.
Eran Shor’s response
We would like to thank Philip N. Cohen for posting this response to his blog, unedited.
Philip N. Cohen wrote a post in which he targets three of our recently published articles and claims that these are overlapping and misleading to readers. On the one hand, Cohen clarifies that he is “not judging Shor et al. for any particular violation of specific rules or norms” and “not judging the quality of the work overall.” However, in his conclusions he speaks about “overlapping papers”, “selling duplicative information as new” and “misleading readers”. We feel this terminology more than just hints at intentional wrongdoing. The first response to the blog outright accuses us of self-plagiarism, deceitfulness, and having questionable ethics, which we believe is directly the result of Cohen’s suggestive language.
Below, we explain why we feel that these accusations are unfair and mostly unsubstantiated. We also reflect on the debate over open science and on the practice of writing blogs that make this kind of accusations without first giving authors the chance to respond to them.
As for the three articles in question, we invite readers to read these for themselves and judge whether each makes a unique and original contribution. To quickly summarize these contributions as we see them:
- The first article, published in Journalism Studies (2014), focuses on the historical development of women’s media representation, presenting new data that goes back to the 19th Century and discussing the historical shifts and differences between various sections of the newspaper.
- The second article, published in Social Science Quarterly (2014) begins to tackle possible explanations for the persistent gap in representation and specifically focuses on the question of political partisanship in the media and its relationship with gendered coverage patterns. We use two separate measures of newspapers’ political slant and conduct bivariate analyses that examine the association between partisanships and representation.
- The third article was published in the American Sociological Review (2015). In it, we conducted a wide-scope examination of a large variety of possible explanations for the persistent gender gap in newspapers. We presented a large gamut of new and original data and analyses (both bivariate and multivariate), which examined explanations such as “real-world” inequalities, newsroom composition, and various other factors related to both the newspapers themselves and the cities and states in which they are located.
Of note, these three articles are the result of more than seven years of intensive data collection from a wide variety of sources and multiple analyses, leading to novel contributions to the literature. We felt (and still do) that these various contributions could not have been clearly fleshed out in one article, not even a longer article, such as the ones published by the American Sociological Review.
Now for the blog: Did SSQ really “scoop” ASR?
First, where we agree with Cohen’s critique: the need to indicate clearly when one is presenting a piece of data or a figure that already appeared in another paper. Here, we must concede that we have failed, although certainly not intentionally. The reason we dropped the ball on this one is the well-established need to try to conceal one’s identity as long as a paper is under review, in order to maintain the standard of double-blind review. Clearly, we should have been more careful in checking the final copies of the SSQ and ASR articles and add a clarification stating that the figure already appeared in an earlier paper. Alternatively, we could have also dropped the figure from the paper and simply refer readers to the JS paper, as this figure was not an essential component of either of the latter two papers. As for the issue of the missing year in the ASR paper, this was simply a matter of re-examining the data and noting that the data for 1982 was not strong enough, as it relied on too few data points and a smaller sample of newspapers, and therefore was not equivalent to data from the following years. We agree, however, that we should have clarified this in the paper.
That said, as Cohen also notes in his blog, in each of the two latter papers (SSQ and ASR), the figure in question is really just a minor descriptive element, the starting point for a much larger—and different in each article—set of data and analyses. In both cases, we present the figure at the beginning of the paper in order to motivate the research questions and subsequent analyses and we do not claim that this is one of our novel findings or contributions. The reason we reproduced this figure is that reviewers of previous versions of the paper asked us to demonstrate the persistent gap between women and men in the news. The figure serves as a parsimonious and relatively elegant visual way to do that, but we also presented data in the ASR paper from a much larger set of newspapers that establishes this point. Blind-review norms prevented us from referring readers to our own work in a clear way (that is, going beyond simply including a citation to the work). Still, as noted above, we take full responsibility for not making sure to add a clearer reference to the final version. But we would like to emphasize that there was no intentional deceit here, but rather a simple act of omission. This should be clear from the fact that we had nothing to gain from not referring to our previous work and to the fact that these previous findings motivated the new analyses.
As for the other major charge against us in the blog, it is summarized in the following paragraph:
It looks to me like the SSQ and ASR they used the same data to test the same hypothesis (in addition to whatever else is new in the third paper). Given that they are using the same data, how they got from a “weak to moderate relationship” to “no significant relationship” seems important. Should we no longer rely on the previous analysis? Or do these two papers just go into the giant heap of studies in which “some say this, some say that”? What kind of way is this to figure out what’s going on?
Here we feel that Cohen is presenting a false picture of what we did in the two papers. First, the SSQ paper actually used two measures of political slant. For both measures, we presented bivariate analyses of the relationship between slant and coverage (which indeed shows a weak to moderate relationship). It is important to stress here that this somewhat rudimentary analysis was simply a matter of data availability: The bivariate cross-sectional analysis was the best analysis we could perform at the time when the paper was accepted for publication (end of 2013), given the data that we had available. However, during the following two years, leading to the publication of the article in ASR at the end of 2015, we engaged in an extensive and time-consuming process of collecting and coding additional data. This effort allowed us to code longitudinal data on important characteristics of newspapers (e.g., identity of editors and publishers and various city and state-related characteristics) for a subset of the newspapers in our sample and for six consecutive years.
And so, as is often the case when moving from a cross-sectional bivariate analysis (SSQ) to a longitudinal multivariate one (ASR), the previous weak relationship that we found for slant basically disappeared, or rather, it became non-significant. In the ASR paper, we did refer readers to the results of our previous study, although without providing details about the analysis itself, because we did not wish to single out our own work in a paragraph that also briefly cites the results of other similar studies (Potter (1985); Adkins Covert and Wasburn (2007)). Perhaps we should have clarified better in the final draft that we previously examined this relationship in a cross-sectional bivariate analysis. But this is a far cry from the allegation that we were reproducing the same analysis, or that we intentionally concealed evidence, both of which are simply false.
To be clear: While the SSQ paper presented a cross-sectional bivariate analysis, in the ASR paper we used a somewhat different sample of papers to perform a longitudinal multivariate analysis, in which newspaper slant was but one of many variables. These are important differences (leading to different results), which we believe any careful reader of the two papers can easily detect. Readers of the ASR article will also notice that the testing of the political slant question is not a major point in the paper, nor is it presented as such. In fact, this variable was originally included as merely a control variable, but reviewers asked that we flesh out the theoretical logic behind including it, which we did. We therefore feel that Cohen’s above comment (in parentheses)—“In addition to whatever else is new in the third paper”—is unfair to the point of being disingenuous. It ignores the true intent of the paper and its (many) unique contributions, for the purpose of more effectively scoring his main point.
As for the paragraph that Cohen cites in the blog, in which we use very similar language to theoretically justify the inclusion of the newspaper slant variable in the ASR analysis, we would like to clarify that this was simply the most straightforward way of conveying this theoretical outline. We make no pretense or implication whatsoever that this passage adds anything new or very important in its second iteration. And again, we do refer the readers to the previous work (including our own), which found conflicting evidence regarding this question in cross sectional bivariate analyses. Knowledge is advanced by building on previous work (your own and others) and adding to it, and this is exactly what we do here.
Misleading readers and selling duplicated information as new?
Given our clarifications above, we feel that the main charges against us are unjust. The three papers in question are by no means overlapping duplications (although the one particular descriptive figure is). In fact, none of the analyses in SSQ and ASR are overlapping, and each paper made a unique contribution at the time it was published. Furthermore, the charges that we are “selling duplicate information as new” and “misleading readers” clearly imply that we have been duplicitous and dishonest in this research effort. It is not surprising that such inflammatory language ended up inciting respondents to the blog to accuse us flatly of self-plagiarism, deceitfulness, and questionable ethics.
In response to such accusations, we once again wish to state very clearly that at no point did we intend to deceive readers or intentionally omit information about previous publications. While we admit to erring in not clearly mentioning in the caption of the figure that it was already reported in a previous study, this was an honest mistake, and one which did not and could not be to our benefit in any way whatsoever. An error of omission it was, but not a violation of any ethical norms.
Is open access the solution?
We would also like to comment on the more general claim of the blog about the system being broken and the solution lying in open access briefly. We would actually like to express our firm support for Cohen’s general efforts to promote open science. We also agree with the need to both carefully monitor and rethink our publication system, as well as with the call for open access to journals and a more transparent reviewing process. All of these would bring important benefits and the conversation over them should continue.
However, we question the assumption that in this particular case an open access system would have solved the problem of not mentioning that our figure appeared in previous articles. As we note above, this omission was actually triggered by the blind review system and our attempts to avoid revealing our identity during the reviewing process (and later on to our failure to remember to add more direct references to our previous work in the final version of the article). But surely, most reviewers who work at academic institutions have access through their local libraries to a broad range of journals, including ones that are behind paywalls (and certainly to most mainstream journals). Our ASR paper was reviewed by nine different anonymous reviewers, as well as by the editorial board. It seems reasonable to assume that virtually all of them would have been able to access the previous papers published in mainstream journals. So the fact that our previous articles were published in journals with paywalls seems neither here nor there for the issues Cohen raises about our work.
A final word: On the practice of making personal accusations in a blog without first soliciting a response from the authors
The commonly accepted way to proceed in our field is that when one scholar wishes to criticize the published work of another, they write a comment to the journal that published the article. The journal then solicits a response from the authors who are being criticized, and a third party then decides whether this is worthy of publication. Readers then get the chance to read both the critique and the response at the same time and decide which point of view they find more convincing. It seems to us that this is the decent way of proceeding in cases where there are different points of view or disagreement over scholarly findings and interpretations. Moreover, when the critique involves charges (or hints) of unethical behavior and academic dishonesty. In such cases, this norm of basic decency seems to us to be even more important. In our case, Professor Cohen did not bother to approach us, and did not ask us to respond to the accusations against us. In fact, we only learned about the post by happenstance, when a friend directed our attention to the blog. When we responded and asked Cohen to make some clarifications to the original posting, we were turned down, although Cohen kindly agreed to publish this comment to his blog, unedited, for which we are thankful.
Of course, online blogs are not expected to honor the norms of civilized scholarly debate to the letter. They are a different kind of forum. Clearly, they have their advantages in terms of both speed and accessibility, and they form an important part of the current academic discourse. But it seems to us that, especially in such cases where allegations of ethically questionable conduct are being made, the authors of blogs should adopt a more careful approach. After all, this is not merely a matter of academic disagreements; people’s careers and reputations are at stake. We would like to suggest that in such cases the authors of blogs should err on the side of caution and allow authors to defend themselves against accusations in advance and not after the fact, when much of the damage has already been done.