What if Reason didn’t write the NYT coverage of Oberlin students?


1989 Michigan Daily poto by Robin Loznak.

Daily Beast columnist Robby Soave is also a staff editor at Reason, according to his Twitter profile. Here I’m comparing his column from Dec. 20, “Oberlin College Students: Cafeteria Food Is Racist,” with a Dec. 21 news article in the New York Times, written by Katie Rogers, “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall.”

Soave’s opening:

University dining halls aren’t exactly famous for serving gourmet dishes, but Oberlin students say their meals aren’t merely bad—they are racially inauthentic, and thus, a form of microaggression.

Rogers’s opening:

Some students at Oberlin College are taking their demands for diversity and racial inclusion to the dining hall, asking for more traditional meals and criticizing what they consider poor efforts at multicultural cooking.

First, the facts from Soave, in order:

  • Oberlin student with Japanese name, quoted in Oberlin Review, complained the sushi was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin student with Vietnamese name, also quoted in OR, complained that banh mi sandwich was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin tuition is $50,000
  • Fredrik de Boer snarky tweet about General Tso chicken not being authentic in the first place.
  • Black students (according to document linked, “obtained by Legal Insurrection,” a right-wing activist site) are demanding “safe space” for Black students.
  • Black students also demand Black psychologists and non-Western healers at the counseling center.
  • Black students also demand pay for organizing time. Offending community members “banished” (Soave’s word), and four buildings renamed.

Here are the facts from Rogers’s story, also in order:

  • Black student union “earlier this month” protested lack of response to an earlier petition for more traditional food, “including more fried chicken,” as reported by Oberlin Review.
  • List of complaints from the other OR story, including banh mi, sushi, and General Tso chicken. Same quote from Japanese-name student, attributed to OR.
  • Quoted statement from Oberlin dining services director.
  • Fredrik Boer tweet.
  • Response from dining services conglomerate.
  • Black student demands (same link to right-wing source): “segregated safe spaces” (Rogers’ paraphrasing of Soave’s critique), plus demand for increase in Black student enrollment.

Rogers added the next day’s worth of news to the story. So that’s the news. But the whole existence of the story is based on the Soave piece. The Vietnamese student complaint is from a story dated Nov. 6; the Black student dining hall protest was reported Dec. 12. As for the mysteriously-linked Black student demands, they were posted a week earlier by Legal Insurrection, who admit they don’t know who wrote them or who they represent, and their source for the document is anonymous. Nice reporting, NYT.


People have been telling student activists to get off their lawns since they invented lawns. The criticism just varies between national-security-threat tear-gas them off the lawn and liberal disdain kids-these-days get off my lawn, depending on the context and climate. The difference is whether they spank (gas, arrest, surveil) or merely mock them for abusing their privileges when they should  be thanking their betters. Neither Soave nor Rogers nor any of the many who shared and copied the story cared to get the actual story from the actual actors involved. This is not required (by editors or readers) when all you’re doing is reinforcing the already-known sorry.

You wouldn’t know from the Soave/Rogers story that the Black student demands also include benefits for part-time dining hall workers, as well as better pay and benefits.

Of course, if the students are concerned about racism they could spend their energies instead just protesting the giant national racist movement that is leading one of our two political parties, and therefore presumably simply be ignored by the NY Times. But the transition from annoying spoiled brats to national security threat is surprisingly easy to make — when the story is owned by the national news media. Rogers could have written her story about the students’ explicit anti-imperialist rhetoric and tied it to the San Bernardino “self-radicalizing” story instead. The stretch wouldn’t have been much further.

When I complained that the Times was highlighting the fried chicken demand instead of the labor demand, Judith Shulevitz tweeted, “They kinda set themselves up for that one. Gotta pick your battles.”

But it’s not that simple.


When I first saw this story I immediately linked it to the Daily Beast story, which I had been arguing about the previous day. When I saw how similar they were, I tweeted this:

I said it would be plagiarism in a class paper, because the main idea and most of the facts came from someone who was not acknowledged for that contribution. I honestly don’t know what constitutes plagiarism in journalism, but in my line of work such writing is unacceptable. In response, Patrick LaForge, who describes himself as senior editor of the NYTimes Express Team,* objected with three tweets (in reverse order):


My argument really is not about plagiarism, it’s about the news coverage – the story itself, the sources, and the writing. It is true that the NYTimes story did link to the Soave piece, but not in a way that gave any credit for all it contributed. I don’t see that as dispositive. Soave also tweeted that he “didn’t have a problem with the story,” which is nice. I guess he cares more about his influence whipping up the national hysteria about kids on the lawn than about getting individual credit for his work, which is admirable.**

* No disparagement intended by “describes himself”; I just couldn’t find this information on the NYTimes website.

** Of course, criticizing the NYTimes is all fun and games until you enrage an editor, and then it’s like, “Dude, I didn’t mean anything by it … you’re still gonna quote me, right? We’re good?”


Filed under In the news

Once more, with feeling: Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

Can we have art and literature, some with magic, as well as science, rationality, gifts, and a modicum of equality all in one modern society? These are the things I worry about.

This kind of joy-killing is extra necessary in this year of a very-early Hanukkah, when the Jewish kids have already gotten tired of their presents before the so-called “Holidays” are even really here. The other reason to dwell on this kind of anti-Christianity is just to undermine its taken-for-granted nature. Today an entire Virginia public school district closed rather than teach a single lesson about Islam. WhiteChristian terrorism still doesn’t really count. And out-atheist politicians are as rare as unicorns.

So you can consider this my overreaction. This essay isn’t perfect, but I haven’t come up with a revision yet, so reposting it for this Xmas season will have to do.


December 2014

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897 and barely updated here, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him.” That’s the substance of it. It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.


From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened.

Here are the details:


So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey GSS has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and,”The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Those “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.

Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

Children’s ways of knowing

A little reading led me to this interesting review of the research on young children’s skepticism and credulity, by Woolley and Ghossainy (citations below were mostly referred by them).

It goes back to Margaret Mead’s early work. In the psychological version of sociology’s reading history sideways, Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels social evolution. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea of believing in Santa as indicative of a state of innocence.

In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [“traditionally” here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds. These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Richard Dawkins has speculated that religion spreads so easily because humans have an adaptive tendency from childhood to believe adults rather than wait for direct evidence of dangers to accumulate (e.g., “snakes are dangerous”). That is, credulity is adaptive for humans. But Woolley and Ghossainy review mounting evidence for young children’s skepticism as well as credulity. That, along with the obvious survival disadvantages associated with believing everything you’re told, doesn’t support Dawkins’ story.

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In this figure, adapted from Woolley and Ghossainy, true judgment is in green, errors are in red.


We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

It is perplexing that a young child could believe that his or her knowledge of the world is complete enough to deny the existence of anything new. It would seem that young children would understand that there are many things that exist in the real world that they have yet to experience. As intuitive as this seems, it appears not to be the case. From this perspective, development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information.

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in germs or vaccines or evolution just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to inhabit the green boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s NYT essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving — for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf. According to Google Trends, interest in this concept has increased 100-fold since 2008. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

Foucault is not amused. Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like these handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on:


So is this non-rationalize gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.


What does all this mean for inequality? My developmental question is, what is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? In other words, how long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? Where do these curves cross?


Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get. Of course, I’m not the first to think of this:



I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses.

Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?


Filed under Uncategorized

Trump’s manhandling

The Internet is full of hate, but it’s not random hate.

Some Trump supporters like to yell “Sig Heil!” and, “Light the motherfucker on fire!” at Black protesters, but not that many of them, so that’s not it. His people are younger, less educated, and less Evangelical than the typical Republican primary voter. But what motivates them besides, presumably, racism? It’s not necessary, or really possible, to answer whether Trump is a true fascist in a literal sense, but what he brings out is a mix of racism, nationalism, and masculinity that has something in common with the old fascisms (and here I’m influenced by some old work I read by George Mosse, which I can’t really vouch for, as I haven’t kept up with the masculinity/fascism literature).

This is salient in the U.S., of course, where racism, nationalism, and masculinity are three peas in a pod (see lynching, etc.). Anyway, this came home a little during last night’s Republic primary debate.

After Bush attacked Trump for his lack of foreign policy knowledge and said he was “not a serious kind of candidate,” Trump lashed out (transcript here):

Look, the problem is we need toughness. Honestly, I think Jeb is a very nice person. He’s a very nice person. But we need tough people. We need toughness. We need intelligence and we need tough. Jeb said when they come across the southern border they come as an “act of love.”

That is true, by the way. In another era – early 2014 – when Bush said this about some immigrants:

Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.

But what struck me was the repetition of “tough” and it’s juxtaposition with “love.” The contempt with which Trump said it, obviously a prepared line. After they got done interrupting each other, Trump continued:

We need a toughness. We need strength. We’re not respected, you know, as a nation anymore. We don’t have that level of respect that we need. And if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.

trump-bush-debate This is a line of attack Trump has used against both Bush and Hillary Clinton before. This is from a couple weeks ago:

“They only understand strength,” Mr. Trump said [about people the president has to deal with]. “They don’t understand weakness. Somebody like Jeb, and others that are running against me — and by the way, Hillary is another one. I mean, Hillary is a person who doesn’t have the strength or the stamina, in my opinion, to be president. She doesn’t have strength or stamina. She’s not a strong enough person to be president.”

Trump’s tone and the masculinist references to toughness (and strength, and stamina*), as opposed to love, prompted me to tweet this:

It seemed he was saying it without saying it. Weak, not tough, lovey-dovey — gay. Am I reaching? A number of my Twitter readers seemed to agree. But then, after a little while, the Tweet started to get liked and retweeted by a bunch of Trump supporters, including some far-right, racist and nativist types, like these:



One of the responses I got from this Obama hating guy was a picture created by the Patriot Retort, a site that mocks Bush for his pro-Latino rhetoric and use of Spanish:


Forrest Gump was not gay, but I don’t have to try to hard to connect this dig to homophobia, because Patriot Retort has this on the same page:


Anyway, I could go on following this trail, but you get the point: they want Trump to call him gay. 

New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza Tweeted this clip from Back to the Future, in which bully Biff tortures George McFly, which he said the Trump-Bush interaction called to mind:


You don’t have to be gay (George McFly wasn’t) to be tarred with the not-masculine brush, of course. It’s a series of associations. And in the Trump situation, they’re really blooming.

* Note: Trump’s recent medical report specifically stated his “strength and stamina are extraordinary.”)


Filed under In the news, Uncategorized

No, poverty is not a mysterious, unknowable, negative-spiral loop

I don’t have much to add on the “consensus plan” on poverty and mobility produced by the Brookings and American Enterprise institutes, referred to in their launch event as being on “different ends of the ideological spectrum” (can you imagine?). In addition to the report, you might consider the comments by Jeff Spross, Brad DeLong, or the three-part series by Matt Bruenig.

My comment is about the increasingly (to me) frustrating description of poverty as something beyond simple comprehension and unreachable by mortal policy. It’s just not. The whole child poverty problem, for example, amounts to $62 billion dollars per year. There are certainly important details to be worked out in how to eliminate it, but the basic idea is pretty clear — you give poor people money. We have plenty of it.

This was obvious yet amazingly not remarked upon in the first 40 minutes of the launch event (which is all I watched). In the opening presentation, by Ron Haskins — for whom I have a well-documented distaste — started with this simple chart of official poverty rates:


He started with the blue line, poverty for elderly people, and said:

The blue line is probably the nation’s greatest success against poverty. It’s the elderly. And it basically has declined pretty much all the time. It has no relationship to the economy, and there is good research that shows that its cause at least 90% by Social Security. So, government did it, and so Social Security is the reason we’re able to be successful to reduce poverty among the elderly.

And then everyone proceeded to ignore the obvious implication of that: when you give people money, they aren’t poor anymore. The most unintentionally hilarious illustration of this was in the keynote (why?) address from David Brooks (who has definitely been working on relaxing lately, especially when it comes to preparing keynote puff-pieces). He said this, according to my unofficial transcript:

Poverty is a cloud problem and not a clock problem. This is a Karl Popper distinction. He said some problems are clock problems – you can take them apart into individual pieces and fix them. Some problems are cloud problems. You can’t take a cloud apart. It’s a dynamic system that is always interspersed. And Popper said we have a tendency to try to take cloud problems and turn them into clock problems, because it’s just easier for us to think about. But poverty is a cloud problem. … A problem like poverty is too complicated to be contained by any one political philosophy. … So we have to be humble, because it’s so gloomy and so complicated and so cloud-like.

The good news is that for all the complexity of poverty, and all the way it’s a cloud, it offers a political opportunity, especially in a polarized era, because it’s not an either/or issue. … Poverty is an and/and issue, because it takes a zillion things to address it, and some of those things are going to come from the left, and some are going to come from the right. … And if poverty is this mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop that some people find themselves in, then surely the solution is to throw everything we think works at the problem simultaneously, and try in ways we will never understand, to have a positive virtuous cycle. And so there’s not a lot of tradeoffs, there’s just a lot of throwing stuff in. And social science, which is so prevalent in this report, is so valuable in proving what works, but ultimately it has to bow down to human realities – to psychology, to emotion, to reality, and to just the way an emergent system works.

Poverty is only a “mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop” if you specifically ignore the lack of money that is its proximate cause. Sure, spend your whole life wondering about the mysteries of human variation — but could we agree to do that after taking care of people’s basic needs?

I wonder if poverty among the elderly once seemed like a weird, amorphous, confusing problem. I doubt it. But it probably would if we had assumed that the only way to solve elderly poverty was to get children to give their parents more money. Then we would have to worry about the market position of their children, the timing of their births, the complexity of their motivations and relationships, the vagaries of the market, and the folly of youth. Instead, we gave old people money. And now elderly poverty “has declined pretty much all the time” and “it has no relationship to the economy.”

Imagine that.


Filed under Uncategorized

Journal self-citation practices revealed

I have written a few times about problems with peer review and publishing.* My own experience subsequently led me to the problem of coercive self-citation, defined in one study as “a request from an editor to add more citations from the editor’s journal for reasons that were not based on content.” I asked readers to send me documentation of their experiences so we could air them out. This is the result.


First let me mention a new editorial in the journal Research Policy about the practices editors use to inflate the Journal Impact Factors, a measure of citations that many people use to compare journal quality or prestige. One of those practices is coercive self-citation. The author of that editorial, Ben Martin, cites approvingly a statement signed by a group of management and organizational studies editors:

I will refrain from encouraging authors to cite my journal, or those of my colleagues, unless the papers suggested are pertinent to specific issues raised within the context of the review. In other words, it should never be a requirement to cite papers from a particular journal unless the work is directly relevant and germane to the scientific conversation of the paper itself. I acknowledge that any blanket request to cite a particular journal, as well as the suggestion of citations without a clear explanation of how the additions address a specific gap in the paper, is coercive and unethical.

So that’s the gist of the issue. However, it’s not that easy to define coercive self-citation. In fact, we’re not doing a very good job of policing journal ethics in general, basically relying on weak enforcement of informal community standards. I’m not an expert on norms, but it seems to me that when you have strong material interests — big corporations using journals to print money at will, people desperate for academic promotions and job security, etc. — and little public scrutiny, it’s hard to regulate unethical behavior informally through norms.

The clearest cases involve asking for self-citations (a) before final acceptance, for citations (b) within the last two years and (c) without substantive reason. But there is a lot short of that to object to as well. Martin suggests that, to answer whether a practice is ethical, we need to ask: “Would I, as editor, feel embarrassed if my activities came to light and would I therefore object if I was publicly named?” (Or, as my friend Matt Huffman used to say when the used-textbook buyers came around offering us cash for books we hadn’t paid for: how would it look in grainy hidden-camera footage?) I think that journal practices, which are generally very opaque, should be exposed to public view so that unethical or questionable practices can be held up to community standards.

Reports and responses

I received reports from about a dozen journals, but a few could not be verified or were too vague. These 10 were included under very broad criteria — I know that not everyone will agree that these practices are unethical, and I’m unsure where to draw the line myself. In each case below I asked the current editor if they would care to respond to the complaint, doing my best to give the editor enough information without exposing the identity of the informant.

Here in no particular order are the excerpts of correspondence from editors, with responses from the editors to me, if any. Some details, including dates, may have been changed to protect informants. I am grateful to the informants who wrote, and I urge anyone who knows, or thinks they know, who the informants are not to punish them for speaking up.

Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2014-2015 period)

Congratulations on your manuscript “X” having been accepted for publication in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. … your manuscript is now “in press” … The purpose of this message is to inform you of the production process and to clarify your role in the process …


As you update your manuscript:

1. CITATIONS – Remember to look for relevant and recent JSPR articles to cite. As you are probably aware, the ‘quality’ of a journal is increasingly defined by the “impact factor” reported in the Journal Citation Reports (from the Web of Science). The impact factor represents a ratio of the number of times that JSPR articles are cited divided by the number of JSPR articles published. Therefore, the 20XX ratings will focus (in part) on the number of times that JSPR articles published in 20XX and 20XX are cited during the 20XX publication year. So citing recent JSPR articles from 20XX and 20XX will improve our ranking on this particular ‘measure’ of quality (and, consequently, influence how others view the journal. Of course only cite those articles relevant to the point. You can find tables of contents for the past two years at…

Response from editor Geoff MacDonald:

Thanks for your email, and for bringing that to my attention. I agree that encouraging self-citation is inappropriate and I have just taken steps to make sure it won’t happen at JSPR again.

Sex Roles (2011-2013 period)

In addition to my own report, already posted, I received an identical report from another informant. The editor, Irene Frieze, wrote: “If possible, either in this section or later in the Introduction, note how your work builds on other studies published in our journal.”

Response from incoming editor Janice D. Yoder:

As outgoing editor of Psychology of Women Quarterly and as incoming editor of Sex Roles, I have not, and would not, as policy require that authors cite papers published in the journal to which they are submitting.

I have recommended, and likely will continue to recommend, papers to authors that I think may be relevant to their work, but without any requirement to cite those papers. I try to be clear that it is in this spirit of building on existing scholarship that I make these recommendations and to make the decision of whether or not to cite them up to the author. As an editor who has decision-making power, I know that my recommendations can be interpreted as requirements (or a wise path to follow for authors eager to publish) but I can say that I have not further pressured an author whose revision fails to cite a paper I recommended.

I also have referred to authors’ reference lists as a further indication that a paper’s content is not appropriate for the journal I edit. Although never the sole indicator and never based only on citations to the specific journal I edit, if a paper is framed without any reference to the existing literature across journals in the field then it is a sign to me that the authors should seek a different venue.

I value the concerns that have been raised here, and I certainly would be open to ideas to better guide my own practices.

European Sociological Review (2013)

In a decision letter notifying the author of a minor revise-and-resubmit, the editor wrote that the author had left out of the references some recent, unspecified, publications in ESR and elsewhere (also unspecified) and suggested the author update the references.

Response from editor Melinda Mills:

I welcome the debate about academic publishing in general, scrutiny of impact factors and specifically of editorial practices.  Given the importance of publishing in our profession, I find it surprising how little is actually known about the ‘black box’ processes within academic journals and I applaud the push for more transparency and scrutiny in general about the review and publication process.  Norms and practices in academic journals appear to be rapidly changing at the moment, with journals at the forefront of innovation taking radically different positions on editorial practices. The European Sociological Review (ESR) engages in rigorous peer review and most authors agree that it strengthens their work. But there are also new emerging models such as Sociological Science that give greater discretion to editors and focus on rapid publication. I agree with Cohen that this debate is necessary and would be beneficial to the field as a whole.

It is not a secret that the review and revision process can be a long (and winding) road, both at ESR and most sociology journals. If we go through the average timeline, it generally takes around 90 days for the first decision, followed by authors often taking up to six months to resubmit the revision. This is then often followed by a second (and sometimes third) round of reviews and revision, which in the end leaves us at ten to twelve months from original submission to acceptance. My own experience as an academic publishing on other journals is that it can regularly exceed one year. During the year under peer review and revisions, relevant articles have often been published.  Surprisingly, few authors actually update their references or take into account new literature that was published after the initial submission. Perhaps this is understandable, since authors have no incentive to implement any changes that are not directly requested by reviewers.

When there has been a particularly protracted peer review process, I sometimes remind authors to update their literature review and take into account more recent publications, not only in ESR but also elsewhere.  I believe that this benefits both authors, by giving them greater flexibility in revising their manuscripts, and readers, by providing them with more up-to-date articles.  To be clear, it is certainly not the policy of the journal to coerce authors to self-cite ESR or any other outlets.  It is vital to note that we have never rejected an article where the authors have not taken the advice or opportunity to update their references and this is not a formal policy of ESR or its Editors.  If authors feel that nothing has happened in their field of research in the last year that is their own prerogative.  As authors will note, with a good justification they can – and often do – refuse to make certain substantive revisions, which is a core fundament of academic freedom.

Perhaps a more crucial part of this debate is the use and prominence of journal impact factors themselves both within our discipline and how we compare to other disciplines. In many countries there is a move to use these metrics to distribute financing to Universities, increasing the stakes of these metrics. It is important to have some sort of metric gauge of the quality and impact of our publications and discipline. But we also know that different bibliometric tools have the tendency to produce different answers and that sociology fairs relatively worse in comparison to other disciplines. Conversely, leaving evaluation of research largely weighted by peer review can produce even more skewed interpretations if the peer evaluators do not represent an international view of the discipline. Metrics and internationally recognized peer reviewers would seem the most sensible mix.

Work and Occupations (2010-2011 period)

“I would like to accept your paper for publication on the condition that you address successfully reviewer X’s comments and the following:

2. The bibliography needs to be updated somewhat … . Consider citing, however critically, the following Work and Occupations articles on the italicized themes:

[concept: four W&O papers, three from the previous two years]

[concept: two W&O papers from the previous two years]

The current editor, Dan Cornfield, thanked me and chose not to respond for publication.

Sociological Forum (2014-2015 period)

I am pleased to inform you that your article … is going to press. …

In recent years, we published an article that is relevant to this essay and I would like to cite it here. I have worked it in as follows: [excerpt]

Most authors find this a helpful step as it links their work into an ongoing discourse, and thus, raises the visibility of their article.

Response from editor Karen Cerulo:

I have been editing Sociological Forum since 2007. I have processed close to 2500 submissions and have published close to 400 articles. During that time, I have never insisted that an author cite articles from our journal. However, during the production process–when an article has been accepted and I am preparing the manuscript for the publisher–I do sometimes point out to authors Sociological Forum pieces directly relevant to their article. I send authors the full citation along with a suggestion as to where the citation be discussed or noted. I also suggest changes to key words and article abstracts, My editorial board is fully aware of this strategy. We have discussed it at many of our editorial board meetings and I have received full support for this approach. I can say, unequivocally, that I do not insist that citations be added. And since the manuscripts are already accepted, there is no coercion involved. I think it is important that you note that on any blog post related to Sociological Forum

I cannot tell you how often an author sends me a cover letter with their submission telling me that Sociological Forum is the perfect journal for their research because of related ongoing dialogues in our pages. Yet, in many of these cases, the authors fail to reference the relevant dialogues via citations. Perhaps editors are most familiar with the debates and streams of thought currently unfolding in a journal. Thus, I believe it is my job as editor and my duty to both authors and the journal to suggest that authors consider making appropriate connections.

Unnamed journal (2014)

An article was desk-rejected — that is, rejected without being sent out for peer review — with only this explanation: “In light of the appropriateness of your manuscript for our journal, your manuscript has been denied publication in X.” When the author asked for more information, a journal staff member responded with possible reasons, including that the paper did not include any references to the articles in that journal. In my view the article was clearly within the subject area of the journal. I didn’t name the journal here because this wasn’t an official editor’s decision letter and the correspondence only suggested that might be the reason for the rejction.

Sociological Quarterly (2014-2015 period)

In a revise and resubmit decision letter:

Finally, as a favor to us, please take a few moments to review back issues of TSQ to make sure that you have cited any relevant previously published work from our journal. Since our ISI Impact Factor is determined by citations, we would like to make sure papers under consideration by the journal are referring to scholarship we have previously supported.

The current editors, Lisa Waldner and Betty Dobratz, have not yet responded.

Canadian Review of Sociology (2014-2015 period)

In a letter communicating acceptance conditional on minor changes, the editor asked the author to consider citing “additional Canadian Review of Sociology articles” to “help with the journal’s visibility.”

Response from current editor Rima Wilkes:

In the case you cite, the author got a fair review and received editorial comments at the final stages of correction. The request to add a few citations to the journal was not “coercive” because in no instance was it a condition of the paper either being reviewed or published.

Many authors are aware of, and make some attempt to cite the journal to which they are submitting prior to submission and specifically target those journals and to contribute to academic debate in them.

Major publications in the discipline, such as ASR, or academia more generally, such as Science, almost never publish articles that have no reference to debates in them.

Bigger journals are in the fortunate position of having authors submit articles that engage with debates in their own journal. Interestingly, the auto-citation patterns in those journals are seen as “natural” rather than “coerced”. Smaller journals are more likely to get submissions with no citations to that journal and this is the case for a large share of the articles that we receive.

Journals exist within a larger institutional structure that has certain demands. Perhaps the author who complained to you might want to reflect on what it says about their article and its potential future if they and other authors like them do not engage with their own work.

Social Science Research (2015)

At the end of a revise-and-resubmit memo, under “Comment from the Editor,” the author was asked to include “relevant citations from Social Science Research,” with none specified.

The current editor, Stephanie Moller, has not yet responded.

City & Community (2013)

In an acceptance letter, the author was asked to approve several changes made to the manuscript. One of the changes, made to make the paper more conversant with the “relevant literature,” added a sentence with several references, one or more of which were to City & Community papers not previously included.

One of the current co-editors, Sudhir Venkatesh, declined to comment because the correspondence occurred before the current editorial teams’ tenure began.


The Journal Impact Factor (JIF) is an especially dysfunctional part of our status-obsessed scholarly communication system. Self-citation is only one issue, but it’s a substantial one. I looked at 116 journals classified as sociology in 2014 by Web of Science (which produces the JIF), excluding some misplaced and non-English journals. WoS helpfully also offers a list excluding self-citations, but normal JIF rankings do not make this exclusion. (I put the list here.) On average removing self-citations reduces the JIF by 14%. But there is a lot of variation. One would expect specialty journals to have high self-citation counts because the work they publish is closely related. Thus Armed Forces and Society has a 31% self-citation rate, as does Work & Occupations (25%). But others, like Gender & Society (13%) and Journal of Marriage and Family (15%) are not high. On the other hand, you would expect high-visibility journals to have high self-citation rates, if they publish better, more important work; but on this list the correlation between JIF and self-citation rate is -.25. Here is that relationship for the top 50 journals by JIF, with the top four by self-citation labeled (the three top-JIF journals at bottom-right are American Journal of Sociology, Annual Review of Sociology, and American Sociological Review).

journal stats.xlsx

The top four self-citers are low-JIF journals. Two of them are mentioned above, but I have no idea what role self-citation encouragement plays in that. There are other weird distortions in JIFs that may or may not be intentional. Consider the June 2015 issue of Sociological Forum, which includes a special section, “Commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Civil Rights Laws.” That issue, just a few months old, as of yesterday includes the 9 most-cited articles that the journal published in the last two years. In fact, these 9 pieces have all been cited 9 times, all by each other — and each article currently has the designation of “Highly Cited Paper” from Web of Science (with a little trophy icon). The December 2014 issue of the same journal also gave itself an immediate 24 self-citations for a special “forum” feature. I am not suggesting the journal runs these forum discussion features to pump up its JIF, and I have nothing bad to say about their content — what’s wrong with a symposium-style feature in which the authors respond to each other’s work? But these cases illustrate what’s wrong with using citation counts to rank journals. As Martin’s piece explains, the JIF is highly susceptible to manipulation beyond self-citation promotion, for example by tinkering with the pre-publication queue of online articles, publishing editorial review essays, and of course outright fraud.

Anyway, my opinion is that journal editors should never add or request additional citations without clearly stated substantive reasons related to the content of the research and unrelated to the journal in which they are published. I realize that reasonable people disagree about this — and I encourage readers to respond in the comments below. I also hope that any editor would be willing to publicly stand by their practices, and I urge editors and journal management to let authors and readers see what they’re doing as much as possible.

However, I also think our whole journal system is pretty irreparably broken, so I put limited stock in the idea of improving its operation. My preference is to (1) fire the commercial publishers, (2) make research publication open-access with a very low bar for publication; and (3) create an organized system of post-publication review to evaluate research quality, with (4) republishing or labeling by professional associations to promote what’s most important.

* Some relevant posts cover long review delays for little benefit; the problem of very similar publications; the harm to science done by arbitrary print-page limits; gender segregation in journal hierarchies; and how easy it is to fake data.


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Is the New York Times trapped in an economics echo chamber?

Ask a stupid question.

When Justin Wolfers wrote about the dominance of economists in the pages of the New York Times, he concluded, “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” I discussed the evidence for that in this post, which focused on the particular organizational features of the NYT. At the time it didn’t occur to me that his data — relying on uses of “economist” in the paper — would be corrupted by false attributions. So this is a small data story and a larger point.

The small data story comes from a personal reflection by Dionne Searcey, who wrote about work-family conflict in her new post as West Africa Bureau Chief for the NYT. It was a perfectly reasonable piece, except for one thing:

Much has been written about work-life balance, about women getting ahead in their careers and trying to have it all. I often find that if you scratch beneath the surface of many successful working moms, they have husbands who work from home or have flexible schedules and possibly a trust fund. Or in many cases, you find a mom who does more than her fair share at home — or at least feels as if she does. Economists have a name for it, “the second shift.”

Wait, “economists”? The Second Shift is a classic work of sociology by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung first published in 1989 and revised twice. Why “economists”? The (very good) article that Searcey linked to was called, “The Second Shift: Men Do More at Home, but Not as Much as They Think,” written by journalist Claire Cain Miller, focusing principally on the research of several sociologists, led by Jill Yavorsky (a sociology PhD candidate at Ohio State with whom I have collaborated). There are no economists cited or quoted in the story.

The small data story is that this mention of economists will go into Wolfers’ count of the influence of economists in the marketplace of ideas, but it’s a false positive — it’s the influence of sociologists being falsely attributed to economists.

But why would Searcey say “economists”? The answer lies in the organizational culture of the NYT. Here’s why.

Here are my two tweets on the piece:

Considerately, Searcey replied:

How odd. When I pointed out again that the story she linked to was about sociologists talking about the second shift, she didn’t reply.

I recently wrote that economists don’t cite sociologists’ work as much as sociologists cite economists even when the two groups are working on the same questions with obvious implications for both. What about the second shift? A JSTOR search reveals 473 cases of “second shift” and “housework” in journals identified as sociology by the database. The same search in the realm of economics produces just 35 mentions (no fewer than 6 of which were written by sociologists).

So, why did Searcey think she “was referring to how economists talk about the second shift”? My only explanation is that it’s because the piece was published in the NYT section The Upshot. As I wrote in my Contexts post, Upshot

is edited by David Leonhardt, who was an economics columnist before he was promoted to Washington bureau chief in 2011. That promotion was a dramatic move, elevating an economics writer who hadn’t been a Washington political reporter. Upshot is a “data journalism” hub, which often (but not always) implies an economic focus. (On the opinion pages, economist Paul Krugman writes a column twice a week, and Joseph Stiglitz moderated a long series on inequality.) This can’t be the whole story, but in broad strokes it’s fair to say the paper as an organization moved in the direction of business and economics.

Upshot is, of course, where Wolfers was writing in praise of the idea-market power of economists. Is this just the free market of ideas allowing the most persuasive to rise to the top? Searcey’s errors suggests that it is not. Rather, the organizational status of economics has corrupted her perceptions so that if something appears there she simply believes it reflects economics (and no editor notices).

Incidentally David Leonhardt (whom I’ve written about several times) has been promoted to Op-Ed page columnist and associate editorial page editor.


Filed under In the news