The Tragedy of Anonymous Comment Threads

Shame About Submissions Is For Suckers

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.

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14 Responses

  1. shg says:

    Change a few words and this could apply to any lawyer expressing any idea on the internet. It’s good to see a call for honesty and courage in the Academy. The same call should be heard throughout the profession, and maybe we’ll get somewhere.

  2. James Vinter says:

    Agreed! This long rambling post, which basically just says “you shouldn’t post anonymously,” could apply to anything.

  3. Ani says:

    I submit this comment anonymously because I am reacting mainly to anonymous comments, and it doesn’t feel fair to be publicly accountable in such a differentiable way.

    I don’t think this problem is tragic at all, not even in the metaphoric sense. I imagine most people withhold their names because their anxieties about not hearing from particular reviews, their objections to certain alleged practices, and their obsession with placement in student reviews seem to them both important (so they write) and petty and ridiculous (anonymously). And they see no need to share with the world where they’ve been rejected, and they see no need to insult the law reviews for which they must settle. And they sense that were their identities known, they would suppress their insecurities and the information would dry up.

    I think they are right in all these regards, though if some wish to bare their souls, that’s fine. But I would add that this (#1) has very little to do with the lack of courage that some scholars exhibit as to the topics on which they write and the views they express (#2). The latter relates much more closely to the supposed rationale for tenure and tenure-track positions. Frankly, spending time on any of this crap, anonymously or otherwise, is very hard to justify to the world that subsidizes scholarship.

  4. Ken Arromdee says:

    “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.”

    Whether they personally see it as failure is irrelevant–the worry is that someone *else* will see it as failure in a way which affects them. The risks of not commenting anonymously are not related to how a person sees themselves and believing that they are is a misunderstanding of the actual worry.

  5. Polonius says:

    I don’t have any problem with anonymous commenting. But as a young, hopeful, would-be scholar, I’m considering having points 2 and 3 tattooed on my arm. Or, at least, hanging them above my desk. Thanks.

  6. Paul Horwitz says:

    Nice post, Dave. I am not strongly opposed to anonymous comments, I should say; in some contexts they may make sense, in others I don’t care much one way or the other whether the comment is anonymous, and in both cases I can always discount the anonymous comment. But I must say that, with all due respect to my Prawfs colleagues, I don’t see the great attraction of threads like the Law Review Angst thread — either reading them or commenting on them.

  7. AF says:

    I am not a scholar, so this post doesn’t apply directly to me, but to the extent it’s directly more generally at anonymous comments, I think it misses the bigger picture. I comment anonymously not because I fear any particular form of retribution, but rather because commenting is a leisure activity for me, and I generally avoid publicly sharing information about my leisure activities on the Internet, eg by using Facebook privacy settings. As Daniel Solove has pointed out, Google name searches allow anyone to aggregate disparate information about me in ways that have serious privacy implications. I see more downside than upside in giving perfect strangers access to my body of Internet commentary, so I don’t do it.

    I realize that many anonymous commenters behave badly and that blog owners and moderators have a real interest in asking commenters to reveal their names. It is perfectly legitimate for blog owners and moderators, who provide a valuable service to us commenters, to require us to reveal our names as a condition for taking advantage of that service. Many blogs do that, and I don’t blame them for it at all, though I don’t comment on their blogs. What I don’t get is why it would be a mystery that some people prefer to protect their privacy by commenting anonymously.

  8. Ken Rhodes says:

    I am mystified by the whole thing.

    I worked with a lot of very talented programmers and engineers. And they all, as well as most of the next level, who were fairly talented, thought *very* highly of themselves, probably higher than their talent deserved. Anonymity was the farthest thing from their mind.

    I played competitive bridge in tournaments against some of the best players in the world, as well as the best players in my local area. And they all, as well as most of the next level, who were fairly talented, thought *very* highly of themselves, probably higher than their talent deserved. Anonymity was never remotely in their minds.

    In universities, the faculty members and post docs I knew, who were mostly very talented, also mostly had unrealistically high opinions of their considerable talents.

    The doctors who have treated me and my family members were generally very good, and very talented, and yet their egos generally exceeded their considerable talents.

    Are law profs alone in the world, the only smart talented people whose egos don’t exceed their reality?

  9. Sarah L. says:

    The real tragedy is that you did not name this post “The Tragedy of the Comments”!

  10. dave hoffman says:

    Oh my god. You are so right.

  11. Two etiquette questions says:

    (I’m the quoted commenter from the prawfs thread.)

    Thanks for the response, Prof. Hoffman. I’m still unconvinced, though:

    Your points (1) and (3), which I think are interrelated: I agree as an empirical proposition that it is unlikely that law review staffs would generally have the time to review comment threads to see what success a submission currently under review is having elsewhere. That’s why I didn’t make it. With respect to your point re: entry level or lateral hiring committees, if I understand you correctly, you are arguing that if it was the normal practice to disclose identies in those sorts of threads, then there would be no reputational costs to unsuccessful submissions. I’m afraid I don’t really understand this. It seems to me that this proposition would be driven entirely by the numbers. If, for example, the vast majority of submissions were accepted by acceptable law reviews, the few that weren’t easily could incur substantial reputational costs on the submitters. Like a quasi-Lake Wobegon in which ALMOST all of the children are above average, you REALLY don’t want to be one of the handful that is below, transparency or not.

    On the other hand, of course, it could be the case that placement is more difficult, and only some small fraction of submissions will find a suitable home. If this is the case, then I agree. Transparency would be unlikely to result in reputational costs.

    The question really boils down to your point 3, then — how difficult is it to place a law review article? But do keep in mind here, it is entirely plausible that certain types of submitters — and I’m thinking of someone who is a pre-TT person, again, like me — might have a skewed view of this difficulty. And you know what? Given the pervasive claims of letterhead bias, can you really say this skewed view is unreasonable? So I guess, after talking around in circles (sorry!), what I would say is this: Perhaps the people commenting anonymously on the submission threads do so because they think that they will have a harder-than-most time placing their submissions, and for some types of submitters, they’re probably right.

    Your point (2): I guess I really don’t understand this, unless it’s just an ad hominem assertion, in which case I understand it but think it’s weak. I take Prof. Horowitz’s post to be talking about the substance and subject matter of a junior scholar’s scholarship. I’m not quite sure how that is related to someone’s behavioral caution in disclosing his or her identity for fear of reputational costs. Unless, again, your point is that someone who is concerned that publicizing a failed submission will hurt them (on the job market or otherwise) is tempermentally more likely to produce overly-cautious scholarship (in terms of substance or subject matter). But this point doesn’t seem right to me. We all know people whose scholarship or other writing is decidely different than their personalities — Cass Sunstein, for instance, is soft-spoken and a bit shy, yet his writing is far from that.

    NB: I have been commenting in the submission thread under “TEQ” because that’s what I put on the first comment (because I was asking two etiquette questions!), and I think that it is important to make sure that people know it’s the same person as above. There is a legitimate concern that a few commenters could post under multiple names, which obviously would make the thread essentially worthless (and maybe the fact that this risk exists at all already does this). Also, just as a personal note, I’m having a reasonable amount of luck this season, so my reputational concern is not so much that I’d be seen as a failure, but more that I would be seen as bragging or otherwise acting distastefully if I disclosed my name now that I have a couple of offers.

  12. Dan Markel says:

    I love Dave Hoffman but think the Angsting thread (which has few but not zero benefits to those who think misery loves company) is a fine place for both anon and non-anon comments, and that the rationales for the anon comments are plausible enough to respect.

    Indeed, if signatures were to accompany every piece of positive info (oh, look, Stanford just accepted this lil piece o’mine), then it would raise the “bragging” concern that so many folks are leery of. All this is to agree largely with the TEQ comment above.

  13. Two etiquette questions says:

    Sincere apologies to Professor Horwitz (without the second “o”!). As someone with a hard-to-spell last name, it really is an unconscionable error.

  14. sugar huddle says:

    Isn’t the reputational concern less that you’ll be perceived as someone who can’t place an article, and more that you’ll be perceived as someone who is whining, obsessing, and spending too much time on message boards discussing whether and where you can place an article? In other words, doesn’t DH’s criticism (essentially: all this whining is stupid, placing articles is hard) prove the fear of many anonymous commenters– that others will judge them for their posts?