Friday, 24 February 2017

Losing my twitterginity

A long way behind the trend, I started using twitter a couple of weeks ago. The reason for this was to try to publicise my other blog (the Brexit blog) to gain a wider audience for it. Several people had advised me to do this, as indeed they had for this blog. But this blog has managed to develop a fairly large readership whereas the Brexit blog was languishing largely unread. So I took the plunge, set up an account (@chrisgreybrexit) and started tweeting.

My previous resistance to twitter was much more than a disinclination. I remembered having written a post on this blog back in October 2014 about my antipathy to twitter but it was not until I went back and checked that I found just how hostile I had been. To give a flavour:

“It is not just another medium of communication, neutral in itself, it entails an emotional, political and intellectual infantilisation of communication. That, I think, is the image we should have of tweeting: an endlessly, insatiably egocentric infant spewing out its thoughts and feelings at the instant they occur. The trolls are not so much a side-effect as an exemplification of this: far from being an anomaly they define the ideal-type of the tweeter. But unlike infants they claim a right, albeit one detached from any kind of defensible ethics or politics.”

Gosh. Well, I recant. Converts are almost as depressing as ex-smokers in their evangelism so I want to be careful that I do not bounce from one extreme to the other. Even so, I have (largely) changed my mind.

Starting out is a rather curious experience. You can tweet, yes, but who will read it if you have no followers? But, then, who will follow you if you have not tweeted anything? It is reminiscent of being picked (or not) for sports teams at school. Until picked you can't show your prowess; until you have shown your prowess you won't be picked. So I alerted a few people who I thought might be interested and who I knew were on twitter, and I followed a few people who I thought were interesting and might be interested in following me; and some of them did indeed follow me. So a day or two in I had a heady following of 15 or so and after a few provisional tweets put out a message alerting them to my latest post on the Brexit blog.

Nothing much happened until a couple of days later when, suddenly, I started receiving hundreds of email alerts from twitter about new followers, mentions, retweets, likes (all completely new language to me) and the readership of the Brexit blog started shooting up into the hundreds and, then, the thousands. My followers rose to an admittedly still puny few hundred, but within them were several well-known journalists and politicians. What had happened took me a little while to reconstruct but in essence one of my early little pool of followers had tweeted a message to his large group of followers, one of whom tweeted a very positive message to his even larger group of followers one of whom, a leading journalist, had added a positive endorsement and sent it to his half a million plus followers. I was picking up the crumbs, so to speak, of the twitterati cake.

So the first thing to say is that my aim of getting a bigger readership for the blog had, unquestionably, worked. It was undoubtedly dumb luck and it has died down considerably since, but it did work. Beyond that, I began to be quite fascinated by the way that I now had a kind of tailored news site in which those I followed fed me interesting things and I could feed to those following me things I considered interesting. It has an addictive quality.

So I saw her face, but am I now a believer? Yes and no. There are some clear downsides. Given the Brexit focus there have inevitably been some nasty messages, not so much on twitter or the blog but (since people can google me and find my email address) on my work email. But I must admit that I’m quite amused by this insight into the Brexiter mindset (and for anyone reading this who sends me such messages please note that I laugh, delete and don’t reply). As for comments made on twitter itself, my view remains that 140 character messages is not a good way of having a discussion.

What I can now see is that twitter is a good way of sharing news stories and other resources that one might otherwise miss. But even here there is a downside. There has been a lot of talk (that until now I had not really understood) about how social media tends to create silos, or echo chambers, in which one’s own views are simply re-confirmed by contact with like-minded people. I can see this from my two weeks on twitter. Obviously that’s mainly to do with my choices of who to follow, and these have indeed given me the impression that, like me, others are fuming with anger and fear about what Brexit means. There may be a danger in that if it leads to misreading the balance of opinion – but perhaps not in this case, since it is a counterweight to the bulk of media reporting. But isn’t that exactly the reasoning of the post-truth loonies who insist that the ‘mainstream media’ ignores their nonsense?

There’s an ongoing debate about whether the use of twitter is declining but it seems to be the preferred medium of Donald Trump so who’s to deny its political importance? I started following him on twitter this week but, alas, so far he has not returned the compliment.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Romania's protests

A remarkable victory appears to have been won by anti-corruption demonstrators in Romania. The largest street protests – involving a reported half a million people, that in a country with a total population of 20 million - since the fall of Ceausescu have forced the government to abandon a policy to decriminalise corruption by public officials if the sums involved are less than US$ 48,500. By way of context, average GDP per capita in Romania is about US$ 9,500 (2015 figure, a record high). This policy, derived from a government decree, rather than from parliament, would have had the effect not just of stopping investigations of corruption below the specified level but also releasing from prison thousands of officials already found guilty of such corruption.

Corruption in Romania, as in many other countries, has a long and complex history, and it long predates both the communist and post-communist eras. However, in recent times there have been significant attempts through the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) to tackle the problem, resulting in hundreds of prosecutions and convictions, including that of former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase. Even so, Transparency International’s corruption index rates Romania 57 out of 176 countries (Denmark and New Zealand are joint first in the list, Somalia is at the bottom), making it one of the most corrupt countries in the EU. Unsurprisingly, then, the EU Commission was also strongly opposed to the proposed decree.

Corruption is not just a crime like any other. As its name suggests, it corrodes, deforms and ultimately destroys the moral and legal fabric of civilized society, whether within politics or business organizations (see Burke & Cooper, 2009). Within organization studies, the foundational work of Max Weber shows how one of the distinctive advantages of the rational-legal bureaucracy is to both render illegitimate and to monitor and control corruption. This, indeed, is one of the ethically distinctive features of such bureaucracies (see du Gay, 2000). The Romanian protestors are absolutely right to see corruption as a foundational, fundamental issue.

At a time when so much is happening in the world that seems to be beyond our control, it is heartening to see that peaceful protest can influence political decisions. People can, still, make a difference. In particular, the success of these protests gives hope to the beleaguered cosmopolitans in what I have described elsewhere as the new politics of cosmopolitans and locals. In the UK, with Brexit, the US, with Trump, and in many other countries such as France, Germany and Hungary populist localism is in the ascendant. But the Romanian protests can be understood as a revolt of the cosmopolitans. According to Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Professor of Democracy Studies at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the former leader of Romania’s anticorruption Coalition for a Clean Parliament: “… the people of deep, poor, dependent Romania nevertheless returned the families of their corrupt patron politicians to parliament, as they hope for more redistributive policies in return. In contrast, the crowds in the big cities are made of English-speaking Romanians working in multinationals and NGOs”.

The conjunction of cosmopolitan Romanians and the EU Commission is a reminder that, whatever populist rhetoric suggests, these are not some out of touch establishment bent on doing down the people. On the contrary, populist localism benefits not the poor and marginalised but corrupt political elites (in the genuine sense of the term). The most important guarantor of universal well-being is the rule of law, which is why the independent judiciary are under such attack in Brexit Britain and in Trump’s America for insisting that governments remain within the law. The successful demand by the Romanian protestors that their officials must be subject to the rule of law is a remarkable and timely inspiration to countries around the world and, especially, to the cosmopolitans currently at the lash end of populist localism.

Burke, R.J. & Cooper, C.L. (eds.) Research Companion to Corruption in Organizations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2009.

Du Gay, P. In Praise of Bureaucracy. Weber, Organization and Ethics. London: Sage, 2000.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Reviewing anger

In my book I write briefly (p.xiv) about the depressing nature of academic journal publication in organization studies, and have done so at more length in a post on this blog. In that post, written in 2014, I bemoaned the tendency for the anonymous reviewers of journal submissions to write reams of comments making demands of authors so excessive that whole books could not satisfy them.

Recently, though, I have noticed a different trend. I now find that papers I submit to journals come back with very brief comments. Occasionally, they are brief but positive. More often they are brief and not just negative but hostile, dismissive and, often absurd. For example, I recently had a damning review, endorsed by the editor, whose main complaint was that I had completely ignored a key piece of work in the field when in fact it was not just referenced but extensively quoted. Again in contrast to my experience a few years ago reviews are accompanied by an editorial letter that is curt and content-free apart, of course, from the message that the paper has been rejected. I should say that I am talking here about what are regarded within the UK and Europe (the US ranking of such things being different) “top journals” as defined by the ubiquitous Chartered Association of Business Schools’ (CABS) listing.

Anyone reading this who works in the field may be thinking that I am giving vent to sour grapes at having my papers rejected by journals. And of course I am. But there is more to it than that. I’ve been doing this job for a long time and so like anyone else I am used to papers being rejected. With the top journals’ overall rejection rates being in the order of 90% that is pretty much inevitable. So that is not the issue. What I see shifting is the manner of rejection.

That reviews are getting briefer is perhaps not surprising. I know, from the other side of the fence, how many requests to review I receive, and this activity is time-consuming to do thoroughly. Perhaps spending that time used to be seen as part of the communal reciprocity of being an academic, but with the time pressures now much-increased I can see why brevity might be becoming the norm.

What is more surprising, though, is how angry these reviews are. In recent weeks I’ve had reviews of papers which positively bark about, for example, there being ‘no contribution’. Several times there’s also been a sense of outrage at the impertinence of the paper under review for entering territory apparently regarded as ‘owned’ by the reviewer. It’s as if the reviewers feel insulted – and so insult the author.

Now, again, an obvious reaction would be to say that perhaps the problem is that my papers make no contribution and/or are amateurish forays into others’ fields. No wonder, then, that reviewers are angry. The problem with that diagnosis, though, is that the very same journals send me articles to review on the very same topics, on the basis that I have expertise in them. So whilst it is plausible that my own work has flaws that I am blind to – and I will happily own to that – it seems implausible that my critical faculties are so blinded that I can both be an expert reviewer of others’ work whilst myself producing work of such dire quality that angry dismissal is not only justified but positively demanded. And, if that is so, why do those same journals constantly send me papers to review?

So now let’s suppose another objection to what I am saying. Perhaps it is that I am sent papers to review on the basis of my expertise because in the past I did good work but I’ve now gone downhill and the papers I submit now are as risible as the referees say. But that can’t be true, either, because more often than not those same papers have gone on to be accepted by a different journal, with a different editor and different reviewers. Again, such discrepancies aren’t new – there’s always been a zone of judgment and ambiguity about what is a good paper – but they seem to me to be getting far more extreme, with a paper being as likely to be dismissed as worthless as lauded as excellent.

Based on conversations with other people I am pretty sure that the experiences I am describing are not unique to me. I am not entirely sure what the explanation is but I have a couple of ideas. One is that journal editors are not paying very much attention to their work and (despite the inevitable claim of having read the paper “very carefully”) are not exercising much editorial judgment; and bear in mind that ‘editor’ means, typically, one of a massive array of associate or assistant editors of varying ability and diligence. There are also, probably, cases of personal animosity: although submissions are anonymously reviewed it is often easy for reviewers to guess author identity (and vice versa) and, of course, handling editors know author identity anyway.

The other, more important, thing is that I think that reviewers have got angrier because as authors they have been on the receiving end of angry reviews. Which is chicken and which is egg is impossible to say, but there is surely a psychological logic in the idea that if your paper is trashed on spurious grounds you will look to trash those you review. That’s really the obverse of the point I made earlier about the incongruity of me being regarded as an expert reviewer and yet an incompetent author. It arises from that fact that all of us in the field are simultaneously authors, reviewers and, for that matter, editors.

All of this is annoying – infuriating, in fact – but it is worse than that. For me, the stakes are not very high. Deservingly or not I am reasonably well-established, securely employed, have no post I can be promoted to on research grounds, am not that far off retirement, and one way or another more than meet institutional systems of research evaluation. So a paper getting rejected in a spurious or unpleasant way is upsetting but doesn’t make any real practical difference to me. But many people, including many that I write with, are not in this happy position. For them, a publication in a “top journal” can make or break their careers, or can make huge differences to promotion chances or to salary levels.

Despite the huge power they wield there is no accountability whatsoever of journal editors and anonymous reviewers, and no possibility whatsoever of challenging their judgments. I believe that some authors do seek to challenge decisions, but I have always thought that this is a hiding to nothing and have never done so. Apart from being undignified, it’s not clear what it could achieve: if, for example, reviewers have trashed a paper and the editor has rejected it then unless an appeal yielded a whole new set of reviewers, which is highly unlikely, shifting an editor to allow a revise and resubmit is probably not going to lead to a better outcome. Pragmatically, it’s better to send the paper to another journal and hope for better luck with the editor and reviewers.

Be that as it may, it does not negate the fact that sloppy editing and angry reviewing is damaging to academic careers and – which may matter more to those who are not academics – to what gets published and therefore read. It’s a hidden scandal, and though a minor one in the general scheme of things no less important to its victims.