Bylines (Part 2 of 2)

by James Somers, March 4, 2009

Yesterday I tried to demonstrate by way of a somewhat extreme example that bylines can be pernicious, if only because they have some control over our choice of “reading attitudes” and may occasionally activate the wrong one.

The question at hand today is in which domains do we consistently misfire in this way, and what should we do about it?

I can think of three examples that will serve to illustrate a more general point:

Online karma systems. The consensus among tech people who have seen a lot of online communities go to shit is that anonymity doesn’t work. One need only cite 4chan to make such a case.

The alternative in vogue at sites like Digg, reddit, and Hacker News is to force users to register before they can comment, which (a) allows moderators to throw out particularly destructive people and (b) sets up an ecosystem in which “good” comments (by whatever standard) are rewarded.

This is certainly better than a free-for-all, but there is still trouble: high-profile users become recognizable, at which point their reputation can distort the reception of their comments. The effect is a lot stronger in smaller communities, where I think it can actually drag down the level of discourse.

Only in certain circumstances, though. For the most part, credible reputations are exactly what you want in an online community; in fact, the ability to effectively monitor a person’s behavior in social settings — e.g. to reward cooperators and punish defectors — is pretty much the fact we’re not eating bananas and scratching each other’s asses at the moment.

But, when a topic would be best discussed “objectively,” one should have the option for blind evaluation, as when a professor grades her students’ papers anonymously. The most obvious (if unlikely) example of a topic that might warrant such treatment would be a math problem; all that should matter, when judging responses, is the strength of each user’s solution — not their handle, the date they joined, their previous comments, or their “real life” occupation.

(With this option turned on, readers would still of course be able to vote on items and karma would propagate to the comment authors as usual.)

Now it could be that the number of threads that would actually be improved by a feature like this is too small to justify the effort spent implementing it. Fair enough: if nothing else this first example is meant only as a lead-in to the second, where I think “blind evaluation” would be justifiable in essentially every case.

Peer review. The status quo at peer-reviewed journals is to protect the referee’s anonymity. Which in a way would be like preventing students from knowing who graded their assignment. It seems odd, but it makes quite a bit of sense when you realize that it gives the evaluator license to be as harsh as they’d like without fear of retribution—the operative point being that it is hard for an author to go on a vendetta against no one in particular.

There is a bit of a nascent movement, called open peer review, where all the refereeing and reviewing takes place in the open. It has had mixed results.

What I find surprising, though, is this:

While the anonymity of reviewers is almost universally preserved, double-masked review (where authors are also anonymous to reviewers) is still relatively rarely employed.

I would not advocate that the editors of a journal ignore an author’s name; obviously, that’s about the single most useful piece of data they have in terms of deciding what to do with a submission. But if they do decide to send a manuscript to reviewers, shouldn’t they kill the byline? Unless I’m missing something, it would seem that this is exactly the setting where one would want to evaluate a work on the merits of the work alone.

Contemporary fiction. Based on the second-hand accounts of my writer friends, the contemporary fiction scene is a turbid disaster. Which is to say that if you were looking for “the good stuff,” your guess is about as good as anyone else’s, including that of upper-crusty literary critics.

Poetry can be especially hard to judge, which of course means that it will be judged all the more. So it becomes a political game governed almost entirely by reputation — of the poets and critics.

The best way to read this stuff, it would seem, would be to find editors with the right mix of intelligence, erudition, and humility, and to read their magazine without attending to the bylines. That way you’ll have a chance of running into something worthwhile and yet keep yourself insulated from hype that might pollute your “reading attitude” (especially if you’re inexperienced).

* * *

These three examples suggest a more general model for the way anonymity might work in publication:

  1. Authors accrue credibility over time, like anyone else in any other social setting, and this credibility is embodied in their byline.
  2. Editing institutions, which have access to the work and the author’s name, make selections based on both criteria.
  3. Readers/reviewers evaluate blindly.
  4. Readers can then choose to assign credit to the author (whose name is revealed upon publication or by the turning of some switch).

A critical proviso is that in many cases there is no “editing institution,” which means the reader becomes the editor — and has access to the byline. This is what happens with most of the submissions to Hacker News, for example (the ones that don’t need to be handled so “objectively”), or when you’re just browsing the library (where you have little to go on but reputations).

But, whenever content can be separated from its author, it should be. If I’m evaluating solutions to a problem, or code samples, or a website idea, I should do so anonymously. If I’m reviewing a journal article, I should do so blindly. If I trust my eye for fiction, but don’t want to wade through seas of garbage, I should read well-edited volumes but pay no attention to individual writers.