I appreciate Eduwonkette’s apology posted on her blog and in a personal email to me. It is a danger inherent in the rapid-fire nature of blogging that people will write things more strongly and more sweeping than they might upon further reflection. I’ve already done this on a number of occasions in only a few months of blogging, so I am completely sympathetic and un-offended.
One could argue that these errors demonstrate why people shouldn’t write or read blogs. In fact some people have argued that ideas need a process of review and editing before they should be shown to the public. These people tend to be ink-stained employees of “dead-tree” industries or academia, but they have a point: there are costs to making information available to people faster and more easily.
Despite these costs the ranks of bloggers and web-readers have swelled. There are even greater benefits to making more information available to more people, much faster than the costs of doing so. People who read blogs and other material on the internet are generally aware of the greater potential for error, so they usually have a lower level of confidence in information obtained from these sources than from other sources with more elaborate review and editing processes. Some material from blogs eventually finds its way into print and more traditional outlets, and readers increase their confidence level as that information receives further review.
Of course, the same exact dynamics are at work in the research arena. Releasing research directly to the public and through the mass media and internet improves the speed and breadth of information available, but it also comes with greater potential for errors. Consumers of this information are generally aware of these trade-offs and assign higher levels of confidence to research as it receives more review, but they appreciate being able to receive more of it sooner with less review.
In short, I see no problem with research initially becoming public with little or no review. It would be especially odd for a blogger to see a problem with this speed/error trade-off without also objecting to the speed/error trade-offs that bloggers have made in displacing newspapers and magazines. If bloggers really think ideas need review and editing processes before they are shown to the public, they should retire their laptops and cede the field to traditional print outlets.
We have a caveat emptor market of ideas that generally works pretty well.
So it was disappointing that following Eduwonkette’s graceful apology, she attempted to draw new lines to justify her earlier negative judgment about our study released directly to the public. She no longer believes that the problem is in public dissemination of non-peer-reviewed research. She’s drawn a new line that non-peer-reviewed research is OK for public consumption if it contains all technical information, isn’t promoted by a “PR machine,” isn’t “trying to persuade anybody in particular of anything,” and is released by trustworthy institutions.
The last two criteria are especially bothersome because they involve an analysis of motives rather than an analysis of evidence. I defended Eduwonkette’s anonymity on the grounds that it doesn’t matter who she is, only whether what she writes is true. But if Eduwonkette believes that the credibility of the source is an important part of assessing the truth of a claim, then how can she continue to insist on her anonymity and still expect her readers to believe her. How do we know that she isn’t trying to persuade us of something and isn’t affiliated with an untrustworthy institution if we don’t know who she is? Eduwonkette can’t have it both ways. Either she reveals who she is or she remains consistent with the view that the source is not an important factor in assessing the truth of a claim.
No sooner does Eduwonkette establish her new criteria for the appropriate public dissemination of research than we discover that she has not stuck to those criteria herself. Kevin DeRosa asks her in the comments why she felt comfortable touting a non-peer-reviewed Fordham report on accountability testing. That report was released directly to the public without full technical information, was promoted by a PR machine, comes from an organization that is arguably trying to persuade people of something and whose trustworthiness at least some people question.
So, she articulates a new standard: releasing research directly to the public is OK if it is descriptive and straightforward. I haven’t combed through her blog’s archives, but I am willing to bet that she cites more than a dozen studies that fail to meet any of these standards. Her reasoning seems ad hoc to justify criticism of the release of a study whose findings she dislikes.
Diane Ravitch also chimes in with a comment on Eduwonkette’s post: “The study in this case was embargoed until the day it was released, like any news story. What typically happens is that the authors write a press release that contains findings, and journalists write about the press release. Not many journalists have the technical skill to probe behind the press release and to seek access to technical data. When research findings are released like news stories, it is impossible to find experts to react or offer ‘he other side,’ because other experts will not have seen the study and not have had an opportunity to review the data.”
Diane Ravitch is a board member of the Fordham Foundation, which releases numerous studies on an embargoed basis to reporters “like any news story.” Is it her position that this Fordham practice is mistaken and needs to stop?