What’s Ecolog-L for and how can we make it better? (UPDATED)

I don’t have much to add to Meg’s fine post on women in science, responding to the sexism they encounter, and the importance of good role models (although I may post some further thoughts on role models and “heroes” in science at some point…). But I wanted to talk about a related topic, which although much less important is at least timely.
That’s whether the ESA ought to consider modifying how Ecolog-L works, so that the sort of incident that prompted Meg’s post (and a lot of other justified outrage and passionate discussion) is at least much less likely.

Ecolog-L, for those of you who don’t know, is the Ecological Society of America’s listserv. It’s been in operation for many years (since at least 2000; can’t recall exactly how old it is). (UPDATE: As noted by Terry and Liza in the comments, those last two sentences are at least imprecise. Ecolog-L was set up and is still run by David Inouye. It’s very much a labor of love on his part and has been since he started it in the early ’90s. And while the Ecolog-L homepage bills it as “Ecological Society of America: grants, jobs, news”, it’s never officially belonged to the ESA and its relationship with the ESA is sort of a grey area. And as long as I’m clarifying, let me also emphasize again that Ecolog-L has been a hugely positive thing for the ecological community over the years, which is why I think it’s important to rethink it) It’s very popular; it has over 16,000 subscribers. Anyone can register and post to the list for free, and the posts also are viewable by anyone online. Anyone also is free to comment on any post. The posts and comments are moderated, but only to filter out spam (which, as I’ll suggest in a moment, may be something that needs to change). Effectively, Ecolog-L is a massive, unmoderated group blog, to which anyone can contribute. Many posts are ads for jobs and studentships, or announcements of other sorts (e.g., announcements of upcoming conferences and workshops). But people can and do post on anything. Including the quite unfortunate recent posts and comments on “gender issues” from Clara Jones, a woman with a long history of making poorly-articulated and offensive statements on Ecolog-L.

I hardly ever look at Ecolog-L; I used to but I stopped years ago. The only time I ever post myself is when I’m posting an ad for a job or studentship in my lab. I avoid Ecolog-L because I’ve found the comment threads to be routinely terrible. In my experience, more often than not they’re dominated by people saying off-topic, barely-coherent, and yes, offensive things. Not just sexist things, all sorts of strange things, which more than once have caused me to worry about the mental health of the commenter. Now, I’m not going to claim that my own experience is perfectly representative, and I wouldn’t venture a guess as to the true ratio of off-topic/strange/offensive posts and comments to useful ones. Suffice to say that it’s a much worse ratio than any science blog I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen an awful lot of science blogs. And judging from comments I’ve been reading in the past couple of days, I’m far from alone in feeling this way.

In saying this, I emphasize that I mean no criticism of the ESA, or the individuals who moderate and manage the listserv. Off-topic, offensive, and bizarre posts and comments are entirely the fault of the individuals making them, not anyone else. Further, despite the problems I’ve described, it’s clear that Ecolog-L fills a perceived need. It wouldn’t have thousands of subscribers and dozens of posts per week if it didn’t. So now seems like a good time to think about what Ecolog-L is for, and whether there’s some way for it to keep serving that purpose without also acting as host to sexism and other unproductive comments.  Below are some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts, drawn from comments I made over at The Contemplative Mammoth. I have no particular wisdom here, so treat these thoughts as an icebreaker for further discussion.

Any unmoderated blog is going to attract some terrible commenters. Speaking as someone who’s read a lot of blogs, the only ones with decent comment threads are those that are moderated to weed out offensive, incoherent, and otherwise unproductive comments. If you want decent comments, it’s not enough to just block spam. You have to block anything unproductive, and you have to place a permanent ban on anyone who repeatedly tries to make unproductive comments. Because otherwise there’s no stopping the garbage. Jacquelyn Gill made an admirable plea for everyone reading Ecolog-L to be willing to speak up there when they encounter something offensive there. But as I’m sure Jacquelyn herself recognizes, the most that would achieve would be to counter offensive posts and comments with pushback. Which isn’t without value–it’s better than offensive posts and comments with no pushback. But surely it would be better still to prevent offensive and unproductive posts and comments from appearing in the first place.

So, with that in mind, how much would it cost to pay someone to moderate Ecolog-L? Anyone have any idea? I ask this because I’m guessing that the sort of moderation I’m suggesting would be too time-consuming for any volunteer to willingly take on, hence the need to pay someone to do it. The moderator would also have to moderate posts, since on Ecolog-L people often comment on the posts of others by making new posts of their own.

If moderation isn’t feasible, how about just no longer allowing comments? Would anyone really miss them? This gets to the question of why we value Ecolog-L. Personally, I think its value is as a place to advertise jobs and make other announcements, things on which no commentary is necessary. That’s basically what the evolutionary biology equivalent of Ecolog-L, Evoldir, is. Indeed, the Evoldir homepage says that the preferred use of Evoldir is “bulletins not discussions”, and directs those wanting discussions to the appropriate USENET and Google groups. My own view is that Ecolog-L ought to go the same route. And if that means people can no longer do things like post questions about what baby backpack is best for field use, or try to have an informed discussion of sexism in ecology, well, is it really that important these days for people to be able to do that on Ecolog-L? Isn’t that what Google searches, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, StackExchange, Reddit, etc. are for? Seriously, is there any reason besides inertia for anyone in 2013 to be particularly attached to asking questions and having discussions on Ecolog-L? There’s still no substitute for Ecolog-L as a one-stop shop for ecological job ads and announcements, so it makes sense to me to keep it for that purpose. But for other purposes there are plenty of substitutes that are far better.

Or, if banning all non-announcement posts and all comments seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, how about following the lead of Evoldir and obliging posters to place their post into a category chosen from a short list (e.g., “studentship ads”, “postdoc ads”, “workshops and courses”), one of which is “other”? The advantage of categorizing posts is that discussion-type posts and associated comments would be quarantined in the “other” section, making it easier for readers to avoid them if they wanted (especially if readers had the option of subscribing to posts by category). Maybe you could couple this with a prominently-placed warning that posts and comments in the “other” category are not moderated except to block spam, and that readers may encounter offensive material.

What do folks think? Is is time for Ecolog-L to refocus on what it’s best for, and force Clara Jones and her ilk to find another place to say stupid things on the internet?

28 thoughts on “What’s Ecolog-L for and how can we make it better? (UPDATED)

  1. I think re-imagining what ECOLOG-L could be is a worthy exercise. Personally, I think the vast majority of subscribers are on it to receive announcements on workshops, studentships, jobs, and conferences. Very few people (relative to the 16,000) actually use it anymore for scientific discourse. Let’s face it, it’s the usual suspects that dominate the discussion, which is very telling on how much the larger ECOLOG community actually uses it (which it doesn’t) for scientific discourse/discussion. My suggestion (which builds on what you have been discussing) is to turn ECOLOG-L into a news listserv full stop. An alternative list could be created for discussion of ecological questions/ideas. I’d be very curious to see how many people subscribe to a new discussion-based listserv, especially long-time ECOLOGGERS. I for one would not subscribe if it lacked a moderator. I am all for calling people out on sexism etc., but think expending this valuable energy on an unmoderated listserv would not be the best use of my time. Jacqueline Gill had to do it this time due to ECOLOG’s current format, and devolving thread that was likely read by young female students unaware of CBJ’s posting history.

    Personally, I use blogs and other forms of social media for scientific discourse, not only because these venues are moderated, but because the discussions are what I am interested in (and I have much to learn from the participants!). The vast majority of the time topics raised on ECOLOG are not of interest to me, especially if they are raised by the same people over and over again.

    Anyway, just reinforcing what you have already alluded to I think.

  2. I’m definitely +1 for this change. I long ago left ECOLOG-L for the same reasons you describe and given the recurring problems I think that ESA would be better off not being associated with these kinds of grossly inappropriate comments. Of course if it is basically a job board their are better formats for that than a listserve.

  3. I completely agree with the above comment. The only other part of ECOLOG that I find useful as a graduate student is using it for methodological help/ advise on field equipment. And part of the reason this is great within that forum is because of the large community. Sure I can ask colleagues and faculty, but it doesn’t come close to the breadth of knowledge/ wide range of experience that is on ECOLOG.

  4. I agree 100%. I stay with ecology-L so I can pass opportunities to my students, but I hesitate to tell any of them to subscribe, because I fear that exposure to the clueless yet dedicated “contributors” to the listserv will drive them away from the field.

  5. I fully support tougher moderation on Ecolog. AFAIUI the list is a one-man enterprise and the number of posts must surely be overwhelming. At the very least a moderately-sized group of moderators from around the world should be able to handle the level of traffic. This could filter out the SPAM and obviously offensive, plus the OT posting. Anything that slipped through could be highlighted and the mods alerted to publicly admonish the poster, reiterate the community guidelines and where necessary delete the offensive post from the archive.

    I am not convinced of the need to remove the discussion from Ecolog – instead I would like to see greater focus about a community-agreed remit for the list. Technology has moved on a lot since list servers but the killer feature is that reading the list postings is made easier because they pop into your email folders. The problem with forums and the like is that they need people to adopt new tools or ways of interacting with them in order to keep up with or follow the postings and discussion. There are RSS feeds and the like but for many colleagues these represent such a shift away from what they are comfortable with, moving such discussions to those fora would most likely alienate several groups of people that might contribute via the current list-server model.

    I genuinely believe that now is the time for some major changes with Ecolog – to me at least the whole thing is largely irrelevant beyond the odd announcement. I only maintain my subscription as I filter all Ecolog into a separate folder which I scan once of twice per week and read the one or two posts of interest.

    You mentioned StackExchange; that suite of sites actually strictly bans discussion. It is a great set of Q&A sites but the one thing they want to avoid and actively police is no-discussion on the main sites (that is delegated to the chat rooms). The reason for this stance is exactly the problem you describe and also want to remove from Ecolog; discussion is rarely constructive on online fora especially with loose moderation and where people have strong feelings for particular issues/topics and don’t have an internal filter to know when to let things lie or not post something stupid. It detracts from the aim of the SE Q&A sites which is to be the best on-line resource of knowledge in particular domains. That is somewhat different to Ecolog’s remit, ast least as I see it.

    • Thanks for your comments ucfagls. Re: moderation, yes, I can see how the model you suggest (basically, splitting the work among volunteers) would get the job done. I guess I still question whether it’s a job worth doing. As other commenters have noted, discussions on Ecolog-L mostly consist of comments from a small number of strangely-dedicated and possibly-unbalanced people, plus pushback against those people whenever they say something really offensive. Is that “community” really worth saving by imposing moderation? Presumably, all the people who’ve abandoned Ecolog-L entirely over the years, or who never use it for any purpose but posting job ads and announcements, have found other venues in which to have the ecological discussions they want to have. So I don’t know that there’s much of a “discussion community” left on Ecolog-L to save, and I don’t know that it’s worth trying to create a space for a viable community to reconstitute itself.

      Re: StackExchange vs. Ecolog-L, it is fairly common for people to ask for technical advice on Ecolog-L, about things like what’s the best piece of equipment for some particular purpose, or what’s the best reference on topic X, or etc. I think that, in this day and age, the bulk of such requests for advice can be better addressed by using StackExchange (especially for the stats questions that are fairly common on Ecolog-L), Google searches, tweeting, asking the colleagues one knows personally, etc. Especially since it’s mostly students doing the asking, not senior people who aren’t familiar with newer technologies and social media. Those students ought to be learning how to use modern search and communication tools to get advice and answers.

      • Re Ecolog discucssion. I see your point; but it wasn’t always so. Would stronger moderation foster more informed, less crazy contributions that would be of real merit to the ecological community. Possibly…?

        Re StackExchange and your related points. Again, I fully agree about suing appropriate tools, especially for younger members of the community. SE would be an excellent place to have technical Q&A – the interface is so much better than a list server for that sort of interaction and the search and visibility of questions and answers are far in excess of list serve archives.

        Unfortunately there isn’t an appropriate SE site for Ecology, yet anyway. There is a Biology one that is in Public Beta and a Geoscience one (which would obviously encompass ecology) that is in the definition stage. Anyone wanting to see an SE site where ecology could find a home should lend their support to the proposal.

      • @noamross That’s great, but I doubt it will get anywhere, like the rest of the Geoscience-related proposals on Area 51. Why these can’t all be merged is beyond me. Too much fragmentation is a bad thing – even if you get off the ground and into beta you still need a good community of people to ask *and* reply to questions. One would have a better chance of that working out well under a more inclusive Geoscience (or similar) banner.

  6. I think your experience *is* representative of most.

    In the early 1990s, when the list was growing in popularity, David Inoyue performed a wonderful public service by allowing ecologists from all over the world to share ideas and opportunities in a brand new format. (I’m thankful to its existence to help me identify a number of volunteer field techs in 1996 from all over the US.)

    Things have really changed since then, and we have blogs and sites that list opportunities, and others for discussing the theory, practice and sociology of ecology.

    The listserv format, now, is about as useful as a fax machine. (I understand they’re still widely used in Japan.)

    The reason that the list persists is because it was so tremendously valuable at the time. The discussions were more useful – though still dominated by people whose contributions may not have been worthwhile – than they are now. Its persistence is a an artefact of its importance in its heyday.

    I think it should evolve into a new format, as well – into its own site that has a moderated set of jobs and volunteer opportunities, and some for discussion and queries that occur. That would take hours for someone to set up if they’re somewhat savvy, and an email can go out to subscribers, and then – bam – it’s done.

  7. It’s sounding like folks are mostly on the same page on this. Wonder if an open letter to the ESA and the Ecolog-L management might be in order. Laying out the problems, and the suggesting either that it be converted to a pure job/announcement list, with no comments or other sorts of posts allowed, or else that it be split into two lists to which people would have to subscribe separately, one for jobs/announcements (on which no comments would be permitted), and one for “other” (on which comments would be permitted, but with a prominent warning that posts and comments are not moderated except for spam and may be offensive). It sounds like either option would have a lot of support from the community. I don’t know that it’s so important to pick the single best option for open-letter purposes, as it is to suggest *something* that would be a big improvement over the status quo.

    What do folks think? I could probably be arm-twisted into drafting something and posting it for people to add their signatures, and then calling it to the attention of the appropriate people.

      • Hi Terry et al, this is Liza Lester, ESA’s communications officer. Ecolog-l is, indeed, run by David Inouye on the U of Maryland’s servers. It’s an entirely volunteer labor of love on his part. He set it up himself back in the early 90s, and it has never officially belonged to ESA — it’s kind of a grey zone. I agree that a phone call to David would be a good idea, and would also be…kind.

      • Thank you very much for this, Liza. Let me take this opportunity to re-emphasize what I said in the post, and which Terry also noted: nothing anyone has said here is at all a criticism of either David Inouye or the ESA. As you say, it’s a completely voluntary labor of love on David’s part, and over the years it’s absolutely been a big net positive for the ecological community. The post and comments arose out of dismay with some things that have happened on Ecolog-L over the past few years, and are motivated by a desire to help it change for the better so that it can keep serving the ecological community in the best way possible. I’m happy to agree with the suggestion that the appropriate next step here is a phone call to David.

      • Thanks Jeremy, we know that your comments are coming from care and not snark! and we want people to care about the community and take interest in molding it and making it better. We just haven’t been sure how to respond because ecolog-l doesn’t really belong to us. Yet, it’s flying ESA’s banner…but we appreciate the work that David does on our behalf…It’s a bit awkward, and that’s why I think going directly to David would be best. See what he thinks. After that, if the community feels a new forum is needed, we can talk more about it. I can’t *promise* that I have the resources to devote to it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. As others have noted, many of the original functions of the listserv have dispersed to other platforms — blogs, social media — but it seems there is still interest in some kind of centralized forum. And that’s part of what your professional society is for, right?

    • I’m in. Perhaps we could do something about the tech too. Threading is hopelessly broken, carriage returns and other characters get replaced with character codes in plain text, the bodies of some emails come through binary encoded. I known I’m using evolution on Linux (so hardly mainstream) but Ecolog is the only list serve I subscribe to that works so badly.

  8. Just my opinion, but the so called “inappropriate” comments seem to have generated a lot of useful discussion. Isn’t that the point? Do we really need the Internet Police to moderate an ecology blog? If the comments are annoying, don’t read them. Easy.

    • Sorry, can’t agree Jessica, for several reasons:

      -Do we really need the Internet Police to moderate an ecology blog? For the reasons described in the post, yes. With respect, perhaps I could ask you to engage substantively with the subject of the post rather than trying to substitute rhetoric like “Internet Police” for argument? Your rhetoric implies, falsely, that the problem here is over-sensitive readers of Ecolog-L rather than commenters.

      -intelligent comments also generate useful discussion. So there’s no reason to give inappropriate comments “extra credit” for at least generating useful discussion.

      -unless you know that a particular commenter has a history of trolling (and many Ecolog-L readers were unaware of Clara Jones’ history), you can’t avoid offensive comments without reading them first.

    • It’s easy to some extent, but when the signal:noise ratio drops, then you start losing readers, and then it becomes less useful if it’s a community board for jobs, internships, and useful discussion.

  9. I agree with many of the comments here about ECOLOG going to a news/ bulletin format. However, the thing I would miss (beafitz mentioned this as well) is recommendations on different field equipment/ methods and technology. I’ve actually found some really helpful suggestions from ECOLOG on that front. I like the idea of having the list in different categories that you could subscribe to independently.

    • Could always just continue to allow requests for advice on equipment/methods, just with no public commenting allowed (private replies via email only). Of course, the person asking for advice still has to be prepared for the possibility of getting offensive private feedback, but at least nobody else has to see it.

  10. I totally agree as well. There are plenty of other models out there that could be used. While stackexchange may ban discussion, plenty of other up/down voting sites don’t ban it. In a way we have “up-voting” in the form of replying, up-voting let’s the community decide if something is important without necessarily contributing a post, and let’s people anonymously down-vote posts without having to say anything therefore silencing trolls. So I think this is definitely something ESA needs to take on.

    • Hmm, I’m not convinced that up- and down-voting is effective enough to be worth bothering with. I mean, somebody has to read the crappy comments to down-vote them. Moderation, or just axing comments entirely. seem to me to be better ways of dealing with a situation in which the distribution of comment quality likely is quite bimodal, and in which there’s not much of a commenting community left to be worth trying to save or reconstitute.

    • At this point, it’s not something for ESA to take on, but for us to have a conversation with David Inouye. It’s his site, which ESA has adopted, rather than the other way around. It’s complicated. I think this has been a great discussion to inform the decisionmakers (I’m still fighting the Bush neologism). I, for one, am glad to not be one of those people!

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