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?