Published on Development Impact

The joys of blogging

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Last week, I came across a paper at an upcoming conference website. It’s in an area I really enjoy thinking about, in which I have done work myself. The question is very interesting, taking advantage of a novel technology to answer an important question – both from a policy and a theoretical perspective. I was excited to read and blog about it this week. Read it, I did. But while the paper started out really promising – there are many elements in there that have the makings of a stellar paper – I did find that the study design raises questions that make me seriously question the findings. I am not sure I believe the results. The study design issues are somewhat deep and complex – both from a theory as well as a measurement (available data) perspective. So, perfect for a post in Development Impact, where we can debate the nerdy intricacies of a good study. Our blog posts are generally not prescriptive, rather they occasionally cause the figurative “water cooler” debates at workplaces, academic hallways, etc. Great, right?

Well, as I finished reading the paper and started typing up my notes for the post, I realized that one of the co-authors is a graduate student. I don’t know whether this is their intended JM paper or not (does not look like it), but I immediately paused (at least one co-author is an established, senior researcher): how will a blog post in Development Impact influence the career outcomes of a graduate student? The questions expanded from there, becoming more general in the process:

·       What if the co-author in question were an assistant professor? What if they were up for tenure, with this paper possibly in their package?

·       Does it matter that the author of the blog (me or one of us) is senior? Male or female?

·       What are the rules for papers that are in the public domain, say, on the researcher’s website, indicated as under review, on a conference website, author already did a Twitter thread, etc. Under what circumstances, can a legitimate academic critique of a paper that is not rude be made in a blog like Development Impact?

Mostly as consumers of our blog, you might think that these questions are too fussy and self-important. I would like to assure you that they are not. Since the start of Development Impact (DI), we received the occasional private email from assistant professors up for tenure or other researchers who felt aggrieved or disrespected – worried about how a blog post in DI will affect an outcome they cared about. We were almost always able to resolve these amicably, with people generally overestimating the effect of DI. However, in the past year or two, the climate has changed a bit. We received objections on seemingly benign posts that we did not think would raise any eyebrows. In some instances, it was senior co-authors of junior colleagues who wrote stern emails to us. While I do understand the protective instinct of senior authors and advisors (I am the same with my own junior colleagues here in the Bank and elsewhere), the following dilemma comes up that lead the prospective blogger to self-censor:

The objection is that senior people should not be criticizing papers by juniors. The latter, whether grad students or assistant professors may have a fair amount riding on the work in question and the platform that the senior person has and the inequality in power makes such criticism unfair. But this is deeply unsatisfactory: can a senior researcher, however defined (by tenure, age, success in publications, otherwise fame, etc.), never discuss the work of junior people publicly? I don’t think of myself as senior but, very unfortunately, others do. I’d like to shed this persona and just be “one of the researchers,” who can excitedly discuss questions that I am geeked about with anyone of any age, gender, etc. But increasingly, the ideas are taking a back seat to who is voicing them, which makes me do a double take.

The related issue, terminology, that comes up is “punching down.” My guess is that this accusation is wielded far more often than warranted. Sure, if a powerful person is explicitly wielding their power to harm someone with far less power, that person is punching down. But, if I, as a senior, nitpick with the use of, say (to be completely facetious), TWFE in the paper of a junior, that is not punching down: even if that criticism might completely sink the paper. The author can argue back, they can write a comment, they can submit a reply post (we’re very open to these and have published a number in the past), they can write Twitter threads, etc.: we’re just two researchers arguing an important point. I am not necessarily wielding the supposed (and likely exaggerated) power of Development Impact on an unsuspecting person.

This does have an effect on me as a long-time blogger: how do I stay an effective public intellectual, which means, borrowing from Henry Farrell’s “In praise of negativity” in Crooked Timber, “no more or no less than someone who wants to think and argue in public.” That’s me! The other day philosopher Agnes Callard said “ARGUING IS COLLABORATING.” My best papers involved countless hours of vehement arguing with my co-authors: if you’re right, you can’t sleep because you want to convince your colleague. If you’re wrong, you can’t sleep because you can’t believe you missed that point. Either way, though, you get up the next morning and go talk to your colleague – either to argue more or to concede that you were wrong. So many times, a co-author and I slept on a discussion, only to meet the next day intending to take up the other’s position. It’s fun to argue about important development research topics in public – that’s why I blog and, more importantly, that’s how I mostly blog. If I have to worry about the potential blowback after a post because I blogged about a junior person’s paper, it is a significant disincentive for me to write.

I am writing this, so that I can have your feedback on how we can keep vigorous intellectual debate while minimizing the chances of conflict, hurt, or harm. It’s a genuine bleg: maybe some basic principles might emerge that might help others who might be struggling with similar issues or stepping in it unintentionally (or cluelessly). The comments section is a perfect place for that, so please use it. But I do know that many of you prefer not to use it. You can send me emails or tweet with your thoughts. I will try to collate them for a more solutions-oriented discussion in a little while.


Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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