Pseudonymity and undisclosed conflicts of interest: online book review edition.

I'll confess that I am not one who spends much time reading the reviews of books posted on the websites of online booksellers. By the time I'm within a click of those reviews, I pretty much know what I want. However, a lot of people find them helpful, and the ability to post your own review of a book (or a film, or a product, or a business) online seems to give consumers more of a voice rather than leaving it to "professional" reviewers or tastemakers.

Who, after all, knows whether those professional reviewers' first loyalties are to the public?

But, unsurprisingly, it turns out that citizen-reviewers can be just as gripped by potential conflicts of interests. From the Associated Press:

A reviewer signed as "Historian" posted some savage reviews on Amazon's Web pages, but had a weakness for one writer, celebrated author and Russia expert Orlando Figes.

Historian has now been exposed as Figes' loyal wife, Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Girton College at Cambridge University.

The revelation has raised eyebrows in Britain's cozy academic world, where public backbiting is frowned upon.

Figes, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, had denied that he had anything to do with the harsh comments on Amazon about books by Rachel Polonsky, Robert Service and Kate Summerscale.

On Friday, however, Figes' lawyer, David Price, confirmed that the reviews were posted by Palmer.

Missing from the AP's coverage are the details of how "Historian" was revealed to be Stephanie Palmer.

Now, my hunch is that a single negative review of one's book on Amazon probably has little to no effect on one's academic career. I suspect it's more likely that such a review might discourage a handful of people from actually purchasing one's book, but professors of my acquaintance do not live or die by their book sales. In other words, I think it's unlikely that Polonsky, Service, and Summerscale suffered significant material harm on account of Palmer's reviews.

On the other hand, I don't think it would be unreasonable for them to assume that "Historian's" posted review were driven by something other than her honest assessment of the merits of their books -- and to be miffed. It's not just that Palmer was (pseudonymously) posting glowing reviews of her own husband's work, but that she went the extra kilometre to disparage the works of the authors she seems to have viewed as her husband's competition.

If you publish something, negative reviews are a live possibility. Authors know this, and academic authors can hardly escape such knowledge (given that harsh critique is one of the standard modes of engagement between professorial types, in print and face to face). A relevant difference, though, is that most of the critiques academic authors receive in public spaces have names attached to them.* The author who is being critiqued, and any onlooker evaluating the critique, have the opportunity to dig deeper for information that might put that critique in context -- whether information about what genres the reviewer has a track-record of liking or hating, or about personal relationships that might cloud the reviewer's objectivity in particular cases.

Indeed, reviews of books are themselves subjected to critique. But the hope is that enough details are on the table that the community can form reasonable assessments about which criticisms are well grounded (if subject to differences in taste) and which are hopelessly biased.

Can an online community of authors and critics, some of whom are pseudonymous, form similarly reasonable assessments?

As the case of Stephanie Palmer suggests, a pseudonym makes it possible for a critic to suppress some details that members of the community might regard as relevant (e.g., that the critic is married to a professional rival of the authors whose works she is panning).

But if a critic uses a stable pseudonym for repeat engagement with a community over an extended period of time, his or her body of criticism likely contains information that members of the community can use for evaluation.** Critiques that are most useful to the community (including the person whose work is being criticized) generally include not just opinions but arguments, bolstered with evidence from the subject of the critique. Sometimes these critiques even anticipate, and respond to, counterarguments. In other words, a useful review, whether positive or negative, conveys not just how the reviewer feels about the work being reviewed but also provides concrete details to support that judgment.

Provided that these details are actually drawn from the work being reviewed,*** a content-rich review offers more than just a personal opinion. It points to matters of content and style about which people with different subjective impressions of the work can have a reasonable conversation.

If Palmer was providing such content-rich reviews on the Amazon site (and I don't know whether she did or not -- my efforts to locate the reviews authored by "Historian" were unsuccessful), then the additional fact that she seems to like her husband's books better than those of other historians may not have been such a big deal -- even in the situation where readers of these reviews didn't know that Figes is "Historian's" husband.

On the other hand, if "Historian" was contributing terse reviews that mostly expressed her like or dislike for specific books without also explaining that reaction, I can't help but think that anyone taking those reviews seriously was doing it wrong.

*Referee reports from publishing houses or scholarly journals tend not to have names attached to them, but these critiques are not terribly "public" -- only the author, the reviewers, and the editors are supposed to be privy to them.

**Also, the pseudonymous critic in such a case has incentive to play fair because members of the community might otherwise choose not to continue to engage with him or her -- a situation not altogether unlike a continuous iterated prisoner's dilemma.

***One does hear the occasional rumbling about book reviews that impute to the author claims made nowhere in their books. I reckon that being factually wrong about the content of a work one is reviewing might have a detrimental effect on an academic's reputation in his or her professional circles.

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Heh heh: "kilometre".

By philosoraptor (not verified) on 21 Apr 2010 #permalink

An additional little twist: Amazon allows users to rate other users' reviews as helpful or unhelpful, and displays the reviews with little notices that, eg, 15 of 37 people found this review helpful. Some of the ways of displaying reviews place higher-rated reviews higher on the page than lower-rated reviews, and some even do this without regard to the ranking they give the book in question. It also allows comments on reviews, so users can point out strengths and weaknesses in other users' reviews.

Anecdotally, this seems to work quite well. I'm preparing a reading list for a class on philosophy and food issues, so I've been looking at Amazon reviews for several dozen different books (not all of them scholarly) on food. The crowd that Amazon is sourcing for their crowdsourced reviews is quite good at identifying and criticizing bad reviews, and ranking them correspondingly quite low. For example, a book by nutritionist Marion Nestle was given one star based on a radio interview -- it was quite clear the user hadn't so much as glanced at the book. That review was rated helpful by something like 10 out of 75 other users, and the comments beneath the review were excoriating. The large number of similarly vapid 5-star reviews of Lierre Keith's The vegetarian myth are given a similar treatment, and the most helpful reviews give it 3 stars.

I thus wonder if sock-puppeting and astroturfing are really liable to be a problem, at least in the context of Amazon user reviews.

My last book was reviewed on Amazon and given one star by a guy who used to be in our research group, but got angry that we were getting away from pure theory of ethics and into some yucky applications. He complained loudly that we just didn't have enough theoretical founding.

We just ignored him (there's this saying "not even bothering to ignore someone"...) and then we had a review of the book in one of the large daily newspapers - quite favorably and noting that theory would have bogged the book down somewhat.

We were joking that Amazon should sell our book in a bundle with an ethics theory book ;)

By WiseWoman (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink