Beyond the Backlash

After contemplating a proposal to ban its editors from blogging, the International Studies Association promotes an initiative to explore how online media can actually benefit scholars in the field.

March 11, 2015

Not only will journal editors for the International Studies Association continue to be free to blog, but last year’s debate about the professional value of blogging has spawned an initiative within the organization to explore how online media can benefit scholars in the field.

The association last year considered barring members affiliated with its five scholarly journals from blogging. Although the policy proposal was billed as a proactive move to strengthen what former association president Harvey Starr at the time called the “‘professional environment’ we expect our members to promote,” some political science scholars saw it as a “draconian” infringement of academic freedom.

Days after news of the policy blew up online, the association tabled the motion, sending it to the Professional Rights and Responsibilities Committee for a yearlong study. The committee presented its report during last month’s Governing Council meeting in New Orleans, and its recommendations, which quickly became policy, were “[a] clear win for the social media folks,” Stephen M. Saideman, Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University in Canada, fittingly wrote in a blog post.

In the report, the committee explains that it had to balance journal editors’ professional responsibilities and freedom of expression against the association’s reputation. The solution was not “hard rules” but “soft norms,” the report reads, and so the committee’s two recommendations merely serve to remind officers of their professional duties.

The first recommendation expands the association’s list of activities to include journal editing, while the second states that all officers, including editors, “have a special responsibility to uphold and observe the Code of Conduct, promoting in the Association’s activities a professional environment characterized by constructive debate and the treatment of all members with dignity and respect.”

Together, the recommendations “clarify the Association’s norms in which its Editors work without limiting their freedom of expression or ability to engage social media,” the report reads. Neither recommendation explicitly mentions blogging.

Saideman said critics of the original proposal wanted the Governing Council to adopt a broader policy instead of singling out blogging or journal editors. After the proposal was tabled and reviewed by the committee, the council “very much did that,” he said. “The system worked.”

The committee also considered requiring journal editors to feature a disclaimer on their personal blogs to clarify that they were not speaking on behalf of the association. It discarded that idea in part because it would be difficult to enforce, but also because it was met with “repeated criticism” that the association had “wrongly singled out blogging as a uniquely problematic mode of communication.”

The backlash against the blogging ban has also “energized” a group within the association to keep similar restrictions from being proposed in the future, Saideman said. The Governing Council considered and approved the creation of an online media caucus, chaired by Saideman, which will “promote the use of online media in all aspects of the work of scholars of international studies, and promote policies that protect scholars using online media,” according to a description.

The proposal cited two high-profile cases involving social media -- the Steven Salaita hiring controversy and the push to regulate social media use at public institutions in Kansas -- as examples of why professional associations need to take a closer look at all online media, not just social media platforms.

“I don’t think it’s a super-ambitious effort to change the world,” Saideman said. “It’s just a way to share our experiences on how to do this stuff better.”

In addition to exploring how international studies scholars can use social media in teaching and scholarly communication, the caucus may look at app development and how Facebook and Twitter influence international conflict, Saideman said. The caucus is also in charge of hosting two panels during next year's annual conference.

“What it means is there’s an organization within the ISA that represents the interests of those who use social media,” Saideman said. “It creates a seat at the table.”


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