Comments have been an integral part of Inside Higher Ed since we started publishing in 2005. In theory, comments provide a forum for debate, a way for readers to engage with us and one another, and a tool to hold us as a publication accountable for the content we publish. Increasingly, though, we fear comments on our site and elsewhere have lost their value in their current form.
Still, we believe reader discussions are so important that we don’t want to give up on them. So we at Inside Higher Ed are considering substantial changes in our approach. In this piece, we are sharing our initial thoughts on the issue and launching a reader survey to solicit your reactions and ideas. Any changes we make will be shared in a clear way so those seeking to respond to articles or other readers can do so fully aware of our approach.
Our Current Approach
While Inside Higher Ed’s policies have evolved, we have historically published most submitted comments. We require that comments be on topic, not engage in libel and slander, and meet some basic level of civility (the latter being a quality that is admittedly subjective). While we have barred screen names that impersonate another person, we have permitted anonymous commenting from the start -- believing that there are some people in academe (adjuncts, graduate students and others) who might otherwise feel unable to participate because of potentially legitimate concerns about the security of their positions. Our current policy in detail may be found here.
The Problems (and the Exceptions)
Our comments increasingly come from people who flood our site with opinions, many of them on the edge of civility. (We reject many that are over the edge and routinely receive many from people who use the ugliest of slurs.) Comments are repetitive, self-promoting and sometimes seem designed to get just over the bar of what we would publish. While we receive some thoughtful comments from people who are not in higher education -- and we welcome such readers -- we receive comments on many articles primarily from people with no apparent connection to or knowledge of academe (many of them with a tenor that doesn’t encourage debate). In some cases, those readers appear to find our articles mentioned on sites that may not have accurately described the article in question. And many of the comments appear to come from people who have read only the summary, not the actual article, which typically features ideas and explanations that can’t be evident from the headline alone.
Some readers report that they find comments hostile and insulting, and that they avoid reading the comments. We have had would-be authors hesitate to publish with us for fear of what happens in comments.
People post under multiple names: in one recent case, someone was posting, from a single IP address, under six names and having some of these personae praise another. In another recent situation, we had someone commenting with 17 usernames from a single IP address.
We have in the past had periods of intense commenting on certain issues, and as some of those issues have faded, commenting did, too. The culture wars bring out many of the greatest challenges in comments -- and the culture wars are likely to remain prominent in our coverage (at least as long as they are waged in academe).
Comments can be used in productive ways -- not all of which are visible to all readers. Sometimes comments alert us to typos, which we correct, thanking the person who wrote in but also making their comment moot. Some of our bloggers have had success building communities of discussion around their posts. And of course, many individual readers submit thoughtful comments.
The greatest failing of comments is what they generally are not: a true forum for engaged discussion. Insightful comments are buried amid mediocre ones. As proud as we are of the ideas raised by our news articles, opinion pieces and blog posts, we can’t say that we’re proud of much of the discourse in comments. And many of the ideas we explore deserve thoughtful debate from our readers.
A Few Possible Approaches
We are considering shifts -- including some of those that follow or a combination. We are open to other ideas.
- Requiring registration and (in most cases) real names/email addresses to comment. (We could create an alternative approach for those who need anonymity for legitimate reasons, but may have a high bar.)
- A system of reader up (and down) voting on comments that would better highlight some comments and would in some cases make commenters invisible based on down votes. We would strive to have the voting focus on thoughtfulness and appropriateness, not points of view.
- A shift in which the presumption isn’t that we will publish comments (unless they violate certain standards), but rather that comments must merit publication. We would seek to publish comments that advance the conversation in some relevant and meaningful way. This would result in far fewer comments. In such a system, we would give weight to comments that are by someone who was discussed (or whose institution or organization was discussed) in an article, someone offering alternate points of view from those raised in the article or by previous comments, and those who have not posted on that article. We would be particularly committed to publishing comments that take issue with Inside Higher Ed’s approach to an issue.
In publishing this essay, Inside Higher Ed invites your reaction. You can, of course, use comments to do so. You are also welcome to reach out via email to email@example.com -- any feedback received this way will be confidential.
We also are asking readers to provide feedback via this survey.
At the end of September, we hope to make a decision and shift to a new approach. Please consider that you have until Sept. 15 to reach out with your comments. Until then, our current policy remains in place.
We may not get this right immediately. Dealing with comments is an issue that is challenging publications everywhere. Still, we want to try.
Editing Inside Higher Ed is an honor. We are constantly astounded by the ideas of our readers -- ideas about their classrooms, their institutions and society. Ideas that make sense to us, ideas that might change the world, ideas that challenge us and ideas that (in the spirit of honesty) we can’t make sense of or imagine supporting. Even with the latter, we are so fortunate to be observing this world every day and helping to explain this world to others. We want a form of reader interaction with our site that lives up to those ideas and to the commitments of our readers.
Will you help us by providing your input?