With the summer holidays approaching, you'll probably feel more like browsing AirBNB than like analysing academia. Well, what luck: in this post, you can do both!
Summer is finally here! Have you been busy planning a well-deserved vacation? Then you’ve probably checked AirBNB to find a place to stay at your sunny destination of choice. What specifications are you looking for? A good price range, of course, but what else? A double bed? A crispy clean bathroom? Perhaps proximity to a train station? All good, but since there’s more than three million accommodations available, even a narrowed selection will leave you with many options to choose from. So usually, your next criterion will be the host: perhaps skip the one with few reviews and only three stars awarded by previous guests; rather go for that lady with a five-star score and a verified response time. And when you’re booking, you check your own profile, and hope it’s credible enough for your prospective host to accept you as a guest…
Image CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 via Wikihow, 'How to be an AirBNB superhost'.
What are these reputation systems?
Services like AirBNB are abundant in the digital age: platforms that supply the means and metrics for online communication, through which users can rate each other to help future users’ choices. For instance, users rate the usefulness or fun of each others’ comments on Reddit; buyers and sellers score each other for reliability on vending sites such as eBay or the Dutch Marktplaats; and programmers praise colleagues who provide clever solutions on StackOverflow. Such services are named ‘reputation systems’, because besides the economic transaction that may take place, in the exchange of a funny comment, second-hand furniture or a coding hack, the combined reputations of all its users generate value, too: they provide the trust, credibility and esteem to ensure that exchange runs smoothly.
Esteem is important for all of us academics... Image via AliBaba, where you could buy this notepad.
Interestingly, academia has effectively been a reputation system as well, with its origins long before the rise of digital platforms. Instead of those of hosts and guests, or buyers and sellers, academics take on the roles of authors and readers, in the scholarly communication system that produces knowledge to exchange in the form of articles, books, and blog posts. If an exchange is successful, the author’s publication is deemed valuable by the reader, who will let other potential readers know that by a citation. Because readers cannot select all publications that might be interesting to them, other users’ cues of appreciation might make their choice easier: if fellow readers hold a publication in such high esteem that they even cite it in their own work, then surely, it must be worth the read.
OK, so do you get cited?
Esteem, if you think about it, is a curiously slippery phenomenon: everyone wants it, and it plays a role in many everyday economic transactions, for instance when you rather buy a brand than house label. Yet it cannot be bought, and it cannot be gifted between people; all you can do to get it is performing at your best, but not seek it too actively – as in fact, ‘nothing is so unimpressive as behaviour designed to impress’ (quote from Jon Elster, Sour Grapes, Cambridge University Press, 1983). This urged philosophers Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit to come up with a more detailed model of esteem as it works in all reputation systems – from AirBNB to academia.
The Economy of Esteem, Brennan and Pettit. Cover image via Oxford University Press.
According to their model, ‘performers’ or scholars can employ a couple of strategies to advance their own esteem: they can choose the field in which their performance is considered highest, and they can then specifically highlight the dimensions in which they perform particularly well. For AirBNB hosts, this is straightforward: those on a central location highlight that, while others on the outskirts of town will promote their lodging’s peace and quiet. Academics behave similarly by positioning themselves in a field: they implicitly pick the debate their argumentation suits best in, and then emphasize the relevance of that debate to the field or scholarship in general. Next, say Brennan and Pettit, seekers of esteem can also select a ‘maximally effective audience’: a target group whose appreciation matters most. Whereas AirBNB hosts would seek after appreciation by highly-recommended guests, academics are after citations by the most prominent colleagues they can reach.
Publishers as esteem services
However, in my first-ever post on this blog I mentioned the sad fact that many academic publications go by unread. So does that mean there’s no esteem to be won at all? It doesn’t, much to the relief of scholars. The act of publishing itself can generate esteem, too, in a sub-circuit of the academic reputation system; by accepting a manuscript and turning it into an article or book, the publisher implicitly gives his approval of that piece of writing. Even better: more famous and prestigious the publishing house, the more its esteem will reflect, by association, on the scholar’s performance. Publishers thus act as ‘esteem services’ for a scholar, but vice versa, a publisher can gain in reputation by having influential academics under contract, too. And this is a final characteristic of reputation systems: they all become more valuable when more performers and more esteem-givers join the network.
So, in which role will you find yourself by reading this post at your holiday rental?
My explanation of esteem-enhancement is very generic in this post, but loosely based on the book by Geoffrey H. Brennan & Philip Pettit, The Economy of Esteem: An essay on civil and political society (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Of course, reputation systems may also carry negative side-effects, for instance when its performers try to manipulate the system by tricking people into giving esteem where it is not due, and thereby devaluate it. That it might also become outright dangerous if performers become too dependent on the system, is shown in Netflix-show Black Mirror, season 3 episode 1, ‘ Nosedive’.