Autumn has arrived, bringing firework foliage, delicious squash, and, at least in the Pacific Northwest, an invasion of squid.Yay! Honor and delight! Now, how are they going to select grand, second, and third prize winners from these thirty finalists? Public online voting:
Humboldt or jumbo squid, sometimes mistakenly called giant squid, are grabbing fishing lures and washing up on beaches from Oregon to British Columbia. As a marine biologist fielding questions from reporters and citizens, my heart always sinks when I hear the inevitable query--delivered with a mixture of horror and fascination--"They eat people, right?" . . .
Now it's the readers turn to tell us who their favorites are. The red CONTEST tab now lists all of our finalists. If you wish to vote for an article, click on the article of your choice, and then click the "VOTE" widget that comes up with that article. You can vote for an article only once per day, but you may vote for more than one article each day if you have several favorites. And be sure to come back the next day to vote again if you want to help your favorite finalists win.So, go vote for my essay! Okay?
Individuals do NOT need to be registered members of Scientific Blogging in order to vote. However, voting will close at Midnight Pacific Time on Sunday, November 22nd. So get your votes in while you can, and then stay tuned for the announcement of our winners on December 1st.
Now, here are five things that make me feel weird about this contest:
1. The contestant pool. When I described the competition to a labmate and mentioned that it was only open to grad students from the ton ten (eleven) universities in the country, he immediately responded, "Well that's kind of elitist." Scientific Blogging has responded to similar accusations in their comment threads:
We have to keep the pool of writers small. If it goes off without too much of a hassle, we will open up the next one to all schools but we have a limited amount of people who can read the papers and help pare them down to a manageable number. . . . Obviously we're the only science site that is open to everyone so we aren't elitist, we are just making this first one manageable.A site that's open to everyone isn't necessarily immune to accusations of elitism, but I certainly sympathize with the need to keep the applicant pool small, having read and graded my fair share of essays.
More than anything, this got me thinking about the original US News & World Report study. Who do they think they are, ranking the best science schools in the country? "Questionnaires were sent to the department heads and directors of graduate studies at each program in each discipline." I would sure love to know what kind of rankings they'd get if they sent questionnaires to the grad students instead . . .
2. I don't like asking people to "go vote for me" instead of "go read all the essays and vote for the one you think is best, and if that's really mine, then thank you for your praise." But Rule 3 of the contest is: "Encourage friends, family, and faculty to vote for you." So I'm following instructions. Selfishly.
3. Online voting makes me nervous. It's just too easy to game the system. How do you identify voters? As originally stated, the plan was that only registered users could vote. However, when they announced the winners, they announced new rules: voting is now open to anyone, registered or not. But they've got to track voters somehow--I'm guessing by IP address, a standard but imperfect practice. It allows people to vote as many times as they have network connections (at least one contestant has stated explictly in their article comments: "one vote per computer per day") and I rather wish they'd stayed with registered users only. True, there's nothing to prevent you from registering multiple accounts if you have multiple e-mail addresses, but it takes a lot more work.
4. And why does the voting go on for 22 days? I can certainly see the value of a long voting period in terms of giving voters time to hear about the contest, read all the essays, and decide on their favorite. But why give each voter (or rather, each network connection) 22 votes instead of one? And if you really want to give out multiple votes, still, is there any reason not to let people allocate them all in one day?
As I've talked about this system with other people, it's become obvious that this is the online voting paradigm. Upon reflection, it makes sense. These competitions are a great way for websites to drum up readership (which translates directly into ad revenue)*. From this perspective, you want to make people vote every day for as long as possible, so all the contestants' friends and relations keep coming back to your site, day after day. Not only does this create a big temporary boost in readership, but with sufficient exposure, some newbies might decide they like the site enough to stick around after the competition. Or maybe they keep coming back out of habit. In any case, win!
5. So, is this a networking competition or a writing competition? Not surprisingly, several comments on the website have addressed the idea that open voting to determine the winners is "unfair". After all, who's to say the "plebes" have the discriminative ability to pick the best essay? Scientific Blogging's Kim responded:
The voting is to determine the writers that not just "scientists" or science professionals find interesting, but that the general public find interesting as well. We are looking for writers that can cast a broad net, and make even those that "are not even interested in science" want to stop, and read, and potentially learn something new from one of our posts.Hear hear! I fully agree with this definition of good science writing. But the big question is: are the people casting votes actually "stopping, reading, and learning something" or are they just taking two seconds to click a button? In other words, is the electorate actually made up of the "general public"? Or is it made up of the contestants' "friend mobs", who haven't actually read all the essays and may not have even read their friend's, but are nonetheless voting loyally and daily?
In answer to this question, SciBlogging's Hank argued:
There's nothing unconventional about letting the smartest audience on the planet pick the winner of a writing competition. The notion that some vague nepotism is somehow going to overrule a million people a month who read this site is not realistic.Is it all that unrealistc? I'm not sure. Nepotism isn't the right word (commentor's word choice btw, not Hank's) but personal popularity (as opposed to writing popularity) or networking ability just might be.
Sure, the site gets a million readers a month. Do they visit the site every day, though, or just once a month? And however often they visit the site, do they know about the contest? The article announcing the finalists was one of the five featured articles on the front page for a few days, but it's no longer there. It wasn't mentioned in the e-newsletter at all. And even if you happened to visit the article, you had to read half-way down before you learned how to find the finalist essays (by clicking on the red CONTEST button). Maybe that should be obvious, but that red button had been there for the last two months, before finalists were chosen and voting opened, so unless you'd been keeping pretty close tabs on things, there's no reason you'd assume you could click on it and vote now. And even if every one of those million readers know about the contest, do they care enough to vote? Do they care enough to vote every day?
All these concerns are trivial, perhaps, but in my mind, they add up to the hypothesis that the vast majority of votes are coming not from the permanent sciblogging readership, but from friend mobs, voters visiting the site to read one article--their friend's--and vote for it. So, the more friends you have, and the more frequently you remind, cajole, and nag them, the more votes you'll get.
I realize this could all sound pretty negative and critical. The thing is, I like Scientific Blogging. I like Hank and Kim, and all the other bloggers there that I've been reading. Over the last month or two that I've been blogging with them, I got more and more excited about the idea of winning the internship and working with them.
But over the last week of voting, I've realized that this phase of the competition makes me uncomfortable. It's not that I think networking is an evil skill. If I were trying to drum up votes or donations for a larger cause (like Sasha does for her non-profit SOIL) then I would probably be more comfortable sending out lots of e-mails. In this case, though, the cause at stake is science communication. I'm passionate about it, but honestly, any one of the finalists is going to do a fine job. My desire to win is therefore purely selfish, and I don't want to harass people for a selfish cause. Besides, I've never had a very competitive spirit.
This experience might just be teaching me that I don't belong in internet competitions. And that's a useful thing to know about myself.
* Just to be clear: I'm not saying that drumming up readership is the only, or even the primary, motivation for holding a contest like this. Also, I'm not saying that it is a bad motivation. I am 100% in favor of good websites (like sciblogging) building up both their readership and their revenue so they can stick around and keep serving up good content.