Should the Comment Feature on the Rumor Mill be Changed? [Poll]

by Kelle on February 18, 2011

With the migration of the Rumor Mill to the AstroBetter wiki, a new feature was added, comments. Some of the comments have been useful questions, updates, and clarifications about jobs and fellowships while other threads have evolved to become (not completely unjustified) rants about the job market. These threads elicited this comment,

Perhaps comments should rather be associated with the blog webpage or another webpage for discussion (maybe with a separate link from the mill)? I postulate that recent threads may have had a negative impact to the wiki, and potentially affect peoples’ use of the rumor page. I pose this as a question to the community.

and one response,

As someone whose name is a few places on this list, the comments have made me not post other (new) offers I have received since it only seems to make people angry.

What do you think?

How should the comment feature on the Rumor Mill be changed?

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 E February 18, 2011 at 8:21 am

I think the second quote has it exactly right. If you don’t want frustrated people getting angry at you (justified or not), then perhaps you shouldn’t post. If the comments have clarified this point, then I see that as a success for the existing comment system, not a failure.

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2 Tigran Khanzadyan February 18, 2011 at 8:47 am

The way it is now is practically useless. I would suggest to modify the style in order we could hide or unhide the comments part. It would also be useful to have comments related to the individual rumours not just below the whole list. Along the same line it would probably be better to have some forum like environment but I suspect this would make things harder for anonymous reports. To summarise: usability needs to be addressed.

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3 Ann Onymous February 18, 2011 at 9:08 am

I second this. I find the comments very useful but for now it is a bit of a mess. Comments separated by jobs would clarify things. A forum would probably be best indeed.

Regarding the second quote, could we have a link to the negative comments? Not that I do not believe this but I prefer to check. I know all too well how it feels to get rejected from [top fellowship] even though student from [top university] working with [top star] got it with just 1 uncited paper. However there is no excuse to throw insults around especially in public. Better ask senior people who you work with and who will be able to explain you why as they have more experience in the selection process of [top fellowship]. But please keep civil on the rumors page.

4 E2 February 18, 2011 at 8:52 am

But then, if people start NOT posting, what is the point of the rumors mill? What is better: having no comments, and people fell more free to place their names there, or having comments at the risk that some people will get scared and not post their situation?

Moreover, for the few frustrated people getting angry (again, justified or not), maybe those comments could simply be moderated, or something like that.

A last comment: the worst / more inappropriate comments came through the wiki system (the additional information you can put when modifying the job), and not on the comment section. Since nobody actually uses that meaningfully, and those are not moderated, maybe simply excluding them would end this whole thing…

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5 E February 18, 2011 at 9:26 am

That is an excellent question. What is the point of the rumor mill?

Personally, I want to know a few simple pieces of information: Has the shortlist been made? Has an offer been made? Have rejections been sent? Has an offer been accepted? (Note that these questions do not contain the word “who”.)

My point is that plastering your name all over the rumor mill in a grand display of self-aggrandizing exhibitionism will come with a social (and possibly by extension, scientific) cost. Shutting down complaints by disgruntled commenters might hide this cost, but it won’t make it go away.

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6 Ann Onymous February 18, 2011 at 9:39 am

“Personally, I want to know a few simple pieces of information: Has the shortlist been made? Has an offer been made? Have rejections been sent? Has an offer been accepted? (Note that these questions do not contain the word “who”.)”

Good, but adding the names does not remove anything from you. You would have all the information you want anyway.

“My point is that plastering your name all over the rumor mill in a grand display of self-aggrandizing exhibitionism will come with a social (and possibly by extension, scientific) cost.”

What a strong, definitive statement… Could you substantiate your claims a bit further? I am not in the position of hiring postdocs yet but I would not think anything if the person I made an offer to put his/her name on the wiki. Note that nobody forces you to put any name on the wiki. I know some names that are not on the wiki and I do not add them. I think it is the person to decide whether to stay anonymous or not and I certainly respect both positions.

7 Kelle February 18, 2011 at 9:51 am

People have strong opinions about the rumor mill, on both sides. Please be respectful of other opinions and, at the same time, please don’t stir hornets. The issue here is *not* debating the point of the rumor mill, it’s about the comments. Let’s at least try to stay on topic.

8 nick February 18, 2011 at 9:29 am

Not everything needs to be social media-ized; having comment threads on individual jobs sounds like a really terrible idea. The sense of entitlement about knowing all about everyone’s job situation seems to have increased the past few years, in parallel with a sense of hostility. “Offer made, accepted” doesn’t seem to cut it anymore, people demand names and dates. It’s leading to a shark jumping moment.

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9 KC February 18, 2011 at 11:04 am

This comes back to my earlier point about the Rumormill being more than it is. There are competing interests:
1) The need for applicants to once and for all receive timely, accurate information from selection committees.
2) The desire to discuss/complain/gossip about jobs and applicants.

#1 should be handled in some moderated official way using a centralized bulletin board. Maybe AAS should incorporate this infrastructure into the Job Register. It doesn’t take much effort.

#2 should be handled here at the Rumormill. It would be trivial to link the information provided at a bulletin board into a wiki where there are basically no rules.

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10 DS February 18, 2011 at 11:18 am

The comments should at least be moved elsewhere, or hidden. Since the “history” button is below the jobs but above the comments, its location on the page (as a percentage of the page) changes every day. Which is irritating for people who just want to see the recent diffs. (I suppose another way to fix this is to put the history and other relevant buttons at the top, but I feel a better solution would be to put the comments on another page, or have them hidden by default.)

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11 EB February 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm

The “Recent Revisions” link at the top of the page will give you the diffs.

12 Jay February 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I think it’s questionable whether a complaint/gossip oriented forum is a net benefit to the community, and at times it feels like the astro rumor mill isn’t far from becoming AutoAdmit. If Kelle wants to host such a forum, I strongly think it should be separated from the actual rumor mill into a proper forums page. Further, I think the admins should look into reducing the allowed character count for “comments” on edits, since this has been the location for some of the most egregious behavior.

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13 Laura February 18, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I agree with Jay and E2 that the worst comments have actually been in the “edit comments” with new changes, and perhaps this feature could have a stricter character count or removed altogether.

I do see some value in the comments section, particularly when it has provided clarifications about specific jobs. As it is right now, the comments section is bulky and somewhat disordered though. I like the bulleted list of new astrobetter blog entries; perhaps the comments section could be highlighted and linked in a similar way at the bottom of the rumor mill page.

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14 Roban Kramer February 18, 2011 at 3:53 pm

For an example of how toxic a rumor mill forum can become, look at any thread on the “poli sci job rumors” site (http://www.poliscijobrumors.com/). I have no strong opinion on the astronomy job rumors comments, but that poli sci board is enough to give one pause.

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15 Anonymous February 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm

I agree with KC completely. Having an official bulletin board run by AAS would be the perfect solution.

Such a system will work if:

**Status updates are required as a condition of posting a job**
— These shouldn’t name names
— Status updates must occur within one hour (day?) of each these events (if applicable): listing canceled, longlist notified, shortlist notified, waitlist notified, interview scheduled, rejections sent, offer made, offer rejected, and offer accepted (did I miss any?).

Its usefulness would be compounded if users can subscribe to individual listings.

If such a bulletin board were created, the rumor mill and the comments can continue on as a gossip factory for those interested.

Barring that solution, I think the comments help validate the rumors (eg, false Hubble rumor). Requiring non-anonymous comments would likely just deter commenters (and defeat the purpose) or shift offensive comments to vandalism of the wiki, which is anonymous and unmoderated (and works surprisingly well). A forum might be more appropriate, but being further removed from the rumor mill would reduce the audience significantly (though maybe less wasted time here wouldn’t hurt).

Also, having names is unfortunately necessary to help validate the rumor. As we saw with Einstein and Hubble, it’s easy to say “offers made” when they haven’t been. When it’s attached to names, it can be much more easily falsified. I was not at all offended/angry (jealous maybe…) by the addition of anyone’s name. As long as it’s true, those people have a right to put their names on (I actually consider it a service). I congratulate everyone with any offers, and especially those with several offers; I’m sure they deserve it.

The other point that several others have mentioned is that the edit comment has been the source of the most offensive comments, and I agree. However, I think we’re all adult enough to ignore such comments (I saw it more as a sad commentary on the power of anonymity) and the edit comment has merit (eg, to cite your source). It shouldn’t be removed because of a few that abuse it.

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16 Erin February 18, 2011 at 11:00 pm

That (the AAS bulletin board idea) would require the AAS be able to enforce professional behavior by folks in charge of each position. And then we start to have the question of- is that the job of the AAS? One might argue yes given that the AAS has put things out like the ethics statement for our field but others might say that no, that’s not within their tasking. While I personally think the AAS should have a requirement such as timely notification of applicants for use of the Job Register, not all jobs are listed in the Job Register, and there is the question as to what the AAS could really do. Ban an individual from posting future job listings because they didn’t alert candidates as to job status? What counts as proper communication? Is posting on a message board enough, or should all job seekers recieve a rejection letter via email/snail mail? Our AAS ethics statement doesn’t even have teeth with regard to what happens when the rules are broken, so I think on the jobs front it may be overreaching to ask the AAS to define professional conduct for employers let alone decide how they’d deal with those who don’t follow the rules.

17 Anonymous February 19, 2011 at 6:15 am

@Erin — (from previous anonymous poster) Agreed, the potential problems with the AAS bulletin board idea are enforcement, jobs not posted of the AAS registry, and the question of whether or not this is really the AAS’s responsibility.

The AAS job registry is in a unique position to help, and I don’t think this is a big burden to place on them. They are paid well to do a service that is similar to that offered for free other places online — I think we can reasonably expect more from them.

As far as enforcement goes, the honor system seems like a good starting point (hopefully by setting up an easier way of communicating, it will naturally be used). If that doesn’t work, banning persistent violators from posting a job opening for some period of time is also an option (albeit a rather drastic one with many loopholes). Perhaps allowing users to anonymously rate the poster’s level of communication would shame them into being more diligent.

I would consider it a sufficient rejection if the original posting were updated to simply say “position filled” or “shortlist contacted” and I wasn’t on it — no personalized email or snail mail required. If everyone knew going in not to expect a personal rejection, it could easily catch on. The point is to make it less work for those hiring, not more.

For jobs not posted on AAS, I guess the rumor mill will have to suffice. This was a very small minority, at least for the ones to which I applied, and I don’t see us changing, for example, the way the NSF does business.

18 Erin February 19, 2011 at 8:54 am

@the Anon at 6:15 am:

Being a person only searching for postdocs right now, I’m not sure how much the Job Register ads cost (and of course the rate sheet is only viewable if you’re creating and posting a listing) and if supporting a web forum for updates would be reasonable within that cost of service. Yes, the AAS does have a phpbb forum set up (which no one really uses for various reasons though bless them they have tried), but even then you’d have the burden of one or two contact people at the AAS (or the community) being responsible for job updates and validating their authenticity, if you open it up to everyone that we get the rumor mill v2 even if the desired object is more like the old astronomy rumor mill (am I the only one that remembers when we had two? The astronomy one that didn’t mention names and then the astrophysics one that reported names. Yes I am dating myself.)

But I’m sort of curious how you or anyone else would see the honor system working in terms of enforcement. We’re pretty much on the honor system now with the simple idea of notifying folks re: jobs and there are some places that can’t even get it together to ever send out rejections to job seekers at all, so thinking they’d provide additional information on the honor system seems like a stretch to me. To say that some names of institutions/departments aren’t known already for poor behavior towards job seekers would be to deny that closed door conversations, email and/or Facebook rants and similar things aren’t happening at this very time and have been happening for awhile. As someone who applied last year for postdocs and this year, I’m torn. . .because I’m starting to feel that the only way things can change is public recognition of institutions and it’s debatable as to whether public praising or public shaming would be better. If I thought that public praising to reinforce good behavior would work, I would plastering all over the place the name of the institution who sent me email and paper mail notices that their search had been cancelled 6 weeks from the job posting closing date. I personally feel it’s somewhat sad that the basic professionalism that it took for the institution to do that gave me a warm fuzzy.

19 Anonymous February 19, 2011 at 6:12 pm

@Erin — We’ve sort of hijacked this thread and this discussion really belongs here:
http://www.astrobetter.com/should-the-rumor-mill-be-more-than-a-rumor-mill/
I’ll continue my response from there, and I’ll post under “Anonymous too” to distinguish myself from the other anonymous poster(s).

20 Erin February 19, 2011 at 9:51 am

So as one of the people who voted for leaving the comments as is, I must admit I voted that way for purely selfish reasons. I think there is some interesting additional discussion going on about family planning in the astronomical field regarding our numbers of grad students and postdocs and some additional good conversation re: the decadal. As it stands right now I don’t really think we have a good place to discuss such topics and some of the options are less than appealing for various reasons: for example I think the AAS message board was originally set up with those sorts of conversations in mind however I can understand people being wary of discussing such topics there given issues such as anonymity which one might want to retain when venturing into these sensitive areas. That said, I’m not sure that you actually want astrobetter to become the general kvetching site for astronomers.

As to the commenter at the wiki who said that they have more offers but don’t want to post them for fear of angering people- really? You care? In the end you can only take one job (okay maybe more than one in some cases) and once you’re there it doesn’t matter how many offers you had, what matters is can you keep your employer happy and churn out good science (or quality classes or good observer support or whatever). That said I’ve been watching the comments as people edit the wiki in the differs and I’m not seeing anything overly shocking, but I think after last year’s wiki comments that had incredible displays of US-centrism and racism taking place that I may have started to become immune to the nastiness.

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21 Ben February 19, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Here is what I think is the uncomfortable truth: If you haven’t heard about a job, you need to know if it’s still open if you have a competing offer. If you don’t, then wondering about a job is just trying to assuage your understandable anxiety. If you really do need to know, then you can contact the appropriate person. If you are somewhere near their shortlist, they’ll tell you so as not to lose you. If they can’t tell you for bureaucratic reasons, they probably couldn’t issue an update on the rumor mill or an AAS board either. If you don’t hear, it’s usually not good news.

Basically I think the request for immediate updates is a way of displacing anxiety about the job market because it feels like you’re engaged in some kind of activity, but really it doesn’t help and appears to be making a lot of people more anxious.

Bitching about the loathsomeness of the job market is a totally legitimate activity (although my personal preference is to do it offline with my friends). However, the catty comments that have appeared on the rumor mill and the complaints about people who put their names up are out of line, and cause me to lose sympathy for those complaining. I don’t have any idea whether these are widespread attitudes or coming from just a few people, but they undermine the rumor mill because many people will not want to be associated with something that hosts personally directed negative commentary.

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22 Kelle February 19, 2011 at 5:11 pm

I started a thread on the AAS General Discussion Forum: Job Market, Overproduction, and Whatnot

Let’s see if we can use that for discussion instead of the Rumor Mill Comments. No, it’s not anonymous, but I think that might be for the best.

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