Reviewer Integrity and Conflicts of Interest

This is the second part of my post on the ethics of fountain pen reviewers, and will focus on conflicts of interest. If you haven’t already read the first part, I would encourage you to start there. Today’s post is going to start by explaining what we mean by a conflict of interest, how it applies to pen reviews, and some of the problems that it raises, before considering how a reviewer might respond to a conflict.

As I’ve covered in more detail before, the role of a reviewer is to help buyers properly estimate the value of a pen before they commit to buying it. For the online FP community, this is a vital service as many of us purchase products that we have not seen or handled for ourselves. Getting accurate information helps us to make the right choices, and reviewers perform an important role in guiding us towards those decisions. As these products can sometimes be worth hundreds of dollars, reviewers also have a responsibility to their audience that they provide information that is genuinely honest and impartial. The previous post discussed how sponsorship can sometimes challenge that impartiality, and the necessity for reviewers to be up-front about their funding sources and whether the sponsor or the audience is the key stakeholder.

One aspect of the FP community that many of us love is the creativity of our peers: not just in their writing or art but in the products they make, and make available for the rest of us. Two good examples of this would be Brad Dowdy (Nock Co) and Mike Dudek (Dudek Modern Goods) who have managed to build businesses around their passion and provide a useful service to the community. This kind of thing is wonderful to see but it also has the potential to create a conflict.

The duty of a reviewer is to be honest and impartial and where there is no relationship between the reviewer and the manufacturer, we can reasonably expect reviews to be impartial. A conflict emerges where a relationship exists and has the potential to influence the reviewer. This is especially true when the reviewer is a friend of the manufacturer: does the reviewer post an honest review, even if it may hurt product sales and the friendship? Or does the reviewer focus on the positives and downplay or omit the things that they don’t personally like about the product? The reviewer has to make a choice about whose interests to serve, and this is the conflict.

An example of this (which I’ve previously raised on reddit) is Ed Jelley’s review of the Karas Kustoms Ink. He discloses a relationship with the manufacturer and touches on the fact he was involved with the design before moving on to the review itself, which quotes from the press release, compares the pen to a titanium Nakaya, before urging readers to buy. There is nothing critical or negative in the review at all.

Now, I’m not saying that there was any dishonesty here or any bias – it may well have been the author’s genuine opinion. But as far as an audience is concerned, this is not an impartial review that will help anyone make a decision about whether the pen is right for them or not. This review, in my opinion, crosses a line into outright advertising and damaged my perception of the author’s credibility. I can’t think of any impartial reviewer who would quote directly from a company’s press release.

Another potential conflict arises where two reviewers are both product manufacturers who may be reviewing each other’s product: should the first reviewer be honest about his opinions or downplay any dislikes and hope for a similarly positive review in return? This breaks down to a question about which stakeholder is more important: the audience, who expect and deserve an honest and impartial opinion, or the other reviewer, who desires a positive review and may provide one in return?

Conflicts like these are unavoidable and it’s not realistic to say that a reviewer should always serve the interests of their audience: in the Ink example above, it’s certainly possible the reviewer was being entirely honest and genuine. But the appearance of impartiality – the audience’s impression of a reviewer’s integrity – was lost. There’s no way to protect that, not through disclosure or warning or anything a reviewer can say. And once the reviewer loses their audience’s respect, it is virtually impossible to regain it.

The only solution, then, is not to play the game. Whenever a potential conflict exists, a reviewer should choose not to review the product. It’s still possible for a reviewer to support their friends, by linking to their products and engaging in actual promotions; but to maintain their integrity, it should not be (or appear to be) a review in any sense. Ultimately, a reviewer's opinion changes the way people spend their money, either driving it towards a particular product or away from one. That's a huge responsibility, and one that a reviewer needs to take seriously. 


NB: I should say that Ed Jelley is far from the only reviewer who has done something like this; many of the KK Ink reviews by friends of the manufacturers were similar in style, and there are many other products which have been reviewed in a less-than-impartial manner. I chose this for the example purely as it had been the subject of a previous discussion. Big fan of his photography.