Bully for You

What’s behind paper retractions? (23)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 03/2014

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

A small number of scientists are claiming that critiques of their work have crossed the line into harassment. Do they have a point?

Does science publishing have enough room for hurt feelings? The behaviour of a growing number of researchers suggests not.

Lately, we’ve seen an increasing volume of complaints of “bullying” – cyber or otherwise – from scientists who believe critics of their work are going too far in their, well, criticisms.

Consider: In early April, a pair of RNA chemists at the University of Colorado, Boulder, launched a website called “Stand Up 2 Science Bullies”. The site, write the proprietors, is “a forum for scientists to share their experience and provide advice pertaining to scientific bullying”. It also seems, however, to be a way for the researchers to protest what they claim is an unfounded vendetta by a former colleague to discredit their work on how RNA controls crystal growth.

In a similar case, a group of chemists in Italy led by Francesco Stellacci has decried the post-publication scrutiny of their work as “cyber-bullying”. Speaking to Science, Stellacci, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, said, “I have been the subject of chemical cyber-bullying. I understand what kids that commit suicide go through.”

Even Retraction Watch has been accused of such behaviour. The subject of some of our posts, a young neuroscience researcher in the States with a fondness for misappropriating the words of others, accused us of carrying out a campaign to destroy his budding career, by writing factually about his retracted papers and by allowing others to comment about his misbehaviour.

No place for boorishness

So, do these scientists here have a point? To be sure, we’re all in for fairness and straight-dealing. On our own site, we carefully police our many commenters to make sure their statements are neither libelous nor inflammatory. There’s no place in journalism for name-calling and boorishness. Okay, so that’s a bit naïve. But it’s also naïve for scientists to think that the simple act of publishing their work in a peer-reviewed journal makes it bulletproof. As we’ve argued on more than one occasion, publication is where the real debate about the merits of a study begin, not end. As the blogger Neuroskeptic has written about the Stellacci case, “I do not think anyone can deny that once someone has published their ideas, it is legitimate for their critics to publicly respond. This is what publication means – throwing an idea out into the public arena. Publication (as opposed to authoritarian proclamation) is the granting of permission to reply publicly.”

No more Q&A sessions

We agree with Neuroskeptic that critiques, no matter how strong, should stay clearly on the side of the professional and steer well clear of the personal. Go ahead, critique the work. But to paraphrase the age-old parenting advice: criticise the work, not the person.

Philip Moriarty, one of Stellacci’s critics, wrote, “To describe criticism of publicly-funded research results published in the public domain as cyber-bullying is an insult to those who have had to endure true cyber-bullying. If public criticism of publicly-funded science is going to be labelled as cyber-bullying, then where do we draw the line? Should we get rid of Q&A sessions at scientific conferences? Should we have a moratorium on press releases and press conferences in case the work is challenged? Should scientists forgo social media entirely?”

We, of course, think not.

The authors run the blog Retraction Watch: http://retractionwatch.com

Last Changed: 08.05.2014