A

“culture of shaming” is now permeating psychology, and science in general, according to a former president of the Association for Psychological Science.

In an essay in the society’s house organ, the Observer, Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske claims that the “new media” “can encourage a certain amount of uncurated, unfiltered denigration. In the most extreme examples, individuals are finding their research programs, their careers, and their personal integrity under attack.”

And in an echo of the misguided term “research parasites,” which appeared in an editorial by the New England Journal of Medicine, Fiske also goes after “self-appointed data police” who lob “critiques of such personal ferocity and relentless frequency that they resemble a denial-of-service attack that crashes a website by sheer volume of traffic.”

advertisement

When it comes to Twitter, it’s a subject that has gotten wide play in recent months. The platform lends itself to anonymous trolling and lacks a solid system for reporting abuse — something many users, not just scientists, would like to see remedied.

But what Fiske is talking about is actually much more sweeping. She writes that “constructive critics have a role” in policing the integrity of science. (Ironically, Fiske felt compelled to reshape her essay after a draft leaked, in which she wrote that some scientific critics engaged in “methodological terrorism,” led to an “online firestorm” of complaints from readers. That’s rich.) But then she adds an astonishing caveat: that such critiques be subject to “editorial oversight and peer review for tone, substance, and legitimacy.”

In other words, it’s OK to criticize scientists, but only if the scientific establishment has a chance to approve the criticism first. That’s a bit like asking students to grade their own papers or letting restaurant owners edit reviews of their food before they run in the newspaper.

Do critics occasionally go overboard? Of course they do. We’re not unsympathetic to the idea that bullying and nasty personal attacks can derail conversations, create unneeded distractions, and even lead to collateral damage. Some of the people we’ve written about on Retraction Watch have tried to discredit us using the same tactics Fiske describes, including blast emails to funders and employers full of fact-free innuendo and wild speculation. (That sort of thing only reinforces the idea that we’re onto something, so feel free to continue, if you’re reading this.)

But let’s remember why we’re seeing this recent surge in concern about the integrity of research: The scientific establishment writ large has demonstrated little interest in making fixes to the literature. Don’t believe us? Ask David Allison, a professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, whose effort, along with colleagues, to get journals to correct blatant errors they discovered in published studies was met with almost uniform refusal — or worse, silent treatment. Or ask us to see the countless emails we’re forwarded to journal editors — some by very prominent researchers — who’ve hit a brick wall when they’ve tried to have flawed studies corrected.

In short, Fiske’s argument for more polite and moderated critiques, while reasonable on the surface, misses the bigger picture. Unethical behavior and irreproducible results, while not necessarily rampant, are undeniable problems for science in general and psychology in particular. For an example of unethical behavior, see Diederik Stapel. For an example of an attempt to bolster reproducibility, see the work of Brian Nosek and his colleagues.

What’s more, Fiske also conveniently ignores the fact that many critics choose anonymity not because they want to throw Molotov cocktails but because they are afraid of retribution from their colleagues and superiors.

But sites like PubPeer, which provide a platform for anonymous concerns, are immeasurably useful, with surprisingly little collateral harm, despite evidence-free claims by some to the contrary. Thanks to moderation, PubPeer commenters sling little, if any, mud, yet their posts have led to many retractions of problematic papers.

“Fiske’s suggestion of reviewing all discussion has been tried and it failed utterly,” Brandon Stell, one of PubPeer’s founders, told STAT. “PubPeer was created specifically to bypass the suffocating and restricted channels of ‘correspondence to the editors’ and journal commenting. The tens of thousands of useful comments that users have posted on PubPeer were previously suppressed by that system, yet facilitated by an open framework encouraging factual discussion. We’re not going back.”

The bottom line here is that correcting the scientific literature is critically important — but well-nigh impossible using conventional methods. We’d be far more sympathetic to the arguments of the tone police if Fiske and others offered real solutions to these issues instead of verbal equivalent of aloe vera. Having all criticism go through peer review might make the hurt feelings go away — but it could well kill the patient in the process.

“The lesson for the future is therefore simple,” Stell said. “If you don’t wish your work to be discussed, don’t publish it.”

Sign up for Morning Rounds

A daily dose of health and medicine news — and a finalist for Digiday’s best email newsletter.

Recommended Stories