On civility & criticism in science

A good friend who points out mistakes and rebukes evil is to be respected as if he reveals the secret of some hidden treasure.’    — the Dalai Lama


Over the last month or so there has been a lot of discussion on Science Twitter about giving feedback to others about serious issues or flaws that are identified in the scientific studies of others. This includes things such as talks/posters at conferences, preprints of manuscripts, as well as published works. The feedback being discussed seemed to relate mostly to on-line discussions in forums & blogs, but could also include asking questions/participating in discussions at conferences. Reading some of this discussion has been really quite surprising to me: there seems to be a huge divide between ‘being nice‘ versus ‘being honest‘ – & that perhaps never the twain shall meet. So why should this be so? I want to try to unpack this tricky issue with some personal observations in the hope that this will stimulate people to discuss these issues further.

Perhaps it might be good to start by thinking about a particular situation where ‘being honest’ & ‘being nice’ is paramount to another scientist’s development. Think about the time(s) where you, as a graduate advisor, are providing counsel for a graduate student who has attempted to either write a first draft of a paper or a thesis chapter, or who has tried to do a dry run of doing a talk that they are preparing for a conference. Or if that is not meaningful, think about yourself in the shoes of a graduate trainee. What is the advisor’s main role/objective here? As I see it, it is to help the trainee improve whatever they are doing – whether it be in printed output or in an oral presentation. To that end, this feedback process requires the use of emotional intelligence, that would typically consider personal style & ability to respond to receiving feedback at the very least. Why not start by telling them what they did well? – there is always something positive one can find to say like that. Then turn the feedback around to the things that they did not do so well on. How to do this? One needs to strike a balance between honesty & compassion [a word that seems to evoke considerable derision in many people on social media]. How to be ‘nice’ & ‘honest’ at the same time? At the core of this tricky issue, in my opinion, should lie a genuine desire to communicate what needs to be improved/changed while respecting the emotional wellbeing of the person the feedback is being directed to. So often the latter seems to be forgotten even in our [well-meaning] communications with others… [In my lab, I have always tried to cultivate a culture of mutual respect, so that people can feel that others are in their corner as they give feedback to their labmates. What I really like is when I am trying to get a talk ready for a meeting/colloquium & I ‘dry run’ it in the lab & get feedback from my trainees. Not only is it helpful to me, but I think that it is empowering to students to be able to ‘return the favor’ & provide feedback to their advisor as well – it helps to consolidate a relationship of trust between them.

Let’s now turn to another common situation in science: where we give close & dear colleagues feedback about their work. Again, this might be a draft of a manuscript, grant or perhaps it is a dry run for a talk that they are preparing for. When I am in this situation, I would do exactly what I do with the trainee. Let them know what was good! We all need to hear this from time-to-time, because doing science involves a lot of negatives. Then tell your colleague what needs to be improved. In the same way that you discuss these issues with your trainee, you might give your colleague some alternative ways for changing some aspects of the material you have evaluated – by giving them choices & explaining the advantages of taking a particular approach you have provided them. In this way they can take your feedback & adjust to suit their personal style. Because you already have a trust relationship with your close colleague, they know that you are in their corner. Indeed, because you know them so well, your feedback will likely be respectful as you tell feedback to their face or via an email.

What about other situations in science where we do not personally know the person we are providing the feedback to? [e.g. asking questions at a conference presentation/poster, writing peer-reviews for a manuscript, making comments on someone’s blog or on social media.] In my opinion, there are two important distinctions here: the situation where there is a direct face-to-face interaction [e.g. at a conference] versus that where the feedback is remotely, & sometimes anonymously, provided.

Let’s consider the face-to-face situation first. One would imagine that in this case, people would know how to behave appropriately when interacting with peers at conferences. Yet, the fact that it is becoming an increasing practice to provide guidelines for a ‘code of conduct’ at scientific meetings that encompass civil behavior suggests otherwise. Guidelines can include tips for giving scientific criticism appropriately & also extend to how to interact with others in a manner where issues of racial prejudice & sexual harassment are avoided. The fact that these sorts of guidelines need to be constructed & circulated for conferences today is a clear enough indicator to me that there appears to be a very real lack of mindfulness about the impact on one’s behavior on others. Why should this be so? Why do people seem to forget about the emotional wellbeing of others, just because these people are not personally known to them? Doesn’t this fall under the rubric of ‘professional behavior’? What are we missing in today’s training programs for scientists?

Now what about the situation where feedback is given anonymously, such as in a scientific review process, or in an online commentary such as a blog? It seems to be that in these cases there is often the most acrimony. I would have thought that your own scientific credibility & gravitas depended on your ability to behave respectfully towards others, while discussing scientific work critically & carefully explaining the issues [without resorting to affect-laden language & personal attacks on the individual concerned]. The idea of ‘anonymous’ feedback is in many ways a bit of a misnomer methinks… Pretty soon, journal editors get to know who are the reasonable reviewers & who are the unreasonable ones. Same applies for grant review panel members. People know & it is more people than you would think… On blogs etc. it soon becomes very clear who the jerks are.

If we do not behave respectfully to others, how can we expect respect from others? At some deep level, it comes down to how we ourselves expect to be treated by others, I think. So it behooves us all to do some deep, dark & honest navel-gazing about what really motivates us, drives us forward when we practice our science. We also need to [regularly] look deeply into our motivation when giving feedback in particular situations i.e. being mindful of what effect our behavior has on others. [Indeed, ‘mindful’ is another word that seems to attract a lot of parody & derision]. If the feedback is given in a way to cause harm [e.g. make yourself feel/look good at the expense of another; is given without thought to the emotional wellbeing of the other] then I would question it’s motives & potential quality. Indeed, this would probably fit in the ‘not nice’ situation. Technically, I suppose you could still be ‘honest’. Yes, you have pointed out the flaws in their science, but you have also displayed your own deep personal flaws to the world – you have clearly shown that you cannot interact with others in a professional manner. People may even begin to question your motivation for doing so, which will not really do your credibility any good for the future…

Even if our intentions are good, do we get it right all the time? Certainly not. Consider the situation of cross-cultural interactions. Science, by its nature, is an international activity. Sometimes acceptable behavioral norms might vary across different cultures & genuine mistakes are made out of ignorance. As human beings we are fallible, more fallible than we are comfortable admitting. If this means eating crow & occasionally apologizing for one’s actions, then that is the honorable [& also professional] thing to do. [The honorable & professional thing would also be to educate oneself about what is appropriate when interacting with individuals from other cultures, so that you do not make these mistakes.] From what I can see, there also seems to be an association with ‘being weak’ & apologizing for something, for attempting to right a wrong. Actually, apologizing & admitting that you are wrong is far more difficult to do than denying your wrongdoing. I admire those who can admit their mistakes & right their wrongs: it takes inner strength [& I would argue professionalism] to do that. Inner strength comes about from having a healthy & well-adjusted sense of self. I would argue that as scientists this is all something we should be personally working on. Why? It will make our personal & professional interactions so much more meaningful & pleasant


We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.’                — the Dalai Lama

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: