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

Some thoughts on conferencing in our current times


This is a very different of post to my previous ones – although the focus is still on traveling for science. Today I want to talk about what priorities we should set for improving the lot of younger scientists in our field.

Having returned from the annual neuroscience nerdfest attended by about ~ 29K attendees this year in San Diego, I got to thinking about what makes an excellent conference & what I personally find desirable about a scientific meeting. I typically only regularly go to 2 annual scientific meetings/year [but will, of course, go to additional ones if I get invited to speak at them]. The annual meetings that I have regularly attended for ~25 years or so are: 1. Organization for Human Mapping [which was held in Singapore this last June] & that typically has ~3K attendees; 2. Society for Neuroscience [SfN] [which just occurred in San Diego] & that typically has ~30K attendees. This year in San Diego the number was smaller – perhaps a consequence of the non-attendance of many foreign neuroscientists who were not issued visas by the American Government. This was very problematic – there were many empty poster boards – because the presenters were preventing from attending the meeting. There is currently a grass-roots push to lobby SfN to create a vehicle for these people to show & discuss their work. The science community is also petitioning SfN to give a complete refund for conference registration etc. for those people [usually trainees] who could not travel to SfN because of these issues. Flights & hotel room booking left many of those out of pocket – despite the fact that they could not attend the meeting. Incredibly, despite the SfN President publicly talking about inclusion & international participation in the meeting the entire week while we were in San Diego, the SfN has stayed silent & completely inactive on this issue [at least until the time of writing this post]. Is this because SfN is so large that the implementation of initiatives is stifled because of a large administration, or is it because the organization is just parochial? Not sure which alternative is more likely at this stage, but I have my suspicions.

So what, in my opinion, makes for a great conference – a meeting that will keep people coming back for more?

First, the most important thing is to provide a welcoming atmosphere that stresses inclusivity & safety for all delegates [an environment that is free of old white male dinosaurs inflicting their will [& themselves in some cases] on everyone…].

Achieving an environment like that requires that the society/organization that runs the meeting do more than just pay lip-service to these issues. There needs to be visible evidence of concrete initiatives to attempt to level the playing field for all & to push diversity. There should also be a very public declaration of what constitutes acceptable behavior at the meeting & associated social activities. Many societies are doing this now – including SfN & OHBM. We are generally pretty fortunate in science – scientists of all persuasions typically do come together & discuss science in a collegial way. Let’s tear down any remaining barriers that a minority of senior white male scientists put in the way to stop this from occurring. If need be, we might need to drown out those voices & also call out unacceptable behavior when we see it – this means dealing immediately with observed instances of racial prejudice or sexual harassment, or of senior scientists just taking up air time from younger ones whose views deserve to be heard… I am fortunate to say that this has never happened to me at a conference, but that does not mean that I am not aware that this is a problem. I had a pleasure of attending the Neural Oscillations Social at SfN – a wonderful evening hosted by Jonas Obleser & Saskia Haegens. At the same time as our social there was also a social on Neuroethics & the scuttlebutt I heard about this one was that this latter problem [hogging air time] had surfaced. Ironic isn’t it? Neuroethics of all things! I wish I had been a fly on that wall to know exactly what happened there – the ‘feel good’ vibe at the Neural Oscillations social was too good to leave.

OHBM has been good in setting up initiatives, such as a committee for diversity, as well as having discussions on the Program Committee that make sure that we have diversity in our Keynote speakers and so on. I know that SfN also tries to do this. What I would like to see more of in both societies, particularly SfN, is the recognition of scientific excellence that transcends gender. That was very apparent to me in San Diego as SfN awards were given out – the idea that scientific excellence can exist only in ivy-league institutions from work by scientists who have impeccable scientific pedigrees is very dated, methinks… As someone who grew up in another part of the world where funding for science was not as abundant, I learned that scientific excellence [e.g. good ideas, painstaking methods] are not reserved for elite institutions of learning – even though people over the years have tried to tell me so. [Seriously, this is what I heard a lot while I was at Yale – thankfully not from my mentors or the folks who worked in our laboratory].

Second, if inclusivity exists at a scientific meeting, this automatically sets up an open & free environment to discuss important, controversial & unresolved scientific issues – this is what pushes the field forward & everyone benefits from that! This has become a highly visible & positive component of the OHBM meeting. Why is this so you might ask? Because it comes down to the attitudes of the leadership of the society – if the leadership values these goals, then the meeting will get that overall feel. What has been good about the leadership of OHBM over the years is that it has tried to change with the times. OHBM Council has had both older & younger scientists as members & the older scientists have known what to do to remain current with the times. Unfortunately, I cannot see that SfN has changed in that way. I have been a member of SfN for 25 years & it seems to me that the leadership i.e. elected officers etc. has not reflected the diversity we have in the regular SfN membership. SfN will be 50 years old next year. This is an incredible achievement & something that really needs to be celebrated. What better way to do that by turning over a new leaf in the annals of the SfN & embracing diversity in all it’s forms? This means championing it, not only from the podium, but from concrete initiatives that are clearly visible to the membership, as well as using its considerable lobbying power to influence public opinion & politicians about science & making the world a much better place than it is today. I see this happening at the OHBM meeting yearly & I always come back from this meeting with a real buzz… If we cannot make the world a better place for others in the present, as well as for the future, then why are we practicing science in the first place?

So as not to end on a negative note here: let me share with you my highlights of SfN. First, the session on the first day of the meeting, entitled Dialogues between Science & Society featured the very talented jazz musician & composer Pat Metheny. He was an absolute delight to listen to – he was able to clearly articulate about his very high goals that he sets himself for every performance, as well as giving the audience an idea of what goes through his mind as he improvises during a jazz solo & how he composes music.


Needless to say also, the special & keynote lectures were all excellent – with engaging & diverse speakers delivering accessible talks of a very high-standard to interested large audiences.

I did have a second highlight – a very personal one – almost embarrassed to admit it. But here goes anyway… as always I enjoy going around the commercial exhibits & looking for new equipment/software,& of course books. Nice to see our ‘MEG-EEG Primer‘ with Riitta Hari on sale at the Oxford University Press stand! So if you are new to MEG or EEG, check it out – it is targeted to you, & you might find it helpful… [see https://global.oup.com/academic/product/meg-eeg-primer-9780190497774?cc=us&lang=en& it is available on Amazon & Google Play]


OK. I admit it. That was a shameless promotion…

So at every scientific meeting you go to there is always an iconic image that remains with you after you have left the meeting. So what image will stay in mind from San Diego this SfN for me?