Nasty… and not in a nice way!

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There’s always been a competitive side to science, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a rotten apple in every departmental barrel. But what I have witnessed over the past 10 years or so across academic life is gradual deterioration in the tenor of scientific discourse, freying at the fabric of collegiate relationships, and a kind of power-posturing approach to intellectual debate. Many academic scientists, certainly in social media posts, now use the kind of language and approach that isn’t a million miles away from Trump. Life, within the scientific community generally, has gotten a little nastier.

You can be nasty in a way that isn’t not nice, and not just in the Janet Jackson sense of the term. One of first paper rejections I got as a PhD student felt pretty nasty. My supervisor went ballistic which involved rolling his eyes, groaning, and chaining Galoise for at least an hour. A reviewer had pretty much claimed we had no knowledge of the field and proceeded to question our intelligence. I took it on the chin. The review could have been a lot kinder, but at least they had gone to the trouble of writing something. Fundamentally, on reflection, I think the reviewer was attempting to inform us – it was a perhaps senior colleague (possibly affronted at our failure to include their work) giving a junior researcher a stern and rather patronising (anonymous) dressing down. After a day gnashing teeth I comprehensively digested the work I’d been told I’d ignored and reassured myself there was a lesson to be learned. It wasn’t a nice experience, but the nastiness served a certain purporse. The paper finally got published somewhere else (a higher impact journal, in fact) and I subsequently had an “interesting” night out in Seattle with the person I firmly believe was that reviewer. (Social psychologists say you can have a destiny or a growth approach to relationships: in all but a few, tragic cases, I opt for growth…)

There is an excellent, thoughtful and gentle piece of writing by Harvard geneticist Pardis Sebeti that recently appeared in the Boston Globe. Sebeti criticises the over-zealousness and sometimes downright bullying of the self-proclaimed Open Science brigade. He points to instances of bullying, partial evaluations of evidence and information, and what at times amounts to harrassment on social media. His article drew a big reaction, both from supporters and from others.

Some time ago I also wrote a pretty gentle (by my standards) piece on what I felt were problems with Registered Reports. My points were, in essense, that (1) compelling academics to use this particular format for manuscript and grant submission endangered diversity and opportunity for scholars from nontraditional backgrounds and in novel and emerging areas of research, and (2) that the prescription for an undoubted problem in psychological science was too severe, amounting to bathing the baby in acid before throwing out baby, bathwater and all.

The responses I received were like nothing I have seen before or since. No debate, no discussion, no intelligent engagement with the arguments. Just nasty. The issue of diversity was completely ignored. And when I say that the responses were like nothing I have received before, bear in mind that I have faced the full force of personal vitriol from contributors to the Daily Mail and Fox News website comments section. No reasonable person would disagree with a call for greater transparency in science, but Pardis Sebeti is right about the downside of revolutions. This isn’t scientific debate; we shouldn’t stand for it.

Stopping it begins on a local level – resisting a casual culture of bullying or calling out lies. It goes without saying that the culture in different institutions, and different departments, varies wildly. That shows us that a universal slide into nasty science isn’t inevitable. Two years ago I suddenly realised how great life at work can be when you are not having to contend with placating “me, me, me” colleagues and when there is a genuine focus on using science to solve real world problems rather than mitigating the egos of colleagues set on persuing narrow self-interest at any cost. That was an ontological as well as an institutional shift for me, and it may be that in bigger ponds there is more opportunity to find friendly fish. But I should also say, from my experience, many who hold themselves up as big fish tend to swim in smaller ponds for a reason.

The nastiness is likely the consequence of a few co-occuring elements. RAE and REF, league tables, TEF up the ante in terms of workload pressure. And they do so in a particular way, by driving a wedge between and attaching differing values to different academic roles: researcher, teacher, administrator. These pressures breed a culture of disrespect and allow the bullies and the narcissists to flourish. The subtle, careful, considered academic can find it hard to negotiate such a minefield. It is academia, science, and all of us who lose in the end. Because the real casualty is that what matters and, yes, the desire for knowledge and truth, trails out of focus and in it’s place are some people’s versions of the way things should be… and heaven forbid that you should argue against them!

 

There’s a new project brewing – working title: Rudie Can’t Fail – and that’s why my blogging has been and will be less frequent for a while… More on that soon.