Pseudonimity, scientific criticism and respect on the blogs…

There’s been a big brouhaha going on over a certain letter to the editor in NEMJ since last week.  It was all started with a post made by Isis which combined a short scientific critique with some snarky comments/pictures on a recent paper in NEJM.  It spread to Drugmonkey and A blog around the clock, the authors of the paper got involved…(not to mention several others including Scientistmother..Abel Pharmboy and more on Drugmonkey.) … and while I was at home this weekend channeling Julia Childs and playing with my kids- the controversy spiraled wildly out of control.

A couple of thoughts, these are general only- as I’m not going to post anything about the paper as it is totally out of my area.

1. I love that serious scientific critique is occurring on the blogs and think this is a totally appropriate venue. I especially enjoyed the exchanges between Bora and the paper authors (posted on a blog around the clock- read the comments)- are thorough and well-reasoned. It especially struck me that the authors of the original paper and Bora seem to have somewhat overlapping backgrounds- and these people can learn from each other. … and they were brought together by a blog post. Talking to people all the time who do just exactly what you do is kinda boring- its totally awesome to find people with overlapping expertise and a somewhat different perspective..and if blogs can help you do that I say more power to them.

2.  I was disturbed by the tone of the original post, and in defense of the authors of said letter- I can see why they were bothered by the tone of the original post and were defensive in their response. It’s freaking easy to flame someone using text- we ALL know this from using (and abusing) email.  On a blog you do this anonymously and export this to a huge audience.  If you are going to flame someone on your blog- mixed up with real scientific critique- you must ask yourself are the flames really necessary to make your point??? Any well reasoned scientific argument should stand on its own merit- and shouldn’t require gimmicks like comparing the authors’ pondering their data to teddy bears on the john, etc..  And trying to be entertaining at someone else’s expense is just unkind.

And goodness- heaven forbid your institution asks one of the flamed for a letter for your tenure package… but shit happens (no pun intended). I know, I know- you are writing under a pseudonym- but anyone who invests a few minutes worth of effort can figure out who I am- and if they can figure me out- surely they can find you too.

3. Why why why, must we call each other names? CPP- I’m just tired of this ‘Dude, you’re a humorless whiny-ass titty-baby’- Calling people names doesn’t make one more credible. Various people had their say- the author’s made their point and complained about the tone of the post- the discussion has actually evolved into something useful at Bora’s place.  If you want to add something to the discussion, then add something to the discussion- otherwise keep the pointless back row chatter to a minimum.

This is the point at which DrMrA would point out that I should step out of the role of the ‘moral authority’. To which I say- its Monday, I’m cranky, and finally it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to.

4.  Cultural sensitivity is totally lacking. I’ve seen the author’s of said letter derided in various places for lacking a sense of humor or taking themselves to seriously in their offense at the original post- not exactly in those words- but nevertheless. People- the internet is an international place- not bound by your exclusive cultural sensitivities. What may not be offensive to me with my ‘american’ system of values and the mindset in which I was raised- might be totally offensive to someone from another ethnic background. Let’s try to keep that in mind.

I’m sure there is a #5… but I tire of being the moral authority… and I have actual work to do today as well…

39 thoughts on “Pseudonimity, scientific criticism and respect on the blogs…

  1. I really like this post. I think the authors of the paper is in a no-win situation here; they comment, and they will get ridiculed.
    Point 3 and 4 go hand in hand, IMO, since isn’t it a North American sense of humour whereby you slag someone off (oh there’s my English slang there) to make a vaguely funny point? Having said that, for us who are more familiar with CPP’s (online) persona, him calling names is funny, and I certainly don’t take it seriously. It ceased to be funny when the actual authors of the paper became involved.

    Being non-American, I feel “point 4” quite often around the interwebs. I’m glad that you brought it up.

  2. Lou-

    Thank you for your excellent comment- the authors are indeed in a no-win … or maybe that’s not the right verbiage since this isn’t a zero-sum game… situation. They are on the one hand praised for participating, and on the other hand slapped for stating their opinions/making their case/complaining about tone… WTF??

    Second- I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m a hater of physioprof- I actually like him very much and we see many things from the same perspective. I just found the particular comment tiresome and repeated one too many times.

    Third- on the we don’t all find the same things funny point #4- maybe I just have more of a sensitivity to this because I’m married to a foreigner, one of my parents is a foreigner, and I work around foreigners all day…

  3. Thank you – I think this is a net positive for everyone and an important discussion to have. I posted several responses on my own post before I saw yours.

  4. Although I was not offended by the original tone of the post, after reading many of the comments, especially the ones from the authors I have to agree with them. More because I think Isis is trying to have it both ways, as I will post about in the near future.

  5. +1 to point 3.
    Actually, I’m totally cool with names. Provided they run along the lines of calling Dr. Isis a painted maypole, or CPP a Republican Whore. You have to be referencing something clever to pull out the insults. “whiny-ass titty-baby” just doesn’t do it for me.

  6. Hey,

    it was about time that someone dares to be the moral authority. Thank you. I actually really enjoy reading the biological-science-females blogosphere, and, you are so right, lately it got a bit out of hand and the tone got a bit too harsh, and that’s a pity. I agree with you: making fun of others should be done under a pseudonym, especially under a pseudonym for the person one wants to bitch about.
    And I love your argument 4, which is something people often forget. Thanks.

  7. Agreed, this is a very good post on this topic.

    I disagree that the authors are in a no-win situation though. They could have kept responding to Isis’s post, responded in kind to Isis, kept it centered on the data (and still be humorous), and made their point relentlessly.

    For example, they could easily have snarked at Isis that she should take an epidemiology class, BUT THEN they need to really explain why that would matter, and what she was missing. That follow up is crucial.

    They did part of that, but then IMO whined that they even had to do it in the first place, and made the case that commenting on Isis’s blog wasn’t as valid as writing a letter to NEJM, and whining about not knowing how to pitch their response, due to Isis’s pseudonymity. Those facts make me disinclined to believe the authors’ protestations that they actually like blogs.

  8. Bora-

    I see that you had quite extensive comments on your post. I agree that the old way of scientific writing will change with the rise of other types of discussion format. This is a good thing, for sure. But- I’m advocating that a civilized (treat people as you would want to be treated) tone remain, and that people who participate or initiate such discussion should think carefully about the impact their words may have on others with different sensitivities- and choose their words carefully. Maybe this is too PC for the blogosphere, maybe I’m just hopelessly old fashioned?? I suppose my point is that one can make a serious scientific point without a lot of grandstanding.

    Furthermore, the author’s made a point about not knowing Isis qualifications- and you responded by saying that in the peer-reviewed universe we don’t really know an author’s qualifications either and we have to make an effort to go out, look up their papers, and assess their expertise, right (I hope I got the gist of your comment)? Hard to do this with a pseudonymous blogger like Isis- a. because she blogs under a pseudonym so we can’t look up her papers (and I have no issues with people blogging this way- hell, I do it myself)! and b. because the post in question was one of a small number posts about serious science that have appeared on her site- buried in a very large number of posts about other non-science issues. I’m just playin’ devil’s advocate at this moment- because I enjoy a good discussion.

    Scientistmother- I wasn’t offended either- but it did bother me to the point where I thought about it a lot, was not the slightest bit surprised that the author’s reacted as they did, and that there is a bit of controversy. Furthermore, I don’t think that one can have it both ways in many many senses.

    Becca- Fair enough. The more clever the insult- the better- but this has to be done among friends(at least of the blog variety)… hard to make this work with complete strangers…

  9. Delurking to say yes!!! to point 4.

    I am myself from central Europe and have worked in Sweden, as I would guess is the case with the first author of the criticised paper (apologies if that is not so). We therefore probably share the cultural background and I can attest that his reaction to the teddy bear was completely understanable from my cultural point of view.

  10. FIA- I used to be the moral authority regularly- but I’ve given that up for an easier job. Sometimes I slip back into the old pattern…

    Nat- I suppose- but not everyone is as good with the quick comeback, or as savvy with the blogs as you or I might be… Also- maybe I’m just worn out from my 6 year old snarking at my 10 year old- but why on earth does anyone have to snark at anyone… ?! If I offend someone- and then they let me know they were offended, my feverent hope is that I would respond with- I’m sorry I offended you- it was only my intention to discuss your data/interpretation and not to hurt you personally. I apologize. – and I should honestly mean it, without qualifiers.

    Drugmonkey- No problem. I want to note that along with the excellent content of your blog- I appreciate the tone you maintain in your posts, your respect for authors you may or may not agree with, and your careful response to the comments on your blog.

    Dr. U- I’m pleased that I could highlight an issue for my non-US readership!

  11. We therefore probably share the cultural background and I can attest that his reaction to the teddy bear was completely understanable from my cultural point of view.

    Analogizing someone to a cute widdle teddy bear making a poopie is a MORTAL INSULT in Sweden?

  12. Well, the authors seemed good to go with their comebacks at Isis. Their problem wasn’t lack of witty repartee.

    I have to disagree about aversion to giving offense. It’s too easy as a way to try and stifle debate and expression. “OMG, they likened me to a teddybear on the john! DON’T LET MY KIDS SEE THIS!” For heaven’s sake. Besides, I like my science with a big fat helping of passion. Especially on the internet, which is like a 24-7 beer hour, where people let down their carefully guarded facades.

  13. Nat-

    I don’t have any issue with healthy discussion- and I don’t think one should censor one’s every word to avoid offending someone. But when someone TELLS you they are offended- the adult thing to do is to let them know that you are sorry and that this wasn’t intended to be personal and wasn’t an intentional slight on your part.

    But come on- in the very first post their interpretation was called ‘crappy’ ‘somewhat silly’ and they themselves were called ‘jokesters’. So- there was more than just the teddy bear on the john.

  14. Ok, I don’t mean to be advocating a complete and utter disregard for other people’s feelings. Perhaps I put it too strongly. And there’s always a line to be cognizant of, between getting all fired up and getting too personal. Also, it can’t be allowed to stray into any intimidating type of feeling.

    And I definitely agree that in this specific case, the authors had plenty of reason to be upset about the way Isis phrased things. But the authors responded in kind. Thus losing any claim to victim status in my mind.

  15. Agree, except for one point above – I meant that reading through one’s papers is not enough to make a final decision on someone – we get the information on someone’s reputation from the community (especially if we are new to it), from other people who have known (and perhaps tested) that person’s work longer. That is why I suggested other methods for evaluating someone’s reputation.

  16. CPP- you don’t think taboos that determine what constitutes “polite converstion” (and whether defecation is included) are culturally determined?
    Face it. You don’t care if your conversation is polite. If it weren’t for a sense of self preservation, you probably wouldn’t care if you offered mortal insult. That’s part of the CPP ‘charm’.
    But from everything I can read about Swedish culture/etiquette, both you and Dr. Isis are likely come across as loutish in the extreme (even more so than you would to a typical USian perspective).

  17. But from everything I can read about Swedish culture/etiquette, both you and Dr. Isis are likely come across as loutish in the extreme

    as one very limited set of experiences, the two scientists I know reasonably well that had a good bulk of their training and independent PI experiences in Sweden are unbelievably conceited/self-promoting. ( One in a lovable teddybear (not on the toilet) way and one in a completely mindbogglingly eye-bleeding ‘sclown way…)

  18. I know nothing about the Swedish- but I do have a parent from Northern Europe (that kinda cold, by the rules, and not much is funny- its all oh so serious kind of place) and a spouse from Southern Europe (adorable, hot tempered, endlessly teasing people and with a lighter side)… and I can tell you that their senses of humor are completely and utterly different. Both wonderful, just different.

  19. I’ve worked with some awesome Swedish scientists in the past – no discernible lack of humour at all.

    Although one of them did end up joining a cult, so maybe my experiences are not typical.

  20. Excellent.
    I posted a comment very similar in substance to this post over at the “Blog around the Clock”, and then saw this post.
    Again, my compliments

  21. “But from everything I can read about Swedish culture/etiquette, both you and Dr. Isis are likely come across as loutish in the extreme”

    Again, from years of living in Sweden – yes, I totally agree with this comment of Becca’s.

    And, there’s another interesting development in the discussion over at Bora’s blog. There someone mentioned that in the US the phrase “take a course in X” is how male professors insult female scientists and so a whole lot of people got offended about this supposed “gender discrimination” by the authors. Well, let me tell you, I never heard of the meaning of this phrase before I read about it in the discussion on Bora’s blog, and if you read the comments there, neither did the Swedish/Hungarian authors. And I bet that most other non-US readers of your/Isis’s/Bora’s blog had no idea about this either and were wondering why everyone threw such a fuss about gender discrimination.

    I am not in any bio-related field, so I can’t speculate on the content of the actual science comments in any of these recent discusisons, but all these posts clearly demonstrated mutual cultural differences and I think that’s quite fascinating.

  22. I just read all those threads. Just wanted to say I could have written this post – it sums up my reactions to it all perfectly…

  23. Sorry I didn’t shut up… It just really baffles me how many people don’t get why the authors are offended. Maybe it’s because I am foreigner? Although I’ve never even been to Sweden, lived in the US so long, married to American etc…

    They just published a paper – as scientists you know that’s blood sweat and tears, and now if you google them the TOP link calling them jokesters and that damn teddy bear crapping (= their data interpretation). I mean come on! If that’s being a whiny-ass titty or whatever Physioprof is calling them then I am one too…

    Thank you again for this post. It’s all well to discuss even attack science online (blogs or not). I am not saying everyone has to be “nice” either. But I think people should think twice before they post something on the internet that may offend someone (real, named, google-able). Is it really worth it just to be funny? There are plenty funny things to post and plenty of science to discuss without personal attack on other scientists.

  24. Oak, Dr. U., and Ace- Thanks for stopping by to comment. I think we all agree- for myself I prefer to carefully choose how to lay out my scientific criticism so as not to carelessly hurt someone. Cultural and language issues are real, and if you are not aware of them these can get you into trouble.

    For the record, I do think you have to have a thick skin to do this job- for sure, its a game of continuous negative reinforcement- and not always in nice words we want to hear either…

  25. drdrA,
    This was an excellent post-no morality: just clear, concise, quiet and to the point. You should not thank me, I should thank you. I have been a fan for some months now, essentially because I have the same family balancing issues you and others have, and it was only after twenty (!) years of non-permanent positions that I have found, finally, a space and time for solace. I can tell you my family breathed a sigh of relief (I am still exhaling after one year or so). I also find the cultural divide that appears symptomatic of responses to science blog posts fascinating, particularly so in those that deal with career female scientists. Because, lets face it, it is a really big workload, and an admirable one at that, specially at this level. Ergo, it is not something to be superficially rubbed off by childish comments. Not one of us merits that, and those that manage to produce an educational narrative in a blog even less. George Orwell (“Why I write”, Penguin, last chapter) wrote that we have all to force ourselves to write from our own thinking, and from our meaning. Not from phrases that we pick up either in conversation, partisanship, or other previously written phrases that do not convey our own analysis. The latter attitude weakens our mind and our resolve, thus transforming us into brutes. You have just wrote this in other words. I will continue to lurk around, if you do not mind.

  26. Oak-

    You have paid me a high compliment- and I thank you. Balancing work and family is difficult- I struggle with this every day. I’m pleased that you have finally found a position that suits you!. I hope that by writing about this balancing act others like me will realize that they are not alone- that we all have very similar struggles with this. This is genderless in some respects…- I think- I know my husband feels this as well.

    I love to write- and I appreciate very much that readers of my blog like you realize that I write in my own voice. It will never be flashy, but I hope that by honestly laying my experiences and thoughts out there- that I can participate in a discussion- perhaps generate a little discussion as well- and help others feel a little less isolated…

    I do not mind at all if you lurk…and participate as you like!

  27. As a Swede, us elusive people who may or may not have humour and etiquette…., I would say that I would have been as annoyed as the authors if my paper got that treatment. And I normally am considered to have humour. And a sense of distance to my science.

    Why? Because Swedish humor is mostly about making fun of yourself. And if you make fun of someone else, which happens, you end the joke with something that points to that you re infact as the people you made fun of… ergo, you made fun of yourself. That is not really the main case of American humor. THe Swedes resemble the British dry humor.

    When it comes to the “bragging” and “self confidence” the Swedes are more complex. We/they don’t accept bragging about one self but rather than someone else says that you are good. Although if someone slams down us we get offended.

    Scientist are maybe a bit different but the idea of recieving criticism of your Research like a Teddy bear crapping…. well… it’s just too many insults at once. Liking someone to a [plush] Teddy bear (first though, I am a childs [toy] and not having a brain), secondly saying that my paper with the results that I have through up and written and now finally gotten published are like crap?

    And the interesting criticsm that imho seems valid to a point gets lost in that since the discussion/argument moves more into ad hominem than actual arguments. And on top of that, the person posting this is a pseudonym whereas everyone knows “my” name and I don’t even know if you are a real actual person… It is a tough pill to swallow.

    I guess I could also add on that one of the toughest insults in Swedish would be to refer to someone as being “brainless” or “an idiot” and likes like that (devils spawn and some other cursewords like that too)… not like the English “Fuckers” etc… or “your mom” like in some other cultures. I assume it seems strange but there you have it.

    Maybe this spread a bit of light on the Swedish humour?!?

  28. Chall- I think it is just a good idea to remember that different cultures don’t all have the same kind of ha ha funny jokes.

    Dr. J.- I’m glad you agree,… and thanks for the comment!

  29. DrdrA> I agree. It’s just sometimes people tend to forget that there are large differences between countries and cultures that “look similar” by first glance.

  30. WTF people?? We have a historic election (and as for point 4, I think the rest of the world found it even more historic than we did…) and I finally return to the blogosphere only to discover that we are all talking about toilet-trained teddy bears and sparkle shoes, pro or con.

    anyhow, nice post. I think the tricky bit is critiquing papers with any hope of maintaining a pseud. Forget the whole “arguing from authority” stuff–science papers these days are complex enough that you actually do have to have intimate knowledge of a field to critique it properly. I’m pretty steamed about a paper or two that came out recently, but if I were to dissect them publicly, you’d all (a) fall asleep, and (b) wake up in time to narrow my identity down to about 3 people. [Not that I think I’m in a magic impenetrable pseud bubble! But still.]

  31. Somehow in all the quadrillion threads on this topic, I managed to miss this post. Thank you for eloquently summing up what so many of have been thinking.

  32. Pingback: Letter to the Editor as a mechanism of post-publication scientific discussion | DrugMonkey

  33. Pingback: Repost: Letter to the Editor as a mechanism of post-publication scientific discussion | DrugMonkey

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