Jingmai O’Connor, a 32-year old professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been recently harshly criticised for her opinions on scientific blogging, which were published as a Q&A for Current Biology. Such interviews are generally reserved for outstanding and successful scientists, who are seen as role models and influencers.
O’Connor’s last reply, to a question of academic commenting via blogs and social media, produced a Twitterstorm of indignation. Many on Twitter were debating: did O’Connor really accuse all blogging scientists of being incapable of proper academic publishing? Did she really mean to say, as Lenny Teytelman summarized it, “Good scientists publish. shitty ones blog”? Is doing both mutually exclusive?
A lot of scientists on Twitter declared that they were perfectly capable of both blogging and publishing a lot of papers.
Or was O’Connor’s criticism directed against the so called post-publication peer review (PPPR), which often happens through scientists’ personal blogs as well on social media sites like PubMed Commons and PubPeer? Basically, did she actually say and mean, what Current Biology now quotes her with?
I have contacted O’Connor with a request for a quick email interview. It looks like though she does not think much of blogging scientists, her main issue is indeed with PPPR and criticism of published papers, especially when done by those outside of academia. O’Connor does indeed have some strong opinions there.
These are my questions and O’Connor’s unedited replies. I think they largely speak for themselves, and I wonder how common her views are among the academic elite.
Jingmai Kathleen O’Connor, Ph.d. http://earth.usc.edu/~jingmai/me2010.html
- Who were you interviewed by for Current Biology? What kind of feedback did your receive for your last reply during the interview? Were there any further discussions on this topic?
It was a self-interview; a list of questions was provided and I chose which ones I wanted to respond to (including the social media question). A few questions were posed to me specifically by the Editor of Current Biology (Florian Maderspacher) regarding my youth and living abroad. I chose the social media question because this is an issue I feel strongly about – the internet is a great tool, certainly makes research so much easier! But just like all good things, it is abused and there is a downside to our digital age. I really feel people are becoming increasingly dehumanized by the fact that there are no repercussions for an individual’s actions on the internet. And for all these bloggers who have claimed that there are no negative effects on culture, well that’s just clearly incorrect.
- What was your criticism directed against? Blogging as such or blogging as critical post-publication peer review (PPPR) of published papers? Did you have any specific cases in mind with your criticism?
I am not against blogs entirely although I do kind of look down on scientists who spend a lot of time writing blogs and don’t understand who has the time to read them… (this whole twitterstorm was brought to my attention this morning and I wasted half a day with this nonsense!) I met Carl Zimmer [science journalist with New York Times and author of popular science books, -LS], the author of the Loom, in Beijing and I admire his work. If you are a scientist blogging for fun, well I think if you’re like, “hey, look at my new paper”, and you explain it in lay-man terms and maybe even add some thoughts you (hopefully admit) couldn’t get into the published manuscript, that’s great. So yes, my problem lies primarily in the PPPR. First off, most of the comments are not from peers (although they’d like to think they are in some cases). Second, if you have valid criticisms, publish them. I don’t see why that’s such a big deal. Aren’t we all forced into this stupid world of publication rates and H-indices and what not? Is it that people are lazy and don’t want to go through the work of [getting a degree and] publishing a paper?
As a scientist, I feel the most important trait is the ability to admit when you are wrong. And reading some of the responses I realized that yes, my opinion is indeed shaped by bad experiences with obnoxious bloggers who often tear apart my work and do their own “correct” illustrations of the specimen (without of course having seen the specimen). Or *shudder* sloppy blogs. So, no need to point fingers, but yes there is one blogger in particular who annoys me but that’s only because he was my first run-in with backseat driving science bloggers (back when I was a PhD student). After that I really stopped caring or paying attention, helped by the fact I’m insanely busy. So I know there are others I just don’t spend any time making myself acquainted with it. But recently in order to justify my opinion towards blogs I read a blog by this author on the validity of a new taxon I published (or lack thereof in this person’s opinion) and none of the comments were useful to me, like say something I would consider in the future or actual mistakes I made. This person is just flat-out wrong, uneducated, and obviously needs to get a life. Get a PhD and come at me bro!
- What are your views on PPPR of published, peer-reviewed papers, done in blogs or comments on PubMed Commons or PubPeer? Is it appropriate to publicly criticise peer reviewed papers of others? Do you think there should be a place for PPPR at all?
If you put your research out there, of course you might get comments back. Hopefully constructive ones. And if you take the time to read them, maybe you’ll realize you didn’t think of something and correct your own research. It’s sometimes why we present our research before publishing it, to get ideas and criticisms from your peers, which can help you better formulate the ideas or conclusions you will ultimately publish. But honestly, who has the time to read comments on your blog? Research areas are fairly tight knit and if it were me I would contact the author directly via email with my suggestion or publish a paper of my own. What I oppose, are people who are not scientists sitting around in front of their computers acting like they are. Be an amateur scientist, great healthy hobby! But do not disrespect the hard work most scientists put in to become the careful, knowledgeable researchers they are.
4. What should junior or less influential scientists do if they have scientific concerns about a published paper, but are being dismissed by the authors or the relevant journal? The obviously cannot publish their criticisms then.
I’ve had this happen to me a lot. It’s just a flaw of the system. Nothing is perfect, I know we all know this but I cannot hammer it in enough! We hope people can be nonpartial but we’re human and some people have bigger egos than others and or are less aware of their ego and how it affects their attitude towards the work of others. There are checks in place, such as requesting preferred non-reviewers aka people you know will bash your paper (but for high impact journals this is like a heads up to send the paper to that person). The fact is a good editor should be able to tell when a reviewer is being partial, running their own agenda, etc. But the fact also is that many editors are working scientists (I edit manuscripts for Scientific Reports) and we’re all busy and mistakes happen (I’ve had some papers – in my mind – unfairly rejected for this reason even very recently).
5. Should a scientists reach a certain maturity (like, PhD degree or tenure) before becoming a peer and entitled to criticise publications of established scientists by private communications?
Absolutely not. A teacher always encourages their students to question them from the beginning – a good scientist has to think for themselves not just memorize facts and imitate. And a bright mind at any level is a bright mind. In fact, because there are not enough available reviewers for all the manuscripts submitted, graduate students commonly are asked to review papers (as peers).
6. Do you see any situation where such peer criticisms should be ever posted in public (because they could not be published in a journal, for whatever reason)?
I think you are welcome to do this if you want, complain online about your paper being rejected unfairly. Or in rare cases, yes you may be being stonewalled – a flaw of the system, a direct result of the fact it is comprised of human beings. But I think if something is really valid and important that it should be capable of being published in a peer review journal. No one can stonewall every journal. Might it be more parsimonious to think that this hypothesis might be incorrect rather than to think the whole scientific community is against them? If you have a valid idea, you must have proof. In this case, maybe by presenting their case online others will be interested, pursue this hypothesis, find proof, and tada, the internet has saved science! But sometimes people just cant accept being wrong – I often say the number one thing holding back science is the human Ego. Sometimes researchers just can’t accept what reviewers are telling them. I’ve had this happen with a high profile paper I reviewed; after getting rejected because of my comments they tried another high profile journal without making my changes; I got asked to review again and told the editor the situation. The authors eventually acquiesced and the paper was published but a month or two later in a small local journal they published the original ideas that could not make it through review in the high profile journal. But even in this case, they got their data published, they didn’t go and complain about the review on a blog.
Well on this I am on the fence. Because yes, maybe some problems are caught, but on the other hand a scientist’s career can be ruined because his public image got tainted in some scandal in which the accuser is some amateur who thinks he is being clever but actually just doesn’t understand. And you know who else doesn’t understand? The administration. And next thing you know, you’re under review because of some jerk with a computer. These mistakes SHOULD be caught in the peer review process of publication and it is a shame on the journals that let such mistakes through, they are the ones to hold responsible. In any cross-section of humanity there is a population of liars and cheats, it’s unavoidable. But you can’t destroy the whole system (unless you have a better one to put in its place) because of a few flaws. Although the internet hordes love to swarm over every mistake like they found the cracker jack prize, we should not expect perfection. Perfection is something we slowly and painstakingly strive towards, but never reach. Although the scientific system of peer review publication is flawed, it is a better system than a free for all of ideas/comments/critiques from netizens of varying educational backgrounds.
8. Would you have any examples of scientists whose reputation was unjustly tainted by public misconduct accusations?
I don’t want to name names and not many in any case. But at this point I’m starting to worry I might become one… and that perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut because no matter what you say people have their own thoughts. And the fact is no one should care what my opinion is on blogs because I’m not a neuroethologist or whatever, just like people shouldn’t care what Kayne [the rapper Kayne West?, -LS] thinks about politics etc. But people do. People care HEAPS. And they get ALL worked up because a paleontologist they’ve never heard of thinks scientists should publish valid ideas in journals rather than blogs (which is not even a crazy notion!). I guess my point even from the beginning is some people should spend less time writing and caring about others and more time doing our own thing.
9. What are general attitudes to PPPR in your research field, also compared to US vs China?
I really don’t know. But Chinese netizens are harsh in general. Don’t know how what they say about science but probably not much since nearly all relevant material is published in English (as the scientific language).
10. Concluding thoughts?
You see, I am bothered by the 21st century disease of “my opinion on everything is valid and every one should respect it.” I think the idea that we are even entitled to any opinion is wrong. For example, entitled to be hateful and bigoted based on what you think despite what science etc tells us? This is the 21st century and we should not hide behind freedom of speech and we should take responsibility for our species as a whole and our global actions and utilize the knowledge we have at our hands to be better, not ignore environmental problems (I’m a crazy environmentalist) or preach intelligent design under the guise of “well that’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it.” So why should things that apparently didn’t make it through the scientific process to still be presented… because… its someone’s opinion and they are entitled to it despite peer review identifying problems worthy of rejection? I admit my opinion on things I know nothing about don’t matter (and maybe, no definitely, I should learn more to hold my tongue). And this is why I think social media is damaging, because its largely a lot of unchecked opinions, often hurtful, hateful, baseless, uneducated, etc. This is the point I made in the end of the article in CB. And now in light of the ensuing internet rage I have attempted to clarify my stance, aka I have stuck a few more opinions out there. When my whole point was that myself and others shouldn’t flagrantly do this….
Now that I’ve thoroughly crucified myself….
At the end of her email to me, Jingmai O’Connor attached this video.
For further reading, I recommend this Nature News experience report by four scientists who engaged in PPPR, including commenting on PubMed Commons: