Where is the line between academic criticism and personal attack?

As an academic, you expect criticism (and no, not from my parents about getting a ‘real job’, they are very supportive!). In a way, it’s kind of your job to both give and receive criticism of the research that you read, but recently I have been wondering about the line between criticism and personal attack. Whilst at the EGU Conference, I was shocked to attend a session where a member of the audience attacked a young researcher, calling her research ‘trivial’. This experience was surprising to me, because up until that point I had seen and been involved in many debates about different reserach, but never had one been addressed with such apparent vitriol. Now I didn’t know either of the researchers involved, so perhaps there was a personal relationship at work there, but nevertheless, it seemed really unprofessional – where was the constructive aspect that, if you thought the research was substandard, could move it forward and improve it? Isn’t that the point?

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A possible reason for conflict could be in the difference between an experimental researcher and a computational reseracher, but the question I would ask then is, in that case does the one have any right to critically assess the other, without at least an attempt at understanding? And in that circumstance of an open debate, should you have another method of expressing your feedback if you are not an expert in that area? I say this with trepidation, because I personally am of the opinion that anyone should have the opportunity to comment on scientific research, whatever their background and area of expertise, and some of my best advice has come from researchers outside my field. Having said that, all of that advice was offered constructively and with good intentions.

But possible ‘attack’ rather than criticism doesn’t just occur between researchers from different fields. I recently saw another example of the blurred line between academic criticism and personal attack at a seminar I attended, where a young researcher was critiqued in increasingly aggressive and dismissive language by a more established member of the staff. This at least started out as genuine criticism, but when the researcher tried to defend their evidence in the face of an alternative interpretation, the staff member replied with increasing hostility. Now, in this case, although both academics were in the same field, one was older and more established, but the second academic was younger and had just won a prestigious grant, so perhaps there was a case of professional jealousy happening here. Still, I could only think of the other young researchers present, like myself, who were perhaps thinking – I don’t want to subject myself to this!

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A PhD Comic about presenting at a conference that in many cases is scarily accurate…!

Now I have to make it clear here, I am in no way against the current method of presenting your results for criticism. Without an open and transparent way to examine each other’s data – how can we avoid scientific research from become corrupt? What I think needs to change is the way that those few researchers who respond aggressively are treated themselves in the scientific community. In the same way as misbehaviour is treated in the workplace, personal attacks should be banned in scientific conferences and seminars. Those who let their criticism slide into attack should be given a warning that they will not be allowed to comment again if this continues, and moderators should be very clear that this kind of behaviour is not tolerated. I will at this point say that in both circumstances I observed, the moderators were very good at defending the presenter in the firing line, but I still felt that there was a general acceptance of this behaviour, because it was seen as criticism. One of the hardest things to do as a scientist is to remove your personal feelings from your data as much as possible and this HAS to carry over to criticism as well.

A concerning flip side of this coin is the willingness of academics and researchers to present new and possibly controversial ideas. If you feel confident that it is only your data and results that will be questioned then you will be happy to submit your idea for criticism, as you would hope that concerns will either be answered or will reveal any weaknesses in your idea that you can address. However, if you feel that you yourself will become the subject of the criticism, most people – understandably – would not want to put themselves in that position and so would possibly not present their idea in the same way. It makes me think of all of those scientific discoveries that took decades to see the light of the scientific community because the authors were afraid of how they would be received. You only have to look at Charles Darwin to see how fear can control scientific data.

It’s a tricky topic – criticism is vital to keep scientists moving forward (and honest!), but when criticism becomes attack it can stifle scientific creativity. How do we balance the two? I feel like I should finish with a line from a show that really introduced the idea of combining constructive criticism and personal attack – The Jerry Springer Show:

“Until next time, take care of yourself – and each other.”

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