Postpublication “Cyberbullying” and the Professional Self

By Neuroskeptic | January 27, 2014 4:47 pm

An article in Science has been getting a lot of attention this week: Nano-Imaging Feud Sets Online Sites Sizzling

It’s about the ‘stripey nanoparticles’ debate, which I covered a few weeks back. Back in 2004, Francesco Stellacci and his colleagues published a paper claiming to have observed stripes on the surface of certain very small objects. In the years since they have expanded on this claim in numerous more papers. However, a number of scientists argue that the stripes aren’t real – these critics have published their arguments mainly on blogs (e.g.).

The Science piece describes two controversies. Controversy #1 is the scientific question of the reality of those stripes. That is not the topic of this post.

Controversy #2 surrounds the way that Controversy #1 has been conducted. Stellacci’s critics say that they’re engaging in post-publication peer review of Stellacci et al’s claims. Stellacci, however, has described their criticisms as ‘cyberbullying‘:

“I have been subject to chemical cyberbullying” Stellacci says. “I understand what kids that commit suicide go through.” Instead of engaging in such “unethical and unprofessional” conduct, he says, the skeptics should go through the normal channels of peer review and publish their data in journals so the scientific process can work through the issues.

‘Bullying’ is a strong word – and should be, because bullying can be a terrible thing. Bullying is also a value-loaded word and carries the connotation of ‘wrong’. Is this word justified in this case?madpeerreviewer

Rather than dive into that judgement right away, let’s work through the issue methodically, starting from those kinds of criticisms that are generally regarded as not bullying.

First off, in science, there is nothing wrong with disagreement per se. There’s nothing wrong with one scientist or a group of scientists having doubts about the work of another. Scientists have no duty to agree with each other (unlike, say, Catholic priests, for whom orthodoxy is part of the job.)

Secondly, I do not think anyone can deny that once someone has published their ideas, it is legitimate for their critics to publicly respond. This is what publication means – throwing an idea out into the public arena. Publication (as opposed to authoritarian proclamation) is the granting of permission to reply publicly.

In everyday life, to publicly criticize someone, or someone’s work, might well be a form of bullying – but published materials are a special case.

So there is nothing wrong with criticizing a published paper or a published theory. However, it’s recognized that this ‘license to critique’ is limited in scope: it only applies to the published work, not to the author as a person.

If I publish a scientific theory, you might think that the science is terrible, and you are free to say so – but it doesn’t give you a license to criticize my love life or my personal habits, because those are irrelevant.

I think broadly speaking everyone can agree on this.

But there’s a grey area between criticizing a work and criticizing the author personally. Many criticisms are – explicitly or implicitly – also an indictment of the author of that work.

As far as I can see it is these borderline-personal criticisms that form a big part of what Stellacci sees as bullying. For example, see the criticisms quoted, by an anonymous Stellacci supporter, here

The most amazing thing is that Stellacci nanoparticle STM [imaging] work is so obviously erroneous that anybody with the slightest modicum of SPM [imaging] experience can catch it.

or

Stellacci… wants to demonstrate how “ripples” are oriented in different directions… and he does it, by misleading the reader, playing with contrast and cherry-picking his data.

In response to this, one of the critics said:

Re: the cyber-bullying idea. How many of the criticisms of Stellacci are unrelated to his work? …

The point being that the strongly-worded criticisms are not cyberbullying because they’re related to his published papers – they are not personal attacks.

There seems to be an impasse. One might say that it’s just a matter of taste, that some people have thicker skins than others, but I wonder if there’s more to it.

We might call the criticisms quoted above attacks on Stellacci’s professional self. They are not personal attacks in the sense that they say nothing about his ‘personal’ (as opposed to professional) life. They are purely about his qualities as a scientist; nonetheless, they are very much about his qualities.

Now it seems to me that criticisms aimed at someone’s professional self will be regarded differently depending on which side you’re on. Specifically, those making these remarks probably see them as primarily professional because (in most cases) they only know the target from his/her professional output.

Whereas those on the receiving end will tend to take these as attacks on their self because (to an extent known only to themselves) they may identify themselves with their professional competence.

In other words, we might have a scenario in which I criticize you; to me, this a purely professional dispute, but it might be very personal to you – even though that isn’t my intention at all. What’s business to me might be personal to you.

In this case you might really feel bullied even though I am not trying to bully you, but just to conduct an important debate. And I might feel genuinely, personally-professionally hurt in turn, if my carefully constructed arguments were dismissed as ‘bullying’.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jdottan JT

    Nice post. We actually code for this in discussions of conflict in a dyad, called overpersonalization, in which one person blurs the line between the other person’s argument and the other person as a person. I might think even some attacks of the professional self are blurring (e.g. “His work is bad so he is a stupid person”), but it’s close.

  • Jona Sassenhagen

    Scientists are pretty damn human.

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  • stho002

    I don’t think you can separate criticisms of the published work itself from criticisms of the “professional self” of the author! If the work is bad, then the author is professionally (at least in this case) bad. Mind you, the (pre-publication) reviewers should have also done a better job in that case!

  • JJ

    I think that critics are OK as long as they provide the authors with a way to respond to them, like during peer review.
    If you say “he does it, by misleading the reader, playing with contrast and cherry-picking his data”, tell the authors what to do to answer your concern. Which contrast, which data would you like to see? That would appear as a much more objective criticism than a broad sentence with no obvious way of responding. In addition, I think it removes any feeling of criticizing the scientist and not his data

    • Raphael Levy

      Fair point. See for example this post. Pretty much a tutorial in Scanning Probe Microscopy explaining not just what’s wrong with the ‘stripy nanoparticles’ but also how it should be done.
      http://raphazlab.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/seeing-is-believing-not-always/

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I agree. But note that the comment in question was taken from this post by Predrag Djuranovic and the post itself does make numerous specific points about individual images and claims.

  • http://chrisfilo.tumblr.com/ Chris Filo Gorgolewski

    I wonder how much anonymity plays a role in this (the discussion took place on PubPeer and most critics did not sign their reviews).

    • Raphael Levy

      Anonymity plays an interesting and complicated role.

      The blog mentioned in the article is mine: it is not anon. The controversy started by an article that took three years to publish; only then did I start blogging to accelerate the scientific discussion. We have now another article which is under revision but which we have published on the arXiv and has attracted a ridiculous number of comments at Pubpeer. The last author of that paper, also author of several blog posts and online comments, is Philip Moriarty. Not anon either. There are many other contributors who have, under their real name, criticized the stripy nanoparticle body of work (including Julian Stirling and Predrag Djuranovic). There are also a number of anonymous comments criticising the work, many of which, are interesting & solid arguments.

      On the other side of the controversy, officially, the policy has been not to participate in the online debate. To my knowledge, there is not a single comment or blog post anywhere, signed with a name, and defending the existence of the stripes. There is one anon stripey defender who has posted a large number of contributions in the PubPeer thread. These are highly repetitive, and, after huge efforts to engage with that commentator criticism, most people, anon or not, have now given up having a proper scientific discussion with ‘unreg’.

      There was also about a year ago the strange case of a Nature Materials editor commenting anon on my blog.

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  • http://www.amazon.com/Rolf-Degen/e/B001K1NBP4/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_2 Rolf Degen

    In a certain sense, science history may be repeating itself. If the striped nanoparticles are based on some visual illusion, the case bears resemblance to the story of the Martian canals. Percival Lowell. who fueled speculation that there were canals, also earned “strongly-worded criticisms” from his peers. Eliot Blackwelder, Professor of Geology at the University of Wisconsin, assailed Lowell’s sins against professional ethics and questioned whether he deserved the title of scientist at all: “I think enough has been said to show what kind of pseudo-science is here being foisted upon a trusting public… “Mars as the Abode of Life” is avowedly a popular exposition of a science, not a fantasy. … This is precisely the same as his right to believe that the maple syrup he buys under that label is not glucose, but is genuine. The misbranding of intellectual products is just as immoral as the misbranding of the products of manufacture… But I feel sure that the majority of scientific men will feel just indignation toward one who stamps his theories as facts; says they are proven, when they have almost no supporting data; and declares that certain things are well known, which are not even admitted to consideration by those best qualified to judge. Censure can hardly be too severe upon a man who so unscrupulously deceives the educated public, merely in order to gain a certain notoriety and a brief, but undeserved credence for his pet theories.”

    Imagining Mars: A Literary History

    Robert Crossley

  • theambler

    If someone makes a terrible error in their work such that it calls into question their ability to do the job at all, criticism will get deservedly scathing.

    I think someone knows this very well, and is crying for their mummy.

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  • JonFrum

    If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. This seems to be a case of playing the bullying card to discredit critics. As my late mother (bless her soul) told me fifty years ago, ‘sticks and stones.’

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  • http://sophiewoodblog.blogspot.co.uk/ Sophie Wood

    Would you be interested in signing a petition about cyber bullying?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Well, it depends – what does it say?

  • http://nexgenappliances.com/ Jay Ward

    We understand, because its already part of your job.

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  • http://untangleappliances.com/ Kate Reid

    I would like to sign the petition, do you have the link where I can sign up? thanks.

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  • Hard Target

    p { margin-bottom: 0.1in; line-height: 120%; }a:link { }

    Cyber bulling for me
    started a few years ago when I was a member of a forum called
    elitehackers.info which now no longer exists. Yeah, this saga has
    lasted a while and these cyber bullies that are after me refuse to
    leave me a lone. Back then I wanted to learn about computer
    security, infosec,…but I was not doing any thing bad on line and
    had no bad intentions but some one got a different idea when I
    changed my nick to, “cy83r7r0n.”

    At that point I was
    contacted by this low life called, “Nacky.” I guess it
    appeared like I was too hungry and really eager to get into black hat
    sort of stuff but she was wrong so when requested to crack into some
    ICQ e-mails I refused eventually out right and instead posted the
    entire conversation that took place on that forum on my site and
    later on my blog that is where the abuse started.

    Now I refer to her
    as a non-entity. Not just because I am pissed at her but that is how
    she referred to her self in one of the e-mails that she sent me over
    the years trying to confuse me and get me to believe that she was
    some outside observer I guess to start up a conversation but that
    would be difficult to do with her any how since I believe that she
    has mental issues as all e-mails that I have received from her show
    that she has an enormous problem writing any thing with a head and a
    tail. It always comes in rambling sentences with grammatical errors.
    In fact I believe she is an individual who has been coerced into the
    abusive world of these cyber bullies who are using her as a proxy to
    as they are involved in various cyber crimes such as cracking into
    peoples e-mail accounts, harassment and they even put peoples
    personal information on the doxbin site that is hosted on the tor
    network and once there it can not be taken down (last year three
    Finish teens were arrested in relation to that:
    http://occupypeace.blogspot.com/2013/10/scoop-doxbin-arrested.html),…

    So when the initial
    phase was over two hate blogs were on line and are still on line to
    date, two abuse reports were made to Google, and I received a whole
    bunch of e-mails full of confusion and statements that angered me.
    So if any one is wondering why I am writing this it has in part to do
    with Nacky as well who writes to me in a way that equates me with
    some low life and I can not accept this type of attitude.

    She was trying to
    shut me up her self for a while but she could not get Google to
    delete my account but then others steeped in. Who ever was behind all
    this wanted to shut me up. These cyber bullies do not want to see me
    post on line the conversation where I was asked over and over again
    to crack into an account by Nakcy because that is illegal as it is a
    solicitation to commit a hacker crime but it goes beyond that. They
    do not want to hear any one talk about there techniques,
    e-mails,…in fact they try to censor all posts including this one.
    So I would ask the admin already at this point in time to take note
    of that as this page is going to experience a lot of heat and I do
    not blame any admin who feels the need to remove this post.

    Nevertheless as I am
    going to continue my campaign to shed light on these cyber bullies
    in spite of being aware that they are going to try and censor me and
    fill my e-mail in box with abrasive messages. I believe that I need
    to do so as they keep a very low profile so some one has to do some
    thing other wise they are just going to go around hurting people
    unhampered as too little is being done to stop cyber bullies as such
    but especially against an organized group who may use proxies to log
    in to there e-mails and stay in general clear of social media sites.
    In fact I have been active on twitter no one dared to attack me there
    as they stick to shadows instead and lurk on those stolen e-mail
    accounts.

    Shawn is another
    non-entity who after Nakcy tried to shut me up and to intimidate me
    even further by threatening me in an e-mail where a picture of a dead
    snake and a picture of who he believes is me were included. His
    e-mail account he was using ended in “ucide.” It was all so clear
    to me and in my abuse report to google regarding the threatening
    e-mail I wrote that he may want me to commit suicide. Google seemed
    to respond quickly but after he received the message directly from
    the abuse department he wrote from the same e-mail account again to
    me the following, “I am cheering for you to commit suicide.”
    Apparently what ever google abuse department had to say to him did
    stop him from continuing sending the abusive e-mails to me. That is
    why in part I need to take things into my own hands as this
    non-entity has proven beyond doubt that he is the lowest scum who has
    anger management issues and the only thing out of his mouth is
    disdain and rage.

    Many times I have
    received e-mails from these non-entities who seem to believe that
    they can trick me some how to stop exposing them down to outright
    threatening me. All this time they acted like I was the bad party and
    called me every thing from spamer, trol, creep,…They even forwarded
    to me an e-mail with a generic answer from an police abuse department
    when they made a general type complaint about an abusive person. The
    attitude is really some thing from some middle schoolers when in
    reality it is a whole lot different and I feel that I need to bring
    to light this group that not only cyber bully and crack into e-mail
    accounts but they also solicit other people into doing this for them
    by using other coerced individuals as proxies so that coward can feel
    safe. I have to say again that not enough is being done against such
    cyber bullies and I am infuriated that I am on my own. For now they
    are attacking my on line personality but they are determined to
    figure out who I am in real life.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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