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.


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’.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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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  • 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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  • Sophie Wood

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

    • Neuroskeptic

      Well, it depends – what does it say?

  • Jay Ward

    We understand, because its already part of your job.

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  • Kate Reid

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

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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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