What Is “Open Debate” In Science?

By Neuroskeptic | March 10, 2016 3:32 am

Last October, Michael R. Blatt, editor in chief of the journal Plant Physiology, ruffled many feathers with an editorial, Vigilante Scientists. In this piece, Blatt argued that anonymous online comments were bad for science, pointing to PubPeer as an especially problematic site.

pubpeer_blatt

I wasn’t convinced by Blatt’s arguments. True, I have used the term “vigilante science” (in 2013) myself, in reference to PubPeer, but I meant it as a compliment.

Now Blatt has re-entered the debate over anonymity with a new piece called When Is Science ‘Ultimately Unreliable’?

After an opening discussion of the reaction to his first editorial, Blatt says

At the heart of the issue, and of my Plant Physiology editorial, is whether the anonymous voice has a place in scientific critique. I maintain that it does not and, furthermore, that by promoting anonymous commenting PubPeer undermines open debate that is the cornerstone of the scientific process.

Undermines open debate? I would argue (and I have) that anonymity promotes open debate, because it allows people to open up and say things that they might otherwise feel unable to. This is also the line taken by the PubPeer admins in their response to Blatt.

Yet perhaps Blatt is talking about a different kind of openness. He goes on to say that

Questioning data and ideas is the norm in science… Ultimately, it is a warped worldview, indeed, in which scientists are so fearful of engaging that they never challenge others’ research and ideas openly, whether online or in publication.

I can see where Blatt is coming from. I think he means that scientists should not merely speak freely, but be seen to do so – openly. We should stand up and be counted, when we have something to say.

Suppose you’re a scientist sitting listening to a presentation at a conference or seminar. You spot a problem with the results being presented, maybe a methodological flaw or a mistake with the stats. What do you do?

I think Blatt would say that you should speak up. You should – in a constructive way – question the results. If you don’t, you’ve effectively endorsed them. To keep quiet, to nod, smile, and clap at the end of the presentation as if everything were fine, sets a bad example for other researchers, especially junior ones.

If we assent to substandard science, we contribute to a culture in which it’s acceptable. If we later, anonymously, criticize that science, that’s better than nothing, but less than ideal.

Blatt is wrong to object to anonymous comments. But I think there’s a case to be made that anonymous debate is not a perfect substitute for open debate – or, a better term might be open protest.

ResearchBlogging.orgBlatt MR (2016). When Is Science ‘Ultimately Unreliable’? Plant Physiology, 170 (3), 1171-3 PMID: 26933091

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  • Thomas Browne

    Dr. Blatt has a quaint view of the world. The reality of biomedical is that vested interests hold powerful sway over funding, publication and promotion.

    If one questions the status quo and the data that represents its foundations, you will find the wagon’s circled quickly. In many cases, the deficiencies have been long known so the incumbents in the field are threatened since it calls into question their own ethics and judgment for letting these matters persist.

    The behavior is more similar to art crit than a scientific exchange. One needs look no further than dementia research to see the costs of this kind of conduct. Decades wasted and great talents that exited the field as a result of stubborn backward looking cabals.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ScienceCartoons Leonid Schneider

    The problem with anonymous criticism, as opposed to open debate, that it is very easy to ignore and dismiss.
    Of course also anonymous arguments should count on their merit, but what if no-one listens, simply because they are anonymous? Even with data integrity issues, most authors fail to respond on PubPeer, why would they or their institutions care to reply to academic comments? This is exactly why people should raise their hands in the seminars (or even better, do it virtually online) and ask questions, politely, but determinately. Especially those tenured PIs and professors who see themselves as role models to young scientists, but who too often are afraid to lose their funding and influence for rocking the boat.
    Macchiarini scandal also happened, because the entire respectable, high-publishing regenerative medicine community discreetly looked away as not to endanger their funding, while patients died: https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/macchiarini-and-karolinska-the-biomedical-ethics-meltdown/

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

      That’s true although PubPeer is giving anonymous comments more impact than previously.

      • practiCalfMRI

        Yes, and what is more important in my opinion is that the comments, anon or not, are recorded for others to see. They can then decide whether the comments should be given weight.

  • Joe Daniel

    Unfortunately, I don’t see a good solution. Anonymity allows people to attack others without fear of recrimination. People use the veil of anonymity to say things they would never say if they had to put their name to it. Idealistically, we would like to believe that people would act honorably, but we all know this happens more frequently even among scientists than we would care to admit.
    Open criticisms mean colleagues are going to be much less likely to honestly critique people who they know will be reviewing their own papers and grants or are their friends. Junior researchers will have a justified fear of senior scientists coming after them for critiques of their papers. Politics will interfere with open criticisms because again, as much as we would like to believe people would always act honorably, we know people are human.
    So how does one protect the reviewer from the unethical author while at the same time protecting the author from the unethical reviewer?

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

      “So how does one protect the commentor from the unethical author while at the same time protecting the author from the unethical commentor?”

      This is the big question! In my view, anonymous comments should be encourged but each comment must be taken with a pinch of salt, and ignored if it doesn’t include compelling evidence to back it up. Some PubPeer comments are not very good, but they seem to get shot down quite quickly (by other anons or by the authors).

      So I think anonymity “works” as a system of debate. The idea I’m floating in this post is that anonymity might work too well – it might become a substitute for other forms of debate, and thus make the culture of science more conformist.

  • Neurocritic

    Is the pre-publication peer review process at Plant Physiology completely transparent? Are the names of the reviewers known to the authors and the general public? If that’s not the case, then Prof Blatt’s protests lack substance, in my view. Or perhaps we just should trust the all-knowing editor, who has control of the pre-pub discourse…

    • method man

      Well, that might have more to do with encouraging people to participate in the peer review process. I wonder if any journal has surveyed actual peer reviewers as to whether they would be comfortable un-anonymising their peer reviews?

      andor whether there are any studies of what influence un-anonymising the peer reviewers has on the rejection rate and the kind of comments.

  • From Morocco

    Whether anonymous or not, PubPeer should deal with both; the most important is the credibility of the comment and not the commentator!

  • Денис Бурчаков

    This is escalating towards the peer-review of anonymous comments.

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Neuroskeptic

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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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