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