On The Danger Posed By Non-Expert Critiques Published To Large Audiences

By Christie Wilcox | June 7, 2013 2:57 pm

Geoffrey North, the editor of Current Biology, has written a critical editorial that questions the role of social media in science (which I strongly suggest you read before continuing). In it, he refers to blogs as “”vanity publications”,” written by those “prone to self-indulgence”. He warns that blogs can be dangerous, that their speed and virality pose a serious risk to the foundations of peer-review and the scientific process. While many were taken aback by his bold claims, I think he makes a lot of very astute arguments.

First, of course, he’s correct in saying not all blogs are bad. The case of arsenic life and Rosie Redfield may go down in history as the first great example of blogging truly blending with and supporting research, changing the way we view peer review and the overall system of science publication and communication. It validated the beliefs of many that social media was not the enemy of science but instead its under-utilized ally. Shortly after, even major journals began to see the merits of these new media platforms for research and outreach.

But Dr. Redfield is an expert in her field, and had legitimate concerns to blog about. As Geoffrey notes, this is not the case for most blogs. Any criticisms made by non-expert blogs “can of course be harmful — at the least there tends to be a “no smoke without fire” effect.” Worse, though, once critiques are heard and publicized, there is no going backward to rebuild. “Once a scientific reputation has been tainted,” Geoffrey states, “it can be hard to restore confidence.”

We all know scientists whose careers have been cut short due to unsubstantiated online critiques. So, I was disappointed that Geoffrey failed to provide a single example of a non-expert’s blog ruining a scientific career, since there surely must be many he could have drawn from. He unnecessarily weakened his overall argument by providing a clear, concise example of a blog benefitting research, peer review, and the scientific process without providing the plethora of specific counter examples that support his claims.

And he is right, after all — we should be worried about the viewpoints of non-experts, particularly those that are distributed widely. Unlike journal editorials, which of course are thoroughly researched, edited, and written by known experts in the field, “anyone can write a blog and criticize anything”. Geoffrey’s article is a clear example of the distinction between journal publications and blogs. His rich background in science blogging, the science of science communication, and social media in general makes him an ideal expert to weigh in on this issue, and his command of the literature, clear from his extensive use of citations, sets him apart from ‘self-indulgent’ bloggers that simply feel the need to weigh in on topics they have not researched and do not truly understand.

Should we not be wary of critiques that are published and circulated on large platforms without any oversight or review? Peer-review is the heart of science publication, a system that always separates the good from the bad and the ugly. The review system is in place because it is the only way to ensure quality. There is no doubt that Geoffrey passed his own article to a proper peer review panel — people who are experts in the science of science communication and social media — to receive their valuable inputs on his opinion, because to neglect to do so would be, at its core, unscientific. It would be simply hypocritical for him to publish an editorial that attacks the work of others without first passing it in front of the critical eye of an outside editor, if only to fix even inane details like Geoffrey’s constant desire to put phrases “in quotes”. These review and editing steps are essential to ensure that a critique isn’t biased, that criticisms are fair and well supported, and that they are not based on misunderstandings.

But, as Geoffrey points out, real danger arises because bloggers are truly unaccountable. Nothing they write is attached to their names, and thus their own reputations are never on the line. While scientists are held accountable for their errors in thought or judgment, science writers are never tainted by shoddy work (e.g. Jonah Lehrer, whose reputation as a writer and scientific thinker has not been tarnished in any way since his rampant plagiarism was revealed). This lack of balance when it comes to accountability leaves scientists open to unjust attacks by bloggers — attacks which can go viral and truly impact careers. And, unless they wish to take to the internet themselves, these scientists have no way to reply to scathing critiques.

We simply cannot trust non-experts to grasp the nuances necessary to discuss scientific research and engage in science communication. Their lack of accountability for their opinions as compared to “traditional” outlets is downright dangerous, and thus we must do our best ensure that journals and magazines with wide readership do not give credence to unsupported remarks without proper review. While we cannot stifle “free speech”, we have to do what we can to prevent unscientific attacks from damaging the careers of hardworking scientists and writers. This means that major journals should be wary of criticisms, even internal ones, if they have not been properly vetted.

After all, perhaps the biggest crime in this age of rapid assessment and dissemination would be for a journal to publish a critique that lacks the very tenets of scientific quality that the peer review system was created to maintain.

 

 

Interested in social media and science communication You may also be interested in my Social Media for Scientists series, including the Social Networking for Scientists Wiki.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, this post is very much meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek.

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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