Friday, July 31, 2009

Techniques for Dealing with Aggressive Scientists

A few people have written to describe their experiences with aggressive scientists who, for example, write scathing reviews or letters to the editor about published papers with which they disagree. Although most journals strive to “tone down” the vituperative nature of some of these writings, this is not always entirely successful.

Also, any scientific paper can be picked apart on various conceptual, methodological, or statistical grounds. This is mainly because scientific articles are at best simplifications of the full suite of questions, approaches, and interpretations one might include in conducting a research project and in preparing the article.

In addition, editorial restrictions on article length limit the details that one can include to explain the array of considerations that went into the decisions made in the course of the study and manuscript preparation.

In other words, in writing scientific articles, we often find ourselves open to attack on many grounds.

How do you deal with an attack on your work? In this post, I focus specifically on the most public of attacks: the letter to the editor or a formal comment. How you respond to such an attack is crucial to your reputation as a scientist, because all of your colleagues will see the exchange in print, and both the criticism of your work and your reply will be publicly available to anyone (including your employer).

In general, you must understand first what the journal wants. Most editors want to publish a reply that is of interest to the readers. They could care less whether your feelings have been hurt or whether the author of the critique has a personal vendetta against you. They are only interested in the SCIENTIFIC aspects of the interchange. The more you stick to the science, the better you will look in the long run.

If you have a strong need to rant, then I suggest you talk to a trusted colleague or write out all your emotional reactions in a letter that you never send. Get it all out of your system.

Now you are ready to deal with the situation and deliver a devastating reply.

The key point you want to keep in mind in preparing your reply is what your objective is: to expound upon your work and how important, exciting, and insightful it is. Look at this as a golden opportunity to elaborate on your original paper and at the same time derail your attacker.

This often proves to be ridiculously easy. Most of the people who write such letters (and many of them never see the light of day) are insecure and try to compensate by attacking anyone they perceive as a threat to their status. This means that they typically cite their work ad nauseam in their letter/comment. What this approach does is open the door for you to critique their work in your reply.

If you are lucky, your attacker will be a mediocre to poor scientist, and you will have lots of fodder from which to choose. This does not mean you should do a tit for tat rebuttal, but a creative assessment/review of the literature that happens to include your attacker’s work.

If possible, your reply should be structured so as to characterize the disagreement as being one based on two conflicting viewpoints (yours being the more relevant one, of course). For an example of how to write such a reply, see this Comment and Reply. (I can only point you to the abstracts, but they will give you an idea of how the author replied to criticisms)

In the next post, I will try to outline some steps to writing such a reply.

Photo by Doug Jansen:

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Primitive behavior in males?

This is a continuation of the previous post regarding territorial behavior that seems to be prevalent among the more aggressive scientists. I told a story earlier about a male competitor trespassing on my field site.

Another time, I published a review paper. A male scientist, who had published one of the papers I reviewed, wrote to the journal demanding the retraction of my paper. His argument was that he had already studied this topic and closed the book on it twenty years earlier and that there was no need for any further work (particularly by an uppity woman!). He tried to criticize my statistics (to further question the validity of my work), but in his zeal confused variance with standard deviation. In my reply to the editor regarding this guy’s comments, I calmly pointed out that much had been done in the twenty years since his work and that my paper summarized and analyzed data from many sources, his being only one of many. I also pointed out his apparent unfamiliarity with even the most basic statistical principles. The journal refused to publish his letter or consider retraction (and basically told him to “take a hike”); my paper has been cited many times in the succeeding years.

I’ve since heard several stories from other female scientists who relate similar experiences. In one case, a colleague had studied a particular ecosystem and in her paper had included a species list. One day, she got a phone call from an irate scientist (male) who apparently studied a rare species that was included in her species list (not a focus of her study). He told her that this was “his species” and that she could not work on it. She assured him that she had no interest in “his species”.

Another colleague tells of a male coworker scrutinizing a recently published paper of hers and then reporting to her supervisor the occurrence of several “errors”. She was able to show that this coworker was mistaken about these “errors”, but her supervisor remained annoyed with her, not the coworker.

I’m sure these things happen to male scientists occasionally, but so far I’ve not found any who have experienced such extreme territoriality from other males. If you have such a story, I’d really like to hear it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Territorial Imperative

Imagine you have an opportunity to conduct research in a specific wetland in a remote location and subsequently spend years studying that particular ecosystem and publish several papers on your work. You have permission to work in this particular site and have established permanent plots that you plan to continue monitoring in the years to come. You then hear that another researcher (senior male) has traveled to your study site (without permission) to specifically gather data to “refute” your earlier findings. Sound unbelievable? Well, this happened to me a number of years ago.

The way I found out was that this person presented their findings at a major conference and even reported his intent at the beginning of his talk. He had published a couple of papers earlier on the topic, so apparently felt that this was “his field”. Several colleagues in the audience told me about it later (I was not at the conference). They also reported that the presentation and the data this guy presented were so lame, that no one had the heart to challenge him (Huh?). He never published any of these data. But I always wondered if his efforts to attack my work were due to a sense of “territoriality”. Did my being female have anything to do with his sense of entitlement and apparent belief that he could trespass on my study sites? Does this happen more frequently to female vs. male scientists? To junior vs. senior scientists?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mistaken Identity

My husband recently ordered a book called simply “Wetlands”. He, of course, was expecting a treatise on our favorite ecosystem, but instead got a novel that has nothing whatsoever to do with swamps and marshes. The amusing part of this story (besides the fact that my husband orders books without checking to see if their content is what he’s looking for) is that the book is actually a novel about an 18 yr old female who is fascinated with her bodily functions and just about everything that polite people avoid discussing (and even thinking about).

The novel opens with the main character, Helen, entering the hospital for anal surgery necessitated by a “shaving mishap”. She is the child of divorced parents and fantasizes about getting them back together, which leads to some of her more bizarre actions in the novel. To keep her mind off the intense pain from her surgery, Helen muses about her anatomy, past sexual/physical encounters (that leave nothing to the imagination), and various personal hygiene practices. Charlotte Roche, the author, proceeds to describe in increasingly disturbing and shocking detail Helen’s sexual adventures and personal habits. At various points, the reader cringes and thinks, "Oh, no. She's not going to do (say) that!"

Just to give you an example, Helen, after her surgery, convinces one of the male nurses to take some photographs of her rear end so she can see exactly what was done to her. She is totally unembarrassed, reasoning that he knows why she’s there on the Proctology ward and has seen it all before. He obliges, and then Helen uses the photographs to quiz her surgeon when he makes his rounds. She takes no prisoners.

The book is apparently causing an international sensation, having sold over 1 million copies in Germany and is being published in 26 more countries. Reviewers are comparing it to "The Catcher in the Rye" and "The Female Eunuch". Others (mostly male) are calling it pornography and disgusting. I found the book to be a hilarious condemnation of Madison Avenue and their vision of women as perfect (we don’t smell, excrete, etc.) and who sell female products to mask our bad odors, leaking bodies, excess fat, and all other features that are natural but somehow repulsive (the underlying message of these advertisements).

My husband hated it. I loved it. Which seems to be the gender pattern among other readers.

I read it in one sitting, marveling at how the author (this is her first novel) created such a complex, interesting, and memorable character. There is an interview with Roche here that is quite good. Notably, Roche, who is the antithesis of Helen, apparently wrote the novel to explore the psyche of a woman who is totally immune to the repressive hygiene industry and to what has been deemed “civilized behavior” by women.

“Wetlands” was a much more effective argument against the misogynistic visions of Madison Avenue than the sanitary, intellectual book I just read: The Beauty Myth (see previous post).

Oh, the original title, in German, is Feuchtgebiete, which translates roughly as ‘wetlands’ or ‘moist patches’, is the fictional town where the novel takes place. It also clearly refers to other types of 'damp areas'.

Wetlands is available as an e-book on Kindle for $9.99 and also on Amazon. Warning: this novel is not for the squeamish.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Odd (Wo)Man Out

At dinner the other evening, one of the women present described an experience she had as a student taking a course in a male-dominated field (forestry and wildlife management). She was not majoring in this field, but wanted to take the course. She was the only female in the class. No one provided her with advice about how to dress properly for field trips, particularly one involving a prescribed fire (in which an area is burned to promote wildlife, for example). She had worn the wrong type of shoes and her feet got somewhat hot/burned. Another dinner guest who had majored in forestry explained that this was the “culture”--to distinguish between those who are insiders and those who are outsiders. A favorite tactic was to fail to provide guidance in preparing for field trips and wait to see who showed up improperly attired.

I too remember taking a forestry course and being the only female. Several of my fellow classmates petitioned the professor to kick me out of the class because I “would slow them down on field trips”. I don’t know what he said to them, but they did not get their way. Of course, they proceeded to make my life miserable on field trips. On the last day of the class, however, the professor (who was a tobacco-chewing “good ole boy”) was telling the class how much he had enjoyed teaching us and said, “Oh, by the way, some of you were concerned about the “young lady” in our midst. You will be happy to hear that she has the highest average going into the final, including field exams.” That was one of my most satisfying moments.

Such “cultures” are rapidly changing, but some apparently live on, albeit in more subtle forms. Often, we are unaware of being the odd person out—that key information is being provided to our colleagues, but not to us; that our counterparts are being paid more or given more resources; that some colleagues are given the benefit of the doubt while we must prove ourselves again and again.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Beauty Myth

I just read an interesting book called “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf, which is a condemnation of the advertising industry and related industries that perpetuate the mythology of the “perfect woman”. This mythology leads to the idea that if a woman does not match up to some “ideal” she is therefore “imperfect”. Also, this myth legitimizes the behavior of judging women based on their appearance (regardless of the context, e.g., as in her capabilities as a scientist).

It is a natural human tendency to judge people on their looks, but it is taken to the extreme when it comes to females. People (especially men) seem to feel free to comment on a woman’s looks, which is demeaning enough. But when the comments are made about women whose jobs do not depend on their appearance, it suggests some deeper psychological motivation. My observation is that some people, failing to find fault in a woman’s performance, will ultimately attack her based on her appearance (too old, too ugly, too fat)—as if that has any bearing on whether she is doing her job well. I have rarely heard a man criticized in the same way—especially when it comes to job performance.

Wolf hypothesizes that the multi-billion dollar industries dependent upon the myth: cosmetics, dieting, plastic surgery, etc., have exaggerated this treatment of women (and their perceptions of themselves). There has been an explosive expansion of these industries since women gained equal rights and entered the workforce (which Wolf argues is not a coincidence). The myth encourages women to spend their hard-earned dollars trying to achieve an unattainable goal—perfection (or at least their lost, youthful appearance). The promise: buy our product, and you will move closer to the “ideal” (created by the industry).

This all made me wonder about women in science—a field often characterized as being populated by odd, unattractive characters (both male and female). Of course, we know that scientists are no more or less attractive than the larger population, but the popular perception is that the distribution is skewed toward the homely end of the spectrum, especially for female scientists. Might this influence a girl’s choice of science as a career? Are women who choose science as a career more resistant to the “beauty myth” and more likely to disavow the need for cosmetics, diets, plastic surgery, and other means of achieving the physical “ideal” for women promoted by Madison Avenue? Is there a difference between women of my generation (Baby Boomers) and the younger generation of female scientists—who grew up watching CSI and other shows that glamorize science geeks?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

So Easy Even a _______ Can Do It

When I first saw the Geico ad featuring the enigmatic caveman, I was instantly offended. It was a gut reaction, not an intellectual one. I did not immediately understand my reaction, but upon (very brief) reflection saw why I reacted so negatively to this commercial.

For those of you who are not familiar with Geico’s ads, I’m referring to an advertising campaign that stars a cast of characters who are supposed to be “real” cavemen living in the modern world and who, upon seeing Geico’s ads (see photo), become offended and protest.

The ad agency hired by the auto insurance company Geico first produced a commercial showing one of the cavemen in an airport on a moving walkway that carries him past a Geico billboard that says “So easy even a caveman can do it”. The caveman does a double-take and walks back to look at the ad. He shakes his head in disgust and goes off in a huff with an expression that tells you that he knows it’s hopeless to even protest such bigotry. Another commercial shows a Geico executive taking two offended cavemen to a fancy nouveau cuisine restaurant to apologize. One caveman tells the waiter (while glaring at the executive) that he’ll have “the roast duck with mango salsa”. The other caveman closes his menu and says sarcastically, “I’m sorry I don’t have much of an appetite” and then glares at the executive (as if to say “you can’t buy me off with this dated 90s era cuisine”).

Some people love these commercials, and entire websites are devoted to extolling the virtues of this brilliant ad campaign. I’m, however, not amused by the smug, nose-thumbing message that is clearly aimed at people who take exception to being treated like second-class citizens (women, non-whites, etc.). One can substitute just about any minority group into the ad’s tagline:

“So easy even a __________ can do it”

Reminds me of statements made in the workplace:

“Gee, Sharon, this analysis is so easy even YOU should be able to do it.”

“Well, this result is so obvious even Bob should be able to interpret it.”

The indirect message in the Geico caveman commercial is that minorities who raise grievances are mockable and such mockery is socially acceptable. Moreover, if you do not find these commercials funny, you have no sense of humor. I’m wondering if this indicates a new intolerance for people who question bigotry, painting them as “too sensitive”, “too emotional”, “can’t take a joke”, etc.

I also suspect that the target clients of Geico (unsophisticated 20-something male “Neanderthals” seeking auto insurance) are also being made fun of in this commercial (but they are presumed to be too dumb to recognize themselves).

Accusing someone of being overly sensitive is a tactic used to silence criticism of bad behavior (racism, chauvinism, sexual harassment). It works particularly well on women because we try to avoid falling into the category of the “overly emotional woman” who can’t function effectively in the workplace. The more you protest, the worse you look. This is what happens to the cavemen in the Geico commercial.

Final note: ABC developed the caveman commercial into a primetime TV series, which was cancelled after a few episodes. Apparently, when they removed much of the “offensive” content, it was no longer considered to be “funny”.