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:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you for doing this series.