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Defending science and defending scientists

Opinion | Researchers | Research integrity
Defending science and defending scientists

Does defending science involve criticising scientists?

I was privileged to attend the Maddox Prize ceremony at the Wellcome Collection in November, awarded by Sense about Science and Nature, going to joint winners for the first time. Britt Marie Hermes and Terry Hughes were worthy winners for their resilience under attack: Britt from her former naturopathic colleagues and Terry facing denialism when communicating the effect of climate change on coral reefs. Their emotional reactions to receiving the prize clearly showed the personal value of this recognition.

Defending science often does involve defending scientists, but a mention during the evening of the proposed Journal of Controversial Ideas (itself the subject of controversy) got me thinking: sometimes defending science rightly involves criticising scientists, their research, and their “controversial ideas”. The rise of retractions is one signal that we need to be vigilant of error and misconduct and the rocky history of another ‘journal of controversial ideas’, Medical Hypotheses, is also instructive. Although academia can do without death threats to authors and I think we could manage with fewer petitions and twitterstorms, a reflexive defense to criticism – even when coming from outsiders who have agendas – risks undermining our ability to correct science as there may be truth in what critics say. Outrage about outrage is less productive than reflecting on what led to the outrage in the first place.

This can be seen too when the criticism is coming from within science itself. Problems arise when we are not self-critical and we characterise questioning as attacks. It is not pleasant to be on the receiving end of what some have dubbed “data thugs”, but there is a reason why some researchers have had to retract articles and step down from posts – and it is not personal animosity. It is not only those outside science who may have agendas, but also scientists themselves such as those who have been co-opted by industry. It might seem that we could simply defend sound science and attack pseudoscience, but delineating this is not straightforward (though we draw the line at homeopathy) and a researcher who is credible in one field might be regarded as a crank for their work in another. Tellingly, the term “junk science” has been used by industry to smear scientists who challenge commercial interests.

Journals often receive precipitous calls to retract, as though retraction were the first option when problems are raised with an article rather than the “nuclear option”, but in Research Integrity we do need to be robust when necessary with our own authors, reviewers, and editors, and investigate and inform institutions rather than brushing issues under the carpet.

Journals and publishers also need to take criticism of our own processes and actions on the chin – and we should cooperate with COPE’s Facilitation and Integrity subcommittee, who help resolve claims of mishandling by members. Whistleblowers and anonymous critics need to be taken seriously: as COPE says “all allegations of … misconduct that have specific, detailed evidence to support the claim should be investigated.”

So let’s give researchers support – but don’t uncritically support their actions or research.

Opinions in this blog post are that of the author, and not necessarily that of Hindawi. The text in this blog post is by Matt Hodgkinson and is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Illustration by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

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