A Catalogue of Name Calling

Riff Raff

First, the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors; it’s a bit analogous to the so-called “greatest generation” of men and women of the United States who fought off fascism in World War II compared with their baby boomer children. Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riff-raff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no doubt that highly capable scientists currently participate in the grant-review process. Likewise, unfortunately, study sections are undoubtedly contaminated by riff-raff.

McKnight, S. (2014). The curse of committees and clubs. ASBMB Today, 13(8), 4–5.

Research Parasites

The first concern is that someone not involved in the generation and collection of the data may not understand the choices made in defining the parameters. Special problems arise if data are to be combined from independent studies and considered comparable. How heterogeneous were the study populations? Were the eligibility criteria the same? Can it be assumed that the differences in study populations, data collection and analysis, and treatments, both protocol-specified and unspecified, can be ignored?
A second concern held by some is that a new class of research person will emerge — people who had nothing to do with the design and execution of the study but use another group’s data for their own ends, possibly stealing from the research productivity planned by the data gatherers, or even use the data to try to disprove what the original investigators had posited. There is concern among some front-line researchers that the system will be taken over by what some researchers have characterized as “research parasites.”

Longo, D. L., & Drazen, J. M. (2016). Data sharing. The New England Journal of Medicine, 374(3), 276–7.

Serious Academics

We are in the midst of a selfie epidemic. We document every moment of our lives — the places we visit, the people we meet, the things we achieve. And now this culture has infiltrated the world of academia.

Academics Anonymous (August 5, 2016). I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer. The Guardian.

Professional Selfies

The response of the scientific community to the changing performance metrics has been entirely rational: We spend much of our time taking “professional selfies.” In fact, many of us spend more time announcing ideas than formulating them. Being busy needs to be visible, and deep thinking is not. Academia has largely become a small-idea factory.

Geman, D., & Geman, S. (2016). Science in the age of selfies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(34), 9384–9387.

Methodological Terrorists

Our field has always encouraged — required, really — peer critiques. But the new media (e.g., blogs, twitter, Facebook posts) are encouraging uncurated, unfiltered trash-talk. In the most extreme examples, online vigilantes are attacking individuals, their research programs, and their careers. Self-appointed data police are volunteering critiques of such personal ferocity and relentless frequency that they resemble a denial-of-service attack that crashes a website by sheer volume of traffic.
Only what’s crashing are people. These unmoderated attacks create collateral damage to targets’ careers and well being, with no accountability for the bullies. Our colleagues at all career stages are leaving the field because of the sheer adversarial viciousness. I have heard from graduate students opting out of academia, assistant professors afraid to come up for tenure, mid-career people wondering how to protect their labs, and senior faculty retiring early, all because of methodological terrorism.

Fiske, S.T. (In Press). Mob rule or wisdom of crowds? APS Observer.

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