Friday, February 09, 2018

Junior scientist snowflakes

A recent letter in Nature draws attention to a serious (?) problem in modern society; namely, the persecution of junior scientists by older scientists who ask them tough questions. Anand Kumar Sharma warns us: "Don’t belittle junior researchers in meetings". Here's what he says, ...

The most interesting part of a scientific seminar, colloquium or conference for me is the question and answer session. However, I find it upsetting to witness the unnecessarily hard time that is increasingly given to junior presenters at such meetings. As inquisitive scientists, we do not have the right to undermine or denigrate the efforts of fellow researchers — even when their reply is unconvincing.

It is our responsibility to nurture upcoming researchers. Firing at a speaker from the front row is unlikely to enhance discussions. In my experience, it is more productive to offer positive queries and suggestions, and save negative feedback for more-private settings.
I wasn't going to comment on this but Neuroskeptic blogged about it and supported the idea that junior scientists need special protection when they present their work at meetings and conferences [Hostile Questions at Scientific Meetings]. He says,
In my view, a conference is not a place to be making critical comments. For one thing, it is very difficult to critically appraise a conference presentation, because they don’t provide the full details of the study. It is also unlikely that putting a presenter on the spot with a hard question is going to elicit a useful answer. It’s better to wait until the paper is published, and then critique that, giving the authors time to respond properly.
I recognize that there are abuses from time to time but I take the opposite position. I don't think there's enough harsh criticism at scientific meetings. I think that too many scientists get away with making ridiculous claims that go unchallenged out of politeness and political correctness. I think we need MORE hostile questions not fewer. Why should a scientist be allowed to make stupid statements at a conference presentation on the grounds that they can't be criticized because the work isn't published?

Should we treat junior scientists any differently than senior scientists? Should we allow junior scientists the privilege of saying stupid things without being challenged as long as they are under 40 years old? Let's hear from some younger scientists 'cause I'm pretty sure that all of us old curmudgeons don't hold back from criticizing our younger colleagues.

When I was younger—yes, that's me on the left—I would have been insulted to be told that I was being treated as a child, not an equal, by my senior colleagues.


11 comments :

  1. Interesting topic! I think I'd take an intermediate position between what you are advocating ("MORE hostile questions") and these authors. There is a distinction between scholarly criticism and debate and hostility. It is really important that science retains a tradition of strong scholarly criticism/argument and, as you say, this includes at conferences. However it can (and should IMHO) be done in a non-threatening and non-confrontational manner. The message that the presenter should not be getting is "you are stupid because you said a stupid thing or made a stupid argument", but rather "Here are some counterarguments (or counter-evidence). How do you rationalize these in light of your claims?". I do think it is important to go out of our way, as scientists, to make it clear that vigourous discussion, argument and debate is normal and is not a personal attack. Too often these days, counter-argument is viewed as 'micro-aggression'. The discussion might be subtle to some and emotion can't always be taken out of it, but we should be careful as possible to not attack people with outrage/anger. That will have a chilling effect that discourages important vigourous debate.

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  2. To be honest, anyone who thinks that younger scientists should be treated with kid gloves, is doing them a disservice. Science is built upon criticism and open discussion, and good work should be able to stand up scrutiny. I'd rather someone be up front about any problems with my work, so that I can address them early on. In my opinion, a lot of people are mistaking criticism as impoliteness. Also, we shouldn't forget why we are doing science in the first place. With the way research is incentivized, it's understandable why researchers would focus more on cranking out papers than doing high-quality work.






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  3. I understand how politeness would be a factor but POLITICAL CORRECTNESS is not what i understand here. what is that in this context? I'm sure it's true by what I think PC is and means but what is context here??
    Yes accurate criticism must not be stopped and it makes a smarter young 'scientist" if they get corrected completely.
    Creationism is based on taking on "scientists" on origin issues despite the complaints of not playing fair with authority and simply BEING A SCIENTIST makes one above questioning.
    Yes i'm sure dignity and rights are trampled on in these matters. however its that way in the warehouse and everywhere.
    Science is a contact sport because they are trying to figure things out and get the reward for doing so. They are all on the intellectual make and that's good but they hurt each other , knowingly or not.

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  4. I haven’t been to any scientific conferences in a lot of years so I don’t know if things have changed. But in the few presentations I gave as a grad student, I received some hard questions, but none of them were hostile. But, then again, I was never suggesting anything that was controversial.

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  5. As one matures as a scientist one realizes that you have to be very careful about tone when raising a criticism of younger colleagues. Much better to say "this is a very interesting exploration of X, but I an not clear why you maintain that Y is true" than "I find your statement X mind-numbingly routine, but think that your statement about Y is complete idiocy, and you are an idiot". Students are very sensitive to these criticisms, and it is incumbent on senior scientists not to succumb to the temptation to engage in zero-sum point-scoring, which is irresponsible.

    As to whether that maturity can be legislated, well, that I doubt.

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  6. I was a very junior researcher for a long time (I have about 5 years’ full-time laboratory experience after three degrees), and I concur with what Larry says. I did my many degrees because I wanted to learn; not just laboratory skills, but also how to analyse results, and how to interpret them, think about them, and discuss and present them. I always wanted to my work to be treated with respect, despite my lack of experience. I was very fortunate to have been granted this by many people; I received some very challenging (but not harsh) questions over the years, and I was left squirming more than once. It’s unpleasant when it happens, but it’s so educational in the long term. I’m very grateful for that—but also wish I’d been put in that position much more! To digress slightly, I feel this way as a woman too; I don’t want to be treated with kid gloves because I’m either junior or female; I want to be treated as a researcher who’s doing her best to Improve. Interestingly, I am getting this kind of feedback a lot more in my new job, which is not an academic job. Food for thought.

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  7. @Larry
    "Should we treat junior scientists any differently than senior scientists?"

    I dunno about you and your behavior at conferences but, surely, old and established researchers are treated with much ceremony and reverence. Or, at least, I haven't seen any hostile questions addressed at silverbacks in the bygone days, when I was still attending such conferences. I think, a young-turk challenging a silverback with a hostile question would commit scientific suicide. This bias in power seems to justify some moderation the other way round.

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  8. It doesn't matter what happens at the conferences. The senior scientists save the really sharp knives for the anonymity of grant application peer review where the damage really counts.

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  9. I've seen plenty of science red in tooth and claw enacted at conferences. I've never seen it descend into actual violence, but it's come close. I agree with Joe that a certain decorum in questioning is a good thing, but I don't think that old and young scientists should be treated differently in that regard. His model for questions should be applied evenly.

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  10. I don't mind tough questions per se. A problem arises, though, when senior scientists rely on their seniority and "gravitas" to belittle junior scientists, and, due to the power dynamics, junior scientists may be ill equipped to defend themselves.

    Let's not pretend (not that your are) all scientists, junior or senior, are using reason and evidence in their argumentation. (Have you read your blog?)

    Maybe we don't have a problem with harsh questions, but certainly some of the time we have a problem with assholes.

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