Monday, March 17, 2014

Social networks and self-censorship in science

I love posting on the lab blog. It’s been a great way to post thoughts about science (and other stuff) quickly and easily, and I’m really happy that there are some people that even read the thing! In comparison to the standard, hopelessly out of date lab website, it’s just so much more alive and interesting. I long for the day when journals and “peer review” are a distant memory, and we all just post on our blogs.

Along those lines, one of the hopes I had initially for the blog was that we could use it as a forum to post negative results or other little tidbits that just aren’t worth the effort (or, more accurately, misery) of publishing in a journal. That has not happened, sadly, and let me tell you, it’s most definitely not because we never got any negative results. The main thing is that I’m scared. If we make negative comments about a particular paper (or, indeed, an entire field), even our comments are substantiated by fact, it doesn’t matter: you will make enemies of the people who review your papers and grants, and you will find it that much harder to get your own point across. Note that it’s not just the big name power players who you have to be wary of. Peer review (grants, papers) crosses many layers of the food chain, and there are a vast number of stakeholders in any given field.

Of course, I am a junior faculty member, and so these misgivings might be construed as the trepidations of a person on thin ice. Maybe. But I can say that I certainly wouldn’t change this behavior just because I had tenure. Papers and grants are important no matter what your career stage. Without them, you would just end up being that “crusty old guy” who isn’t “with it”. So even if you’re right, nobody listens.

I’m thinking that the only way around this is to build your own community that can sustain itself on some level. The only problem with this approach is that it’s hard to rally a field around a negative result (perhaps with good reason). So maybe you just have to wait for a field to wither away and die on its own. Or finally build up the courage to just post this stuff on the blog!

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