Saturday, April 8, 2017

On criticism

-by Caroline Bartman

Viewed in a certain light, grad school- all of scientific training- is a process of becoming a good critic. You need to learn to evaluate papers and grants either to make them better, to score/review them, or to try to expand your understanding of the field. However, there are many nuances to being a good critic that were never spelled out in my grad school classes, and that I still try to improve on all the time.

0. Seeing the bigger picture: What statement is the paper trying to make? How do you feel about THAT STATEMENT after reading it? Every paper has experiments with shortcomings or design flaws. Does the scientific light shine through in spite of that? Or are the authors over-interpreting the data? This is really the key to criticizing scientific work thoughtfully and productively.

1. Compassion: Especially important when evaluating the work of others. One person or group can only do so much, due to time, resources, and experimental considerations. When I was an undergrad never having written a paper, I would go to journal clubs and say things like ‘This was a good paper, but what really would have nailed it would be to use these three additional transgenic mouse strains.’ Not realistic! And devalues the effort that’s already represented in the paper. Before you ask for additional experiments, step back: would those really change the interpretation of the paper? Sometimes yes, often no (goes back to point 0).
Plus, consciously noting the good aspects of a paper or grant, and only pointing out limited, specific criticisms will make the author happier! So they will be more likely to adopt your suggestions, and in a way actually facilitates the science moving forward.

2. Balance: Comes into play when evaluating work that you would be predisposed to like- such as your own work! But also the work of well-known labs (aka fancy science). I often find myself cutting myself slack I wouldn’t give others. (‘That experiment is really just a control, so it’s a waste of time’, etc. ) Reviewers (and also my PIs, thanks Gerd and Arjun) won’t necessarily see your work in such a rosy light!
With fancy science, it’s easy to see that e.g. a statement made in a paper isn’t so well supported by the data, but say ‘They’re experts! They founded this field. They probably know what they’re doing.’ Sometimes true, but sometimes not. Would you feel the same way about the paper if it came from an unknown PI? Plus, a fancy lab actually has the best capacity and manpower to carry out the very best experiments with the newest tech! Maybe they should be subject to even harsher scrutiny in their papers.

3. Ignorance: I don’t really know if there’s a good name for this quality. Maybe comfort with uncertainty? You are often called upon to evaluate papers or grants that aren’t in your sub-sub-sub field, and that can instill doubts. Yes, you have to recognize your possible lack of expertise. But you can still have valuable opinions! Ideally papers would be read by scientists outside the immediate field, and help inform their thinking. Plus, while technologies differ, scientific reasoning is pretty much constant. So if an experiment or a logical progression doesn’t make sense, you can say something. The worst thing that could happen is someone tells you you’re wrong.

Grad school tends to instill the idea that knowledge is the primary quality required to evaluate scientific work. Partially because young trainees do indeed need to amass some body of understanding in order to ‘get’ the field and make comments. But knowledge is really not enough, and sometimes (point 3) not even necessary!

Comment if you have more ideas on requirements for a good scientific critic!

1 comment:

  1. Wise beyond your years! I particularly like the compassion bit. Becomes increasingly relevant as you assume positions of authority...