Just making a point really

This post is, perhaps rather obviously, tinged with a small touch of bitterness, but there are some commenters out there in blog-land who might do well to recognise the reality of research. Following some behind the scenes discussion with fellow palaeo-bloggers it seems this sentiment is far from limited to me. Science is, to a degree, all about criticism and the ability of hypotheses to pass tests of criticism. However, bearing that in mind…

Do you know what’s easy? Criticising someone’s work.

Do you know what is hard? Publishing a paper.

Do you know what’s next to impossible? Publishing a paper with no mistakes in it.

Do you know what’s actually impossible? Publishing a paper that everyone is happy with.

Being less catty, seriously, it’s impossible. I don’t know of any paper that doesn’t have a mistake in it somewhere. Now there are mistakes and mistakes, but typos, miss-citations, missing citations, bad phrases and odd little mistakes are rampant. Get over it. We try hard to eliminate them, but they will slip through. I know of people who have spelled the name of their own taxa wrong, I know someone who produced a conference poster with their university and their coauthor’s name both spelled wrong, and a colleague once published a paper with ‘Cretaceous’ wrong in the title.

In short, there is, in essence, nothing wrong with criticism. But an understanding not just of what you are attempting to criticse, but appreciating how and why it came to be, in the manner in which it did is integral to that. So don’t be a jerk and try points scoring because you spotted a missing reference or think there’s a better citation than the one given. Seriously try writing your own paper. It’s not that hard, but you might well find it an absolute ton harder than you think.

11 Responses to “Just making a point really”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 21/05/2011 at 10:55 am

    “Do you know what’s easy? Criticising someone’s work.

    Do you know what is hard? Publishing a paper.”

    What frustrates me more is that is seems for some people, reading a paper is harder than criticising it. I’ve lost count of how often people have called me out on some topic related to one of my papers when the answer to their question is right there in the paper. Please, folks — by all means criticise, but at least read the thing you’re criticising first, not just a press-release.

    Here’s a counter-example: when the news stories recently broke about the juvenile Tarbosaurus and what it tells us about tyrannosaur ontogeny, my gut reaction was “but how do they know it’s a juvie, and not a different species? Isn’t this just like the case of Nanotyrannus?” I could have posted that question on one of the blogs about the new specimen, but instead I waited until I was able to get the paper: and sure enough, because Tsuihiji and the others are scientists, it turns out that had addressed exactly this in the paper and given a pretty convincing reason for the referral.

    Read the papers, folks! We put information into them!

    • 2 David Hone 21/05/2011 at 11:02 am

      A related point, but a good one Mike.

      For me, a lot of it is about tone too. If you don’t know or can’t find out or are genuinely curious then ask. But there are nice ways of doing it.

      “Hey guys, apologies for my ignorance, but why is this a juvenile rather than say a small adult?”


      “But that’s just a small adult, right?”

      or even worse

      “That’s not right, you can’t say that based on a skull?”.

      Seeking knowledge is good. Doing it by implying the person you are seeking it from is wrong, is bad.

    • 3 Jaime A. Headden 21/05/2011 at 1:13 pm

      In regards to this, in the specific, the opposite was used in the Raptorex media blitz, in which the specimen’s supposed juvenility was argued in contrast to the paper’s arguments for older status (cross-sections of the limb bones, fusion patterns). Nonetheless, juvenility and subadult status has been sustained for it in the most recent treatment, in which “subadult” spans an inordinate amount of time, and “juvenility” as well, seeming to vindicate some of these “early to rush” arguments.

      While I have committed these errors, despite reading the work, I tend to also skim some parts of papers, preferring nitty and gritty. Some commenters, because of paywalls, never get that far.

      What they deal with is word of mouth, “gut instinct” and press releases and things like blogs which never go into the detail they proscribe their readers should want. Others feel that working to respond or analyze is a “higher” course than just nodding and going along with it. Everyone makes mistakes in a paper that goes all the way to the final print form, and counter-criticizing these critics that actually do mean well can be problematic (and no, I do not mean me).

      • 4 nick gardner 21/05/2011 at 10:41 pm

        “What they deal with is word of mouth, “gut instinct” and press releases and things like blogs which never go into the detail they proscribe their readers should want. ”

        these people should kindly SHUT THE FUCK UP because they’re everywhere.

    • 5 David Hone 21/05/2011 at 9:19 pm

      I would add Mike, that not reading a paper is a valid excuse if you simply can’t get it. But then why are you criticising something you haven’t read? You should be *asking* if something is in the paper.

  2. 6 Matt Hall 21/05/2011 at 11:13 am

    Nice post. Not too bitter or catty!

    I think it’s important to remember that science, and *anything*, is just done by people. It’s a human pursuit, full of mistakes, emotions, and subjectivity. Equally full of passion, brilliance, and insight.

  3. 8 Matt Wedel 21/05/2011 at 5:59 pm

    Two more relevant points:

    Just about every published paper represents a compromise between authors and reviewers. It’s unusual for the authors to get their way on everything.

    Also, publishing takes a long time. Chances are, if you’re frustrated that a given study took so long to get published / still hasn’t been published yet, the authors are even more frustrated.

    I bring these up because one of the most common forms of criticism of a paper is, “Why didn’t you guys address X?” And the tone of the question too often shows that the asker is really thinking, “Why are you so dumb?” But there is a raft of reasons why the authors of given paper might not have addressed X, in rough order from least to most likely:

    1. The authors really are dumb (not the null hypothesis, but it does happen).
    2. Reviewers felt it was irrelevant and made them chop it.
    3. It really is irrelevant, for reasons that the questioner has not understood.
    4. It was too complex or important to put into the paper in question, so the authors are addressing it in a separate paper–which might take some time to appear.

    (plus others I’ve not thought of)

    If the real answer is 4, the questioner should cultivate some patience; if 3, some humility; if 2, some compassion; if 1, all of the above.

    That’s not to say that any paper is beyond criticism. But it is useful to sort through the list above and try to find the points of real, substantive disagreement, as opposed to mere dissatisfaction. Happily, many authors are now blogging about their work, so it’s a lot easier to engage them in a conversation about why their papers turned out the way they did. And that is a huge win all around.

  4. 9 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. 22/05/2011 at 1:51 am

    Goddam, that is an excellent post!

  1. 1 Where to stop? « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 22/05/2011 at 9:25 am
  2. 2 “Any jackass can trash a manuscript….” « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 24/05/2011 at 7:44 am
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