fighting the Big Guys

I’ve decided that I want my legacy as a scientist to be that I wasn’t afraid to stand up to the Big Guys. I want to be able to proudly say that I fought for my ideals—and for scientific integrity—even when I knew that doing so would quite possibly destroy any chance of my continuing in research as a profession. Which is kind of funny, if you consider the fact that I’m planning on leaving the field anyway to pursue a career in stupid humor.

A few months ago some friends of one of my colleagues sent him a couple of papers that had been published in a well-respected scientific journal. Apparently they thought these papers would be useful and applicable to the work that my colleague is doing. So my colleague read the papers, and initially he was impressed. The authors were addressing a serious and fundamental problem in our field, and they used lots of fancy equations and high-level theories. But after he’d finished with both, my colleague was left with a vague but persistent feeling of intellectual discomfort. Something wasn’t quite right. Somewhere, there was a critical flaw in the argument the authors were making.

I won’t bore you with the technical details (you’re welcome) but basically, a fundamental error was made. For example, imagine someone came up with an extremely intricate and detailed set of instructions for the best way to drive from New York City to another specific city in the United States. And I mean like everything from which roads to take to how many hours per day you should drive, to where you should stop for gas, food, and lodging to minimize your expenses.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Now suppose the city you’re meant to drive to using these instructions is Honolulu.

That’s the kind of mistake the authors made. The biggest problem with this is that if someone has no knowledge of United States geography and doesn’t realize that Honolulu is in Hawaii, and that Hawaii is an island and kind of impossible to drive to, they might waste a lot of time and effort following the instructions given in the papers, and basically end up at the bottom of the ocean.

Honestly, I have no idea how these papers made it past peer review. The only logical explanation I can think of is that the main author is a Big Guy in our field, and he’s also friends with the editor of the journal.

Personally, I find it kind of upsetting and discouraging that this sort of thing can happen in science. I mean, research is supposed to stand or fail based on its scientific merits, not on how much of a Big Guy the author is, or how good of friends he is with the editor of a particular journal. When I brought this up with my boss, he gave me a pretty fatalistic response. According to him, “30% of papers are useless, 30% are useful, and 10-20% are just completely wrong.”

This raises two very unsettling questions: 1) How can the scientific community as a whole be comfortable with the fact that 10-20% of papers that pass peer review are completely wrong?, and 2) Um, what about the other 20-30%?

Fortunately, there is at least a potential option to remedy the situation: write a comment paper. Basically, write a paper that explains the mistakes made in the original paper, and have it published in the same journal so at the very least there’s a greater chance that more people will be made aware of the mistake before they get in their cars and try to drive to Hawaii.

I say that this is a potential option because in reality, if the original author is a Big Guy, it’s very rare that a comment paper will be published criticizing something they’ve done—even if it’s wrong. Part of the reason for this is that the journal itself will be reluctant to publish the comment paper because that’s basically an admission that they published something that was factually incorrect, but often the comment paper is never written in the first place. Because if you criticize a Big Guy openly, the next time you try to publish a paper on your own work you’d better hope that none of the editors or reviewers are friends with that Big Guy, or they might just make your life difficult out of spite.

The reason I’m involved in all of this is that my colleague—who is also a fellow postdoc and good friend of mine—asked me to be coauthor of the comment paper he wrote on the original two papers.

And yeah, he didn’t ask me to be coauthor because he wanted my scientific expertise. The guy is a freaking genius and doesn’t need any help from me as far as the science is concerned, and I’m kind of a dumbass, but his English isn’t that great. And he never said so, but I think he feels the paper would carry more weight if it had a Western name on it.

I’ll be honest, aside from editing and correcting the English, I really didn’t really have a solid understanding of what the critical flaws in the original papers were, and what exactly we were saying with the comment paper. But I appreciated that my colleague was fighting the good fight, and I was happy to be a part of it—even if my part was mostly symbolic.

But here’s the thing. We submitted the paper to the journal along with suggestions for possible reviewers (common procedure), but two months later we got a response from the main author of the original papers (the Big Guy). Apparently, the editor never even gave the comment paper to the reviewers, but instead simply sent it to the big guy so he could develop a rebuttal. This is not common procedure. Generally, the original author will have a chance to respond to the comments, but only after they’ve been published. The fact that the editor never even sent our comment paper to the reviewers is a little suspicious. What’s even more suspicious is that the original author said he was hoping to resolve the issue “off-line”. In other words, he doesn’t want our comment paper published. Which is understandable. After all, if my colleague is right, it’s going to make the Big Guy look pretty stupid.

So yeah, I understand it, but at the same time I’m kind of pissed. There is a procedure for these things, and the fact that the editor sent our comment paper to the Big Guy but not the reviewers is, to be frank, bullshit. And the response we got from the Big Guy was not exactly friendly or straightforward. He basically tried to dismiss my colleague’s arguments as trivial or unimportant, without actually addressing them directly. And in his response, he made it even more clear that his original argument is fundamentally and fatally wrong.

Now I’m determined to fight him. I’ll admit that when we submitted our original comment paper I didn’t really, um, understand what it was about, but now I’ve gone back and studied all the relevant theory and background material, and I’m confident that we can make a solid an irrefutable argument. Because yeah, the first draft of our comment paper wasn’t very good. Partly because of my colleague’s lack of English skills, but mostly because my lack of knowing what the hell we were supposed to be talking about.

And yeah, going forward with this would be kind of a stupid move for me if I was serious about a career in science. If I were smart and pragmatic, I would just let it go. But since I’m planning on leaving the field anyway, I’d rather go out on in a figurative blaze of literal glory. Or a literal blaze of figurative glory.

But definitely one of those two.

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About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

4 Responses to fighting the Big Guys

  1. J. Johns says:

    You could always bludgeon him with a toilet brush. Go with what you know.

  2. Peter Huisenga says:

    Hey Andy, glad to hear you’re still fighting the good fight! Always respected you for that and I hope you stick it to ’em!

    • Thanks man!

      You know, maybe I am being a little melodramatic here (wouldn’t be the first time), but I would like to point out that our boss doesn’t want his name on this comment paper–presumably because he doesn’t want his own career adversely affected by our shenanigans.

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