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Science relies on constructive criticism. Here’s how to keep it useful and respectful

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
—George Box

Box’s quote reflects a deep and uncomfortable truth about science: None of our ideas are perfect, which means they are all destined to be questioned, reinterpreted, and potentially discarded. Although this is the very process that often makes science better in the battlefield of ideas—with the best ideas presumably winning out—it is also one that can generate anxiety and unpleasantness for everyone involved.

Nearly a decade ago, Wil learned that one of his lab’s studies was going to be repeated by another research group. He had an initial wave of panic. The original findings seemed solid, if imperfect, and followed logically from the literature. But he could not rid himself of the nagging feeling: What if the results failed to replicate? What would this mean for his scientific reputation, the careers of his students, and the ideas gained from the work?

He needn’t have worried—the findings were replicated—but his feelings demonstrate how sometimes we as scientists become personally attached to our work and disengaged from the ideals of a dispassionate, objective researcher. Although criticism is the lifeblood of scientific progress, we are ultimately humans who respond emotionally when we feel that our work is under scrutiny or attack.

Thankfully, there is much we can do to help reduce the anxiety of those we are critiquing as well as reduce our own stress when our work is inevitably questioned. In this column, we share advice on how to give and receive criticism—for instance, during peer review, conference presentations, and social media exchanges—in a way that’s constructive.

How to give criticism

  • Be humane (i.e., don't be a jerk). When handing out criticism, remember that you are talking to a human with real emotions. This is someone’s work—perhaps even their life’s work. They might be at a precarious stage in their career, and your criticism could mean the difference between getting a job or tenure. This does not mean you should shy away from criticism. It simply means that when you do criticize research, you should focus on being constructive and framing your critique in such a way that minimizes any personal attacks. Criticisms need not be so cruel that they drive people away from the community. We strongly recommend following philosopher Daniel Dennett’s guide for criticizing with kindness.
  • Embrace intellectual humility. Even if you think you have found a potential shortcoming or flaw in someone else’s work, bear in mind that you may be wrong. It is possible that you misread the paper, conducted the statistics incorrectly, or misunderstood what the authors were reporting. Or perhaps your critique does not undercut the claims of the original author, but merely adds a new perspective or nuance to the work. Even if you do find a clear error, it might not be large enough to undermine the claims of the original authors. Embrace a sense of humility when you criticize others’ work.
  • Avoid straw men. Rigorous critiques are fundamental for scientific progress. But we have noticed too much criticism relies on straw man arguments where an idea or statement is taken badly out of context and criticized on flimsy grounds. We have been on both sides of this issue and, over time, have become more cautious in leveraging critiques. Before making a critique public, one strategy is to reach out to the other person privately. That way, you can make sure they actually disagree with you and you are not criticizing differences where none exist.
  • Assume the best. The most concerning criticisms are ones that suggest, explicitly or implicitly, some degree of unethical behavior. Unless you are absolutely certain academic misconduct has occurred, it is often best to assume the other researcher made an honest mistake. Remember that mistakes can and do happen to everyone. No one, including you, is perfect. But if you do find a significant ethical lapse, you will want to document and report it immediately through the appropriate professional channels.

How to receive criticism

  • Don’t take it personally. By definition, science invites scrutiny and revision of any claims. Indeed, it is a compliment to have your work taken seriously enough that someone is willing to read it and share their critiques. Whenever possible, try to look for the useful parts of the criticism. What can you learn from it to improve your work? Focus on the substance of the critique and not the fact that your own work is part of the criticism. For instance, Jay has had several of his papers come under criticism. In each case, it stung. But once that wore off, he was able to reflect more critically on the work and use the feedback to improve his thinking and to design superior studies for his future research. Over time, it made his work much better.
  • Be open to being wrong. It’s hard to be on the wrong end of scientific criticism—especially if the criticism addresses a fatal flaw in your work—and it is only natural to feel defensive. But we think it is usually a better career move to be open to the possibility that the criticism has merit. Wil once criticized his own prior work in the introduction of one of his papers. If something similar happens to you and you realize your own work deserves to be criticized, it’s OK to admit that publicly. In our experience, such a mindset is key to moving on with a more advanced understanding of your science.
  • Take the high ground. Regardless of the tone of the criticism, it is always best to respond politely. Thank the person for taking the time they took to engage with your work, and think carefully about whether the issues they raise are worth addressing. Focusing on a constructive exchange of ideas, rather than a person’s tone, will set a good example and may open the door to a productive collaboration. For instance, Jay is currently engaged in a collaboration with researchers who criticized one of his prior papers. The joint effort is designed to help determine which side is right by using a method that everyone on the collaboration finds convincing. The joint effort will help get to the bottom of a hot debate in the field and help push the science forward.
  • Ignore the trolls. Up to now, our advice has focused on engaging with your critics and striving to learn from their critiques. Unfortunately, there are some critiques that are not constructive because they aim to agitate rather than inform. As scientific dialogue has moved to the internet, and now social media, you are likely to attract criticism from trolls—especially if you work on a politicized topic, such as climate change or racism. If it becomes clear that someone is criticizing you in bad faith, we recommend disengaging from the conversation.

Science is a process, but it’s also a community. Strive to be a constructive critic and a scientist who invites helpful feedback on your own work. Adding toxicity into the mix creates a culture where people feel the need to be defensive and closed off to valuable critiques. Remember that, more often than not, science involves people who are trying their best. We all deserve to be treated with respect—and you can start by modeling the type of behaviors you hope to encounter in others.

Send your thoughts, questions, and suggestions for future column topics to letterstoyoungscientists@aaas.org and engage with us on Twitter.

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