Scientific Establishment Under Attack: Prof Susan Fiske on Retraction Watch and Anti-Science Terrorism

Science requires peer critiques, cannot do without them. But as we have amply shown, Retraction Watch (RW) only encourages unfiltered denigration. To quote Susan T. Fiske, chaired Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and former APS president, “the self-appointed data police is volunteering critiques of such personal ferocity and relentlessness that they resemble a denial-of-service attack that crashes a website by sheer volume of traffic”.


The immoderate attacks by RW founders Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus and their collaborators create collateral damage to targets’ careers and well-being, with no accountability for the people engaging in the toxic behavior.

What follows is an abridged version of Dr. Fiske’s pronouncement implicitly condemning Retraction Watch and the data bullies available from this site:

We couldn’t agree more.

Sheer volume of requests and multiple simultaneous critiques can overwhelm any researcher. More than one scientist reports being asked for a different data set every week for months, consuming all their research time for a semester or more. Several others report automatic algorithms generating automatic anonymous emails “correcting” p-values rounded to two places without affecting significance standards. Taking up research time in what often appear to be unnecessary or excessive demands can be one form of harassment. [Here Fiske is referring to the attacks launched by Oransky and Marcus under the pseudonym Clare Francis].

In other cases, the tone of online critiques sometimes involves inappropriate comments that presumably would not occur face to face. [Here Fiske is referring to the commenters/haters that contribute to RW and attack while hiding in anonymity]. Someone posted that my late father (a methodologist) would be ashamed of me. Others have impugned my motives for writing this plea for civility. Similarly, some targets have reported to me public assertions of their alleged dishonesty, incompetence, or mercenary motives. Personal insults are not scientific discourse. Indeed, speculations about another scientist’s motives would not appear in any respectful form of peer review.

Our colleagues at all career stages have reported leaving the field because of what they see as sheer adversarial viciousness [one may recall the attacks by Joshua L. Cherry, the RW tipster who scrupulously tried to hide in anonymity]. I have heard from graduate students opting out of academia, assistant professors afraid to come up for tenure, mid-career people wondering how to protect their labs, and senior faculty retiring early, all reportedly because of an atmosphere of methodological intimidation. I am not naming names of alleged victims because, to a person, these dozens of individuals tell me they are afraid to go public for fear of retaliation.

I am also not naming names of alleged bullies [it is not necessary, Dr. Fiske, we know very well who you are referring to] because rare but vicious ad hominem smear tactics are already damaging our field, and they do not represent the majority of us. Instead, I am describing a dangerous minority trend that has an outsized impact and a chilling effect on scientific discourse. I am not a primary target, but my goal is to give voice to others too afraid to object publicly.

To be sure, constructive critics have a role, with their rebuttals and letters-to-the-editor subject to editorial oversight and peer review for tone, substance, and legitimacy. Some moderated social media groups monitor individual posts to ensure they are appropriate. Always, of course, if critics choose to write a personal message to the author, that’s their business. If they request the original data, scientific norms demand delivery within reasonable constraints. All these venues respect the target.

But some critics do engage in public shaming and blaming, often implying dishonesty on the part of the target and other innuendo based on unchecked assumptions. Targets often seem to be chosen for scientifically irrelevant reasons: their contrary opinions, professional prominence, or career-stage vulnerability.

The few but salient destructive critics are ignoring ethical rules of conduct because they circumvent constructive peer review: They attack the person, not just the work; they attack publicly, without quality controls; they have reportedly sent their unsolicited, unvetted attacks to tenure-review committees and public-speaking sponsors; they have implicated targets’ family members and advisors. Most self-appointed critics do not behave unethically, but some do so more than others. One hopes that all critics aim to improve the field, not harm people. But the fact is that some inappropriate critiques are harming people. They are a far cry from temperate peer-reviewed critiques, which serve science without destroying lives.

Ultimately, science is a community, and we are in it together. We agree to abide by scientific standards, ethical norms, and mutual respect. We trust but verify, and science improves in the process. Psychological science has achieved much through collaboration, but also through responding to constructive adversaries who make their critiques respectfully. The key word here is constructive. œ



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