“Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog.”

There’s a Q&A piece in Current Biology (a Cell journal) on Professor Jingmai O’Connor circulating at the moment.  Most of it it pretty standard stuff: Why are you a biologist?  What’s it like being an American scientist in China? What was your favorite conference?

But for a “young scientist,” two of O’Connor’s answers sure seem old school. One question asked of the professor was “Do you think there is an increased need for scientists to market themselves and their science as a brand?”  Her answer (emphasis mine):

I think the idea that scientists need to operate more like a business is becoming a major problem in science recently. There is science and there is business — they are different and should be fundamentally driven by different goals: one, the pure and unadulterated desire for greater knowledge and the other, monetary gain. Branding science puts focus on making your research appealing, which is extremely limiting, and — dare I say? — corrupts the scientific process. There is a lot of fundamental research that needs to be conducted that is not ‘sexy’. Such ‘science branding’ has not yet affected the Chinese Academy of Sciences and for that I’m grateful.

Ignoring how pretentious this comes off as,  the idea that making  your science “appealing” somehow corrupts it is exactly wrong. Science should be appealing. If your science isn’t appealing, maybe you’re not doing good science. And second, the idea that business and science are mutually exclusive enterprises is laughable. I can point to dozens of fundamental scientific discoveries made by the private sector. It turns out that money is actually a pretty good motivation for coming up with cool new scientific ideas. Conversly, let’s not pretend that all science is driven by “the pure and unadulterated desire for greater knowledge.” This implies that only academic science is true science. But even academic science has a driving force that is decidedly non-scientific.

It gets better (worse?) from here. “What’s your view on social media and science? For example, the role of science blogs in critiquing published papers?

Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog. I understand that blogs can be useful in affording the general public insights into current science, but it often seems those who criticize or spend large amounts of time blogging are also those who don’t generate much publications themselves. If there were any valid criticisms to be made, the correct venue for these comments would be in a similar, peer-reviewed and citable published form. The internet is unchecked and the public often forgets that. They forget or are unaware that a published paper passed rigorous review by experts, which carries more validity than the opinion of some disgruntled scientist or amateur on the internet. Thus, I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.

Damn kids, get off my lawn!

That’s a real doozy. The last part reads like that guy who is proud of not having a Facebook account like it’s some sort of accomplishment. But all snark aside, I strongly disagree fundamentally with what O’Connor has to say about blogging and social media with respect to science. I can point to example after example of successful, productive scientists with active social media presences. Again, the two are not by any means mutually exclusive.

But perhaps my biggest problem with this response is how brazenly the author dismisses public criticism and post-peer review in favor of the almighty peer review process.  As if nothing shady ever gets by peer reviewers. If you publish something in the scientific literature, you’re putting your work out there.  You’re making claims, and you shouldn’t be surprised (or offended) when challenges are made to what you’ve said.  Because challenging the status quo is exactly how science works, whether it’s in a subsequent publication, a blog, or on PubPeer.


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