Postpublication "Cyberbullying" and the Professional Self

An article in Science has been getting a lot of attention this week: Nano-Imaging Feud Sets Online Sites Sizzling

It’s about the ‘stripey nanoparticles’ debate, which I covered a few weeks back. Back in 2004, Francesco Stellacci and his colleagues published a paper claiming to have observed stripes on the surface of certain very small objects. In the years since they have expanded on this claim in numerous more papers. However, a number of scientists argue that the stripes aren’t real – these critics have published their arguments mainly on blogs (e.g.).

The Science piece describes two controversies. Controversy #1 is the scientific question of the reality of those stripes. That is not the topic of this post.

Controversy #2 surrounds the way that Controversy #1 has been conducted. Stellacci’s critics say that they’re engaging in post-publication peer review of Stellacci et al’s claims. Stellacci, however, has described their criticisms as ‘cyberbullying‘:

“I have been subject to chemical cyberbullying” Stellacci says. “I understand what kids that commit suicide go through.” Instead of engaging in such “unethical and unprofessional” conduct, he says, the skeptics should go through the normal channels of peer review and publish their data in journals so the scientific process can work through the issues.

‘Bullying’ is a strong word – and should be, because bullying can be a terrible thing. Bullying is also a value-loaded word and carries the connotation of ‘wrong’. Is this word justified in this case?madpeerreviewer

Rather than dive into that judgement right away, let’s work through the issue methodically, starting from those kinds of criticisms that are generally regarded as not bullying.

First off, in science, there is nothing wrong with disagreement per se. There’s nothing wrong with one scientist or a group of scientists having doubts about the work of another. Scientists have no duty to agree with each other (unlike, say, Catholic priests, for whom orthodoxy is part of the job.)

Secondly, I do not think anyone can deny that once someone has published their ideas, it is legitimate for their critics to publicly respond. This is what publication means – throwing an idea out into the public arena. Publication (as opposed to authoritarian proclamation) is the granting of permission to reply publicly.

In everyday life, to publicly criticize someone, or someone’s work, might well be a form of bullying – but published materials are a special case.

So there is nothing wrong with criticizing a published paper or a published theory. However, it’s recognized that this ‘license to critique’ is limited in scope: it only applies to the published work, not to the author as a person.

If I publish a scientific theory, you might think that the science is terrible, and you are free to say so – but it doesn’t give you a license to criticize my love life or my personal habits, because those are irrelevant.

I think broadly speaking everyone can agree on this.

But there’s a grey area between criticizing a work and criticizing the author personally. Many criticisms are – explicitly or implicitly – also an indictment of the author of that work.

As far as I can see it is these borderline-personal criticisms that form a big part of what Stellacci sees as bullying. For example, see the criticisms quoted, by an anonymous Stellacci supporter, here

The most amazing thing is that Stellacci nanoparticle STM [imaging] work is so obviously erroneous that anybody with the slightest modicum of SPM [imaging] experience can catch it.


Stellacci… wants to demonstrate how “ripples” are oriented in different directions… and he does it, by misleading the reader, playing with contrast and cherry-picking his data.

In response to this, one of the critics said:

Re: the cyber-bullying idea. How many of the criticisms of Stellacci are unrelated to his work? …

The point being that the strongly-worded criticisms are not cyberbullying because they’re related to his published papers – they are not personal attacks.

There seems to be an impasse. One might say that it’s just a matter of taste, that some people have thicker skins than others, but I wonder if there’s more to it.

We might call the criticisms quoted above attacks on Stellacci’s professional self. They are not personal attacks in the sense that they say nothing about his ‘personal’ (as opposed to professional) life. They are purely about his qualities as a scientist; nonetheless, they are very much about his qualities.

Now it seems to me that criticisms aimed at someone’s professional self will be regarded differently depending on which side you’re on. Specifically, those making these remarks probably see them as primarily professional because (in most cases) they only know the target from his/her professional output.

Whereas those on the receiving end will tend to take these as attacks on their self because (to an extent known only to themselves) they may identify themselves with their professional competence.

In other words, we might have a scenario in which I criticize you; to me, this a purely professional dispute, but it might be very personal to you – even though that isn’t my intention at all. What’s business to me might be personal to you.

In this case you might really feel bullied even though I am not trying to bully you, but just to conduct an important debate. And I might feel genuinely, personally-professionally hurt in turn, if my carefully constructed arguments were dismissed as ‘bullying’.

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  • Nice post. We actually code for this in discussions of conflict in a dyad, called overpersonalization, in which one person blurs the line between the other person’s argument and the other person as a person. I might think even some attacks of the professional self are blurring (e.g. “His work is bad so he is a stupid person”), but it’s close.

  • Scientists are pretty damn human.

  • I don’t think you can separate criticisms of the published work itself from criticisms of the “professional self” of the author! If the work is bad, then the author is professionally (at least in this case) bad. Mind you, the (pre-publication) reviewers should have also done a better job in that case!

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