Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Should we cite mean people?

The recent #MeToo movement brought to light that some great artists and authors and broadcasters and producers (and others in every sphere of life) were simply despicable people. Like many others, I began to struggle with whether or not I could still watch, like, and admire their work. Shakespeare in Love was one of my favorite movies – but how can I now look at it the same way knowing how Harvey Weinstein treated Gwenth Paltrow and others working on that and his other movies. The opinion of many observers was that we should separate the work of a person from the personality of a person, thus enjoying Shakespeare in Love while detesting the man (one of them anyway) who made it. Others, however, felt that to continue to laud the work of such a horrible person is akin to not punishing that person. With movies, I think it makes a lot of sense to take the first tack, simply because any given movie is the work of many people – and to downgrade that movie for the sins of one contributor is also punishment to the many other people who contributed that movie.

But what about in science? My first impression is that, really, most people in science – at least in my field – are quite nice, helpful, and giving. They generally want to improve the science and advance the careers of those around them – even at some expense to themselves. However, like any sphere of life, truly despicable people exist in science. Fortunately, some of these people have been outed before and after the #MeToo movement – and I hope this trend continues to reveal and punish truly dangerous, predatory, and lascivious scientists.

However, I am here also thinking of “despicable people” in a more general “jerk” sense to include those who are simply mean to others, such as their students, collaborators, field crew, or even competitors. Such meanness can be in-your-face overt insults or degradation or it can be subtle behind-the-scenes (or behind the screen of anonymous peer-review) maneuvering to reject grants or papers of competitors. When we have knowledge of which people out there are jerks, how should we treat their science? Should we read it in discussion groups? Should we invite them for seminars? Should we cite their work? Should we continue to laud them? If these people weren’t influential, then it would perhaps be a much simpler matter, but some them have published exceptional and influential 

Perhaps, we have less of a conundrum here than in the case of enterprises like movies, where many other people are involved. That is, perhaps we should feel comfortable about punishing (or at least not rewarding) a person by downgrading their science. For instance, I see no reason to invite, for a symposium or key note or even departmental seminar, someone who is a jerk. Also, if a choice exists between citing several different papers, I would happily cite those by nice people over those by known jerks. (Of course, it is sometimes impossible to avoid citing some papers by jerks.)

Yet is more complicated than that. First, jerkiness is in the eye of the beholder. I have met some people who think that a given scientist is the nicest and most helpful person they know, while other people will swear up-and-down that the same person is mean and vindictive. Second, some people might be nice to your face but mean behind the scenes – and this is hard to know. For instance, many people spend time trying to guess who the mean reviewers of their papers or grants were, and then spend years hating that person – even without actual confirmation that their guess was correct. Third, any given paper often has multiple authors and it would not be right to punish other authors of that paper for the sins of one of them. Fourth, meanness is, in part, an interaction between people, such that a given person can very nice to some people but very mean to others.

In the end, perhaps the best approach is to simply not go out of our way to laud people who we know are jerks. Let’s just ignore them whenever we can.


1. If you are a student, and a professor is being a jerk to you, or engaging in inappropriate behavior toward you or others, then you should definitely report it to the appropriate office in your university – typically the ombudsperson.

2. I am not attempting to name any jerks – you know who they are. Or do you? Some years ago, I was at a reception and talking to an older professor who – unsolicited – starting telling me how downright awful was a (now long dead) man who is universally lauded as one of the most important contributors to the environmental movement.

3. I acknowledge that some people - hopefully not too many - likely think that I am a jerk.

The 16 types of graduate supervisor – by JRR Tolkien

(Genders match the original.) The Gandalf Extremely wise – if sometimes inscrutably so – and able to solve your biggest problems, th...