Constructive and obsessive criticism in science

Eur J Clin Invest. 2022 Jul 23;e13839. doi: 10.1111/eci.13839. Online ahead of print.


Social media and new tools for engagement offer democratic platforms for enhancing constructive scientific criticism which had previously been limited. Constructive criticism can now be massive, timely and open. However, new options have also enhanced obsessive criticism. Obsessive criticism tends to focus on one or a handful of individuals and their work, often includes ad hominem aspects, and the critics often lack field-specific skills and technical expertise. Typical behaviours include: repetitive and persistent comments (including sealioning), lengthy commentaries/tweetorials/responses often longer than the original work, strong degree of moralizing, distortion of the underlying work, argumentum ad populum, calls to suspend/censor/retract the work or the author, guilt-by-association, reputational tarnishing, large gains in followers specifically through attacks, finding and positing sensitive personal information, anonymity or pseudonymity, social media campaigning, and unusual ratio of criticism to pursuit of one's research agenda. These behaviours may last months or years. Prevention and treatment options may include awareness, identifying and working around aggravating factors, placing limits on the volume by editors, constructive pairing of commissioned editorials, incorporation of some hot debates from unregulated locations such as social media or PubPeer to the pages of scientific journals, preserving decency and focusing on evidence and arguments and avoiding personal statements, or (in some cases) ignoring. We need more research on the role of social media and obsessive criticism on an evolving cancel culture, the social media credibility, the use/misuse of anonymity and pseudonymity, and whether potential interventions from universities may improve or further weaponize scientific criticism.

Keywords: Twitter; cancel culture; criticism; peer-review; social media.