No title, no expert? (Part 1)

A macroscopic view from the academic community

Stanford Professor, John Ioannidis, is no stranger to controversy; in 2005 he published a paper titled “Why most published research findings are false”. However, his latest attack in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation (where he was recently Editor in Chief) is focused less on the substantive content of a research paper, and more on the qualifications of the individual that wrote the paper. Ioannidis recently published an overview of papers that attempted to synthesize estimates of infection fatality rate of COVID-19. However, in the original version of the paper, Ioannidis personally attacked one of the authors of the studies stating, among many things, “…he has not received yet a PhD degree” and “one potential explanation is that the flaws of the Meyerowitz-Katz evaluation may simply reflect lack of experience and technical expertise of otherwise well intentioned and smart authors with a heightened sense of advocacy”.

Impact for early career researchers

This is a high-profile example of suppression of a junior researchers by a professor in a position of great authority. Even if it is unlikely that many junior researcher will experience such public criticism, the effects will be felt more widely. It sends a message that, no matter the experience of an individual within a certain subdiscipline, they will always be defined by their (lack of) title. If senior researchers can publish such criticisms, it gives the message that the opinion of junior researchers will always be secondary to their seniors. Once this precedent has been set, junior researchers may be less willing to discuss concepts and ideas at a local level (faculty meetings etc.) within areas that they are perhaps not yet fully comfortable with. The absence of such discussion makes it harder to understand and develop new concepts, and the brakes are put on the process of learning.

We need the space to fail to be able to learn and grow. Junior researchers can’t afford to loose the confidence to fail.

How can we remedy this?

There is the obvious: don’t let such personal attacks be published in the pages of peer reviewed journals. Responsibility here falls with editors and peer-reviewers, but it seems as though this example fell through the cracks. More generally, a lot of responsibility falls on the shoulders of senior researchers. The best research environments for learning and development are ones in which junior researchers are not afraid to be wrong. Group heads and research leaders must actively enforce such environments. This includes calling out suppression, encouraging questions, and being humble. A strong message for a professor to send to a PhD student or postdoc would be to lead by example and admit to not knowing something or acknowledge when they have been wrong. Some will argue the opposite: it is the responsibility of junior researchers to be confident and speak up, regardless of the risk of being looked down on by senior members of the group. Unfortunately, the risks can easily outweigh the benefits. If one is in an academic environment that doesn’t make you comfortable enough to fail, the knock in confidence can easily jeopardize any career trajectory.

Which begs the questions: is a career in these academic environments worth pursuing? Is it possible to change such an environment? Or is it easier and more productive to walk away and look for something better?

In the second post, we will “zoom in” a little and focus on our local working environment. We will ask why this happens and dive into the science behind suppression techniques. We will also explore what we as individuals can do about it.

Did you enjoy reading this post and would like to join the discussion? Are there any other topics you would like us to cover? Let us know in the comments!

Blog post by Anthony & Katharina

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay


Mathew Tata

Mathew Tata

This is an utterly brilliant piece, and Katharina won't be surprised to hear me say that I fully agree with every assertion made. Inclusion is fundamental to a healthy research system, but it seems so distant when senior scientists assess research quality based on how many grey hairs you have. I can't wait for part 2!

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