Simply Statistics A statistics blog by Rafa Irizarry, Roger Peng, and Jeff Leek

So you are getting crushed on the internet? The new normal for academics.

Roger and I were just talking about all the discussion around the Case and Deaton paper on death rates for middle class people. Andrew Gelman discussed it among many others. They noticed a potential bias in the analysis and did some re-analysis. Just yesterday Noah Smith wrote a piece about academics versus blogs and how many academics are taken by surprise when they see their paper being discussed so rapidly on the internet. Much of the debate comes down to the speed, tone, and ferocity of internet discussion of academic work - along with the fact that sometimes it isn’t fully fleshed out.

I have been seeing this play out not just in the case of this specific paper, but many times that folks have been confronted with blogs or the quick publication process of f1000Research. I think it is pretty scary for folks who aren’t used to “internet speed” to see this play out and I thought it would be helpful to make a few points.

  1. Everyone is an internet scientist now. The internet has arrived as part of academics and if you publish a paper that is of interest (or if you are a Nobel prize winner, or if you dispute a claim, etc.) you will see discussion of that paper within a day or two on the blogs. This is now a fact of life.
  2. The internet loves a fight. The internet responds best to personal/angry blog posts or blog posts about controversial topics like p-values, errors, and bias. Almost certainly if someone writes a blog post about your work or an f1000 paper it will be about an error/bias/correction or something personal.
  3. Takedowns are easier than new research and happen faster. It is much, much easier to critique a paper than to design an experiment, collect data, figure out what question to ask, ask it quantitatively, analyze the data, and write it up. This doesn’t mean the critique won’t be good/right it just means it will happen much much faster than it took you to publish the paper because it is easier to do. All it takes is noticing one little bug in the code or one error in the regression model. So be prepared for speed in the response.

In light of these three things, you have a couple of options about how to react if you write an interesting paper and people are discussing it - which they will certainly do (point 1), in a way that will likely make you uncomfortable (point 2), and faster than you’d expect (point 3). The first thing to keep in mind is that the internet wants you to “fight back” and wants to declare a “winner”. Reading about amicable disagreements doesn’t build audience. That is why there is reality TV. So there will be pressure for you to score points, be clever, be fast, and refute every point or be declared the loser. I have found from my own experience that is what I feel like doing too. I think that resisting this urge is both (a) very very hard and (b) the right thing to do. I find the best solution is to be proud of your work, but be humble, because no paper is perfect and thats ok. If you do the best you can , sensible people will acknowledge that.

I think these are the three ways to respond to rapid internet criticism of your work.

  • Option 1: Respond on internet time. This means if you publish a big paper that you think might be controversial  you should block off a day or two to spend time on the internet responding. You should be ready to do new analysis quickly, be prepared to admit mistakes quickly if they exist, and you should be prepared to make it clear when there aren’t. You will need social media accounts and you should probably have a blog so you can post longer form responses. Github/Figshare accounts make it better for quickly sharing quantitative/new analyses. Again your goal is to avoid the personal and stick to facts, so I find that Twitter/Facebook are best for disseminating your more long form responses on blogs/Github/Figshare. If you are going to go this route you should try to respond to as many of the major criticisms as possible, but usually they cluster into one or two specific comments, which you can address all in one.
  • Option2 : Respond in academic time. You might have spent a year writing a paper to have people respond to it essentially instantaneously. Sometimes they will have good points, but they will rarely have carefully thought out arguments given the internet-speed response (although remember point 3 that good critiques can be faster than good papers). One approach is to collect all the feedback, ignore the pressure for an immediate response, and write a careful, scientific response which you can publish in a journal or in a fast outlet like f1000Research. I think this route can be the most scientific and productive if executed well. But this will be hard because people will treat that like “you didn’t have a good answer so you didn’t respond immediately”. The internet wants a quick winner/loser and that is terrible for science. Even if you choose this route though, you should make sure you have a way of publicizing your well thought out response - through blogs, social media, etc. once it is done.
  • Option 3: Do not respond. This is what a lot of people do and I’m unsure if it is ok or not. Clearly internet facing commentary can have an impact on you/your work/how it is perceived for better or worse. So if you ignore it, you are ignoring those consequences. This may be ok, but depending on the severity of the criticism may be hard to deal with and it may mean that you have a lot of questions to answer later. Honestly, I think as time goes on if you write a big paper under a lot of scrutiny Option 3 is going to go away.

All of this only applies if you write a paper that a ton of people care about/is controversial. Many technical papers won’t have this issue and if you keep your claims small, this also probably won’t apply. But I thought it was useful to try to work out how to act under this “new normal”.