Posted by: Jeremy Fox | September 7, 2011

Another legacy of NCEAS: overly-nice ecologists?

Thanks in large part to the influence of NCEAS, more and more ecologists are involved in collaborative research networks these days. Via email, Jason Fridley asks: are these networks making us too nice to each other? You’ll naturally be reluctant to tell your collaborators they’re full of it, and not just on the subject of your collaboration. And if collaboration is your normal way of working, do you have a tendency to refrain from criticizing anyone because anyone is a potential collaborator, or just because criticizing others is so rare it starts to look rude?

What do you think?

p.s. Hey, everybody: Jason’s basically just invited you to criticize him! ;-)

p.p.s. There are analogies here to major transitions in evolution, in particular the transition from single-celled organisms (=individual investigators) to multicellular organisms (=collaborative research networks), but I haven’t yet had any caffeine so I can’t pursue the analogy further.

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Responses

  1. In terms of criticizing collaborators I think we tend to collaborate with people we respect. So I wouldn’t suggest a collaboration with someone unless I thought highly of their intellect. That said sometimes we find ourselves in larger working groups where the expectation is to all collaborate. Those can be tricky situations to navigate because someone higher up than everyone involved clearly believes in the merits of the members of the group. I think then criticism does tend to get quelled. Also I think within a group your prior status as a researcher is important. If you’re someone like me, then I don’t think anyone will take my criticisms seriously because I’m just a post-doc. But if Nick Gotelli criticizes someone others might be more willing to listen (within the group).

    I actually think the reason we tend not to criticize work in a broader context is that we don’t know what other people think of the subject of our criticism. To extend my analogy with Nick I might think “That Nick Gotelli is full of crap” and say that to you, but you might respect Nick and in turn think less of me because clearly I don’t understand his work and perhaps thats an intellectual fault of my own. Another large part of criticism is that our jobs isn’t just “our work”. A large part of who we are as scientists is our work. It’s difficult to criticize someones work and have them not take it personally, because our work is so deeply intertwined with our sense of self. If you came up to me and said “Ted, that idea is boring / stupid/ etc…(but in a manner more polite than that, though that is what you’d mean)” I think I would take it personally. I think the best way to criticize someone’s work is through constructive suggestion, i.e. “Don’t you think using an a hierarchical likelihood would be better here than just using OLS?” is useful. If people’s ideas are bad, and they don’t possess the analytical / intellectual tools to be successful then I think the peer-review process will weed them out. No body wants to collaborate with a jerk, and most of us don’t want to be jerks either, so I would tend to keep my opinions to myself unless carefully worded and not personal.

  2. Ironically Frontiers has a recent perspective by David Coleman expressing the somewhat opposite concern; that we are still too xenophobic (at least in regards to international collaboration). Food for thought. http://www.esajournals.org/doi/full/10.1890/1540-9295-9.7.414

  3. I actually think that this is one of the benefits of working groups, and even professional meetings, because I have a somewhat different perspective than Jason proposes. The advantage of working together with folks, or even just spending time interacting with them, is that it prevents our (often inflated) egos from assuming that everyone but ourselves is an idiot. Once we respect someone we are less likely to criticize them because we become open to the idea that there might actually be a reasonable justification behind the scientific choices that they’ve made, even if we don’t agree with them. So, I think this is more about gaining appreciation for our fellow researchers intellects than it is about some sort of social contract related to working with someone. I think there’s a big difference between being nice and being incapable of serious scientific debate, and I think that working groups can help us engage in the later while still being the former.

    Also, I must have gone to very a different set of NCEAS working groups because the ones I’ve participated in were filled with active (and sometimes outwardly contentious) debate regarding the appropriateness of ideas and approaches.

    • What?! You say other people aren’t all idiots?!

      Idiot.

      /end obvious joke

      • I know right! It totally surprised me at first too.


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