Today in Things the Science Twitterverse is Predictably Upset About: paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor’s interview in Current Biology in which she says that
Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog.
I was going to comment on this in the Friday linkfest, but I decided I had enough to say that wasn’t already being said on Twitter that I’d turn it into a post. It’s an experiment–this is the first time I’ve ever tried to use the blog to intervene in a social media firestorm in real time.
tl;dr: Chill out, everybody. Yes, she’s wrong, but it’s not a big deal. She’s probably just overgeneralizing from her own experiences, and you’re being unfair if you’re ripping her, rather than merely disagreeing with her.
(UPDATE 2: Definitely looks like she’s speaking from personal experience in that interview; see the comments. I think this is useful context, but delving further into the personal context here would get us away from a discussion of broader issues. So in the interests of a productive comment thread, I ask that future commenters stick to general issues rather than focusing on O’Connor’s personal experiences.)
First of all, yes, it’s just false that those who can, publish, while those who can’t, blog, as the examples of Meg, Brian, and I attest. Never mind Andrew Gelman, Stephen Heard, Andrew Hendry, Terry McGlynn, and many others, or within her own field Darren Naish and John Hutchinson. If anything, I suspect that prominent science bloggers tend to be productive established scientists, if only because it’s harder for an unknown grad student or postdoc to build an audience for their science blog. But I don’t have data on this.
But in fairness, her answer was in response to a question about post-publication review, a topic on which I have mixed feelings myself, in part because of a high profile case in paleontology in which post-publication “review” turned into spurious accusations of misconduct in the NY Times (see here, here, here, and here). Further, according to Jon Tennant, Jingmai O’Connor herself has had her work repeatedly attacked by semi-professional bloggers who seem not to be able to get their criticisms through peer review:
Which if so makes her comments much more understandable, even if not more correct in general (UPDATE: see the comments; it’s pretty clear whom at least one of the bloggers is). Probably all of us overgeneralize from our own personal experiences and the few anecdotes we happen to know about. Keep that in mind that whenever someone says something that seems ridiculous to you. There’s probably an understandable explanation from their own experiences, that you don’t know about. The answer to the question “How could she possibly say that?” often is “For understandable reasons that you haven’t thought of, because your own experience and imagination are limited tools for putting yourself in other people’s shoes.”
Which leads to a broader point: much of the Science Twitterverse apparently has no idea that lots of scientists–maybe even a majority?–do not read blogs or Twitter (much less blog or tweet themselves), don’t hang out much with people who do, and so simply don’t know how those tools are used or by who. And no, people who don’t read blogs or Twitter are not hidebound old farts, at least not mostly (Jingmai O’Connor sure isn’t). They’re mostly just doing what works for them, which is what we all do. Seriously, if you think it’s 2016 and how could anybody still not know about how awesome and important blogs and post-publication review are, you need to get out more offline. You know all those people you’ve gotten to know via Twitter, and all those awesome bloggers you read? They’re a very biased sample of all the scientists in the world. When I go to conferences or visit other universities to speak, I get questions about blogging all the time, from people at all career stages. And most of those questions are very basic ones, such as the ones addressed in this FAQ or this post. Of course, most of the many scientists who don’t know much about blogging or social media aren’t negative about them the way Jingmai O’Connor apparently is; they’re curious. But the broader point is that people’s ways of working, and their knowledge of other people’s ways of working, changes much more slowly than you probably think. So by all means disagree with the substance of Jingmai O’Connor’s comments. But be professional about it, rather than getting upset because you think (falsely) that everyone should know better in 2016. (And by the way, I say this as someone who does think there are rare times when it’s ok to be hard on someone for not knowing better.)
Bottom line: yes, Jingmai O’Connor’s comments on blogging and post-publication review are wrong, or at least highly debatable. But I’m not that bothered by them, because I can imagine understandable reasons why she might hold the views she does, and because her holding the views she does doesn’t do any harm to anything or anybody. So I don’t think she deserves to be publicly shamed, as it seems like she might be. More broadly, getting upset every time someone says something in public that I disagree with is a pretty suboptimal way of allocating my mental and emotional energy.* So sure, say why you disagree with her on Twitter if that’s your thing. And it’s probably fair to take issue with the way she expressed herself, keeping in mind that everyone sometimes expresses themselves badly. But don’t rip her, unless your goal is to confirm some of the stereotypes many people understandably hold regarding online discussions.
Related: Zen Faulkes went to the trouble of actually learning something about Jingmai O’Connor and found that she’s…actually pretty cool.
*Though I suppose your mileage may vary on this. Maybe for some people, quickly tweeting their annoyance with her is an efficient way to get over said annoyance and move on.