Slow science in scholarly critique

Madeleine Pownall and Carina Hoerst with a letter from our February issue.

In recent years, scholars have advocated to ‘slow down’ science, to promote more thorough, thoughtful, and rigorous approaches to research (Leite & Diele-Viegas, 2021). Slow science aims to address concerns with the robustness, transparency, and reproducibility of research, reduce waste, and ultimately shift focus from quantity to quality of outputs (Frith, 2020). However, we argue that there is an inherent disconnect between the values of slow, robust, and open science, and the ways this is translated in how researchers engage in scholarly critique.

We are two early-career researchers who have escalating concerns about the nature of scholarly critique, most notably in our discipline of social psychology. We observe tensions between the calls for slow, thoughtful, rigorous research that open science heartily promotes, and the way criticism is expressed in practice. At the core of these concerns is a wider debate about the purpose, value, and norms of academic spaces on Twitter, which regularly hosts scholarly criticism, debate, and discussion. Platforms such as Twitter promote short, fast, instantaneous responses that are consumed in real time by the wider community. We argue that the proliferation of scholarly debate and discussion on Twitter has inadvertently produced a culture of ‘fast critique’, which can result in attacks or jokes at the expense of researchers, rather than constructive dialogue. 

Scholarly critique is not in itself problematic. Scientific progress requires wider peer-to-peer discussion and debate to advance the field, correct errors, and advocate for methodological robustness. However, we are troubled by the growing culture of fast, hostile, and superficial critiques of research that is not conducted in line with principles of open, transparent science. This is particularly problematic given the hostility, unkindness, and abrasiveness within open science spaces (Whitaker & Guest, 2020), which finds breeding ground on sites such as Twitter.

There are cases where scholars do thoroughly and thoughtfully engage in scholarly critique, for example, in the form of a Twitter thread or online commentary. However, such responses typically arise after a burst of responses have already hit the community. Therefore, while this may not always be a reason to be concerned, in some cases, we suggest such public ‘analyses’ are not necessarily made with good intent but may further reflect and perpetuate the existing power asymmetries in academia. With this in mind, we would like you to reflect upon whose research is most often the subject of lengthy online discussion and ‘debate’. As we see it, some researchers are inherently at greater risk of facing laboured online criticism, under the  facade of ‘well-meaning critique’ (Anonymous, 2021). Researchers who occupy marginalised spaces within academia and those who address the existing power relations are disproportionately negatively impacted by this culture (Pownall et al., 2021). Therefore, if our scholarly critique is not fair, thoughtful, and well-considered, it can exacerbate inequalities and alienate researchers at the margins of the community.

We call on the community for a more comprehensive consideration of how scholarly critique can promote the values of open science (as per Ledgerwood et al., 2021). We urge scientists to more readily apply the valued principles of slow, thoughtful, transparent science to the process of engaging in scholarly critique. In concrete terms, criticism should be expressed in the form of published comments that adhere to academic standards of rigour and peer review, as well as reflection on the positive contribution of research. Making published commentary accessible not only benefits the researchers, but also informs and educates wider consumers of research. Finally, we fear that without a more compassionate shift in how researchers engage in critique of each other’s work, academic progress may suffer, with marginalised scholars being pushed further out of the discipline. 

- Madeleine Pownall, School of Psychology, University of Leeds and Carina Hoerst, School of Psychology, University of Sussex

References

Anonymous. (2021, 17 January). It’s 2021… and we are still dealing with misogyny in the name of open science [Blog post]. University of Sussex. Retrieved from https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/crowdsidentities 

Frith, U. (2020). Fast lane to slow science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24(1), 1-2.

Ledgerwood, A., Hudson, S.T.J., Lewis, N.A., Jr. et al. (in press). The pandemic as a portal: Reimagining psychological science as truly open and inclusive. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Leite, L. & Diele-Viegas, L.M. (2021). Juggling slow and fast science. Nature Human Behaviour, 5(4), 409-409.

Pownall, M., Talbot, C.V., Henschel, A. et al. (2021). Psychology of Women Quarterly, 45(4), 526-539.

Whitaker, K. & Guest, O. (2020). #bropenscience is broken science. The Psychologist, 33, 34-37.

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