Unprofessional Astronomy – arXiv:1711.02090

It is essential to the way that science works that published results are challenged by independent scrutiny and by confrontation with rival analysis. New facts and new theoretical explanations are often established and previously existing misapprehensions eliminated through this form of critical dialogue. More often than not this process of claim and counter-claim is carried out in a collegiate spirit because all parties are mindful that this kind of debate is part and parcel of the scientific method. To behave otherwise as a scientist is unprofessional.

Regrettably, however, sometimes scientists overstep the mark and engage in behaviour which falls short of this expectation, particularly when it is by a senior scientist directed towards a junior colleague because then unnecessarily aggressive criticism can take on the mantle of bullying.

Today I saw a paper on the arXiv by Bouwens et al. that contains criticism of a previous paper by Livermore et al. (2017) (arXiv version here) which I think oversteps the mark in this way, especially because the lead author of the first paper, Rychard Bouwens, is an established (male) academic and the first author of the second, Rachael Livermore, is a (female) postdoctoral researcher.

Two footnotes from the Bouwens et al. paper suffice to give a flavour of the tone. This is footnote 8:

This is footnote 9:

There are a number of inappropriate aspects of these comments (and others made elsewhere in the paper). I’ll mention just two.

First, note the highlighted `claimed sample’ in Footnote 8. The only way I can read this phrase is as an insinuation that the Livermore et al. sample has somehow been fabricated. In other words, it is a snide allegation of research misconduct. This may not be what Bouwens et al intended to say, but that’s certainly how it reads. And the phrase `claimed sample’ appears more than once in their paper. If they don’t mean it that way then I strongly suggest they edit the paper to clarify, as it is potentially extremely defamatory.

Second, note that the Livermore et al. results are published in the Astrophysical Journal. That means that they have therefore passed peer review and are in the public domain. That does not mean that they cannot be challenged, of course, but note that in Footnote 8, Bouwens et al. refer to an article that is not public, not refereed and not even finished.  I don’t think this it is fair to include this in the current paper as the evidence to back up the criticism is simply not available. Note also the implication in Footnote 9 that the referee of this paper did not understand the issues presented in the paper, either.

Now I don’t know who (if anyone) is right about the luminosity function results in these papers. Luminosity function determinations are difficult, being prone to all kinds of selection biases and other problems. I am not going to side with either set of authors on the technicalities. I just think it’s extremely regrettable that Bouwens have adopted this tone towards another group of authors whom they should regard as colleagues. It is perfectly reasonable to criticise the work of another group in the literature, but in my experience this usually only happens after the two teams have discussed the issues in private and failed to reconcile their differences. That can and does happen, but here there does not seem to have been any attempt to sort this out amicably before going on the offensive. I find that deeply regrettable.

By the way, this is the AAS Policy on Professional and Ethical Standards for its journals (including the Astrophysical Journal, to which the Bouwens et al. paper has been submitted):





43 Responses to “Unprofessional Astronomy – arXiv:1711.02090”

  1. The paper appears submitted but not yet accepted. It has not yet gone through refereeing. A decent referee would ask for personal criticisms to be removed from a paper. Some editors will send the paper to the person who is being attacked for refereeing. Now that you have drawn attention to the paper, the authors may want to withdraw it and resubmit after an edit.

    Putting a non-refereed paper on Arxiv is not uncommon but is risky. But doesn’t your journal require papers to be put on Arxiv before refereeing?

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, as currently set up we can’t review it unless it is on the arXiv.

      • One reason why I have been campaigning for years to have some sort of alternate submission mechanism. Also, at least there used to be some institutes which had a policy of allowing papers to arXiv only after acceptance. In addition, there might be problems with the arXiv endorsement procedure for first-time authors from relatively unknown places.

  2. But it is not just about whether this paper gets accepted or not. It is also about the fact that such behavior is not ok in the first place. Thank you for this writeup!

  3. The style of criticism you describe is not unique to the science community; the exact same tenor of comment, notably denial of competence, is typical of the way New Zealand’s humanities intellectuals ‘review’ the work of others – after publication, in public, where it damages commercial returns and author repute. I have a significant dossier on the abusive way my own professional work in history was received by the local academic community – which is odd, because when the exact same work was received at the RMC Sandhurst it was acclaimed, and I was subsequently elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at UCOL, London, on the strength of my scholarship. When I published a commentary on the bully culture I’d encountered, I was openly abused by strangers in the NZ field for calling it out. Nor is my experience unique: an NZ literary fiction author, who won the Booker Prize, was explicit about the bully culture in NZ in her field too. All this speaks for itself as far as I am concerned; but I think it’s integral to the intellectual world in general, and I’m not surprised it appears in the sciences.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I consider the examples Peter has given to be mild compared to the way historians go at each other. (Trevor-Roper on Toynbee?) On the Arts side I regard such disputes as fine spectator sport, but Arts and Sciences are very different.

      I don’t think it is out of order for Bouwens at al to summarise a preprint of their own in footnote 8. It will be published soon enough and the research community can then scrutinise it, and if Bouwens is wrong then he’ll be severely embarrassed, as he is surely aware.

      “Claimed sample” certainly needs clarification. The phrase brings to my mind questions of selectivity rather than invention, and I trust that Bouwens’ referees will demand clarification.

      As for the comment about understanding the issues, I’d rather have taken my name off a joint paper than have this sentence issued under my name.

      I agree that we need to know whether there were private discussions between the groups before all of this, and what they led to. Peter, you wrote that “there does not seem to have been any attempt to sort this out amicably before going on the offensive”. Is that on the basis of Twitter posts (which I do not read)?

      • telescoper Says:

        On your last point, I have been in contact with Rachael Livermore on Twitter. Here’s the most relevant tweet in the thread that resulted:

        I should perhaps add that I don’t know either lead author personally.

      • telescoper Says:

        Just to correct you on the second paragraph. They’re not referring to a preprint. They’re referring to a paper that isn’t yet written but `in preparation’.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thanks for the Twitter image Peter. All we can really say about “in preparation” is that it isn’t on the arXiv, and the fact remains that if Bouwens is wrong then he’ll be severely embarrassed and he knows it. That sentence about understanding the issues is what I find obnoxious.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, you would have thought one or more of his co-authors would have intervened over the tone of some of the comments.

  4. Daniel Mortlock Says:

    Rachael Livermore has been quite vocal about this on her Twitter feed (@rhaegal) and has posted a link to this blog post. She reports having received personal apologies from two of the co-authors, which is something, I guess. But she also refers to “senior people in the field” telling her in private that “it’s ok because `that’s just how he is’ ” in reference to the first author, which is clearly not a useful/helpful response.

    • Nicholas Cross Says:

      Having worked with Rychard before I can understand why they may say this and I am not sure if he is fully capable of understanding the social impact of what he says or writes, but several of his coauthors on this paper have worked with him for 2 decades and know his limitations there and need to help him and continually stress to him why this is not acceptable.

    • telescoper Says:

      If `that is just how he is’, that is even more reason that he has to learn it’s not the right way to carry on.

  5. The comments to Rachel along the lines of “it’s ok because `that’s just how he is’ ” are totally inappropriate and propagate the problem. These “protectors” of the bullies in the field become bullies against anyone that wants to speak up against such conduct. To those colleagues of Bouwens I say – use your influence to speak to Rychard about how his tone and behavior is inappropriate, not to Racheal about how she, as the victim, should just deal with it. Step up, colleagues.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Just a reminder (yet again of my comments policy), an excerpt from which reads:

    Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted.

    I have banned a couple of people for repeated violations of this so no more comments from them will be accepted, though I am tempted to publish their identities in order to expose them as the cowardly trolls that they are…

    • telescoper Says:

      Oh. And anyone who really doesn’t see the relevance of gender in this case must be unbelievably dim.

      • I think that comment violates your own policy on abusive statements.. you will need to give yourself a warning that you may be banned from further commenting. I expect that gender played no role when writing the statements in the paper, but will play a role in their impact

      • telescoper Says:

        Now I’m wondering what would happen if I banned myself….

      • Enlighten my dimness. Based on just what has been mentioned above, yes, the tone is not good, I would hope that a referee or editor suggests a rewrite, but do you think that gender plays a role here? If so, why?

      • telescoper Says:

        Do you honestly not see why the effect of this type of language may be more severe on a female researcher than on a male researcher?

      • Peter Veres Says:

        Sorry, but I am not seeing the relevance of gender. Maybe a case can be made for the relevance of the status of the two as the junior may be evaluated for some position in the future by the senior fellow. I was disappointed by your name calling. If you are suggesting gender had a role you should have made a case for it. Please excuse my earlier reply, I hit return before I finished my thought.

      • telescoper Says:

        First, I did not call anyone names.

        Second, do you really not see how the effect of this kind of behaviour might be more severe on a junior female researcher than a junior male researcher?

      • Peter Veres Says:

        Sorry, but I don’t see how this tone would affect a female junior researcher differently from a male one. I am genuinely curious what you mean here. All I can say (me: male junior scientist, and I agree with your points regarding the unacceptable tone) I’d be rattled/angry as well if I got criticized in this manner.

      • simonjbradshaw Says:

        I’d like to address what Peter says, but I should give a little background first. I’m not an astronomer, although I’ve been interested in astronomy from a young age and know several professional astronomers (including Dr Livermore). I’m a lawyer, and within my organisation I’m responsible for equality and diversity monitoring and am part of the team supervising the training of junior lawyers. I’m also studying part-time for an MSc in forensic science and engineering, so I read a lot of scientific papers and am familiar with the appropriate approaches to criticising the work of others in STEM academia.

        Anyone part of, or familiar with, the Astro community must be aware of the serious concerns about the prevalence of sexual harassment. As well as more serious incidents, this can and does also include the belittling and disparagement of the work of female researchers.

        Yes, comments such as the ones quoted are going to be unpleasant for any more junior researcher. But in a context where many women feel that their contributions are subject to questioning and criticism at a level well beyond that to which their male peers are exposed, such comments carry a particular sting for female astronomers. If their male colleagues don’t notice that, it may well be because they don’t experience it themselves.

      • “But in a context where many women feel that their contributions are subject to questioning and criticism at a level well beyond that to which their male peers are exposed”

        Two questions:

        Is there any evidence that “their contributions are subject to questioning and criticism at a level well beyond that to which their male peers are exposed”?

        Is there any evidence that “many women feel that their contributions are subject to questioning and criticism at a level well beyond that to which their male peers are exposed”?

        Is there even any evidence that many feel that “many women feel that their contributions are subject to questioning and criticism at a level well beyond that to which their male peers are exposed”?

        These are not rhetorical questions; I’m genuinely curious and want to know.

        I remember one interview with a female astronomer who answered the obligatory gender question about whether she had experienced a glass ceiling etc with the statement that if anything being a woman had probably helped her. I don’t know how typical this is.

      • simonjbradshaw Says:

        This article, and the studies cited therein, make for sobering reading. It is not specifically about the Astro community, but in view of the other issues with behaviour towards women that have been reported I think it doubtful that Astro is less prone than STEM in general to bias in the ways reported here.


      • “But as she moved on with her scientific career, Walden did begin to notice that things were said about women that would not be said about men. When she moved to Memphis, to St. Jude Children Hospital to do her postdoc, she had some professional issues with her lab group leader, who happened to be a woman. When she tried to talk to colleagues about these issues, she was met with blanket statements along the lines of ‘that’s just what women bosses are like’.

        “I had not considered that the way she behaved was female or male behavior, it was just her behavior,” Walden said. “I was surprised by the ‘women bosses are bitches’ mentality that went on. I have a really hard time with this idea that men and women are fundamentally different.”

        And yet there is a pervasive stereotype, held by many men and women alike, that women are more emotional in the workplace.”

        I agree with essentially everything in this article, including the quote above. However, I have often observed that the same people who criticize sexism in the workplace and so on will then say “We need more women politicians/managers/bankers/venture capitalists/CEOs/scientists/astronauts” etc because women are more…” where the ellipsis is replaced by a dozen or so positive adjectives. One can’t have it both ways.

        The UK has had some female Prime Ministers. 😦 Of course, some radical feminists will say “they weren’t good because they behaved too masculine” or whatever.

        People are people. Judge people by what they do and say, not what group they belong to.

        When someone says “women would make better politicians/CEOs/whatever because they are less cutthroat/more networked/less competitive/more social” or whatever, the cry of “sexism” should be just as loud.

  7. Thank you for taking stand on such issue.

  8. “It is perfectly reasonable to criticise the work of another group in the literature, but in my experience this usually only happens after the two teams have discussed the issues in private and failed to reconcile their differences.”

    Especially in the case of a junior author taking issue with the claim of a senior author, this isn’t always possible. If the junior author informs the senior author of the error, the latter might post a correction themself, perhaps without giving credit. Or the senior author might see other errors in the draft by the junior author, not mention them, let the junior author’s paper be published, then tear it apart publicly for other errors. Or the senior author might not even respond to requests for discussion.

    About 30 per cent of my refereed-journal papers point out errors in other people’s papers. 😐 To be honest, it never occurred to me to try to convince the author privately before publishing (perhaps a joint paper), for three reasons: the author is dead; I assumed (perhaps wrongly) that the author had better things to do than discuss some already published paper with me; observations of others who tried this and got reactions such as “I’m not interested in your inferior work” (without having seen it), “I don’t understand what you’re doing and don’t want to be involved anymore”, or, in some cases, no reaction at all.

    I have often sent emails to authors of preprints if I caught some mistake; this is usually gratefully acknowledged (often in the acknowledgements section of the paper when it finally appears in final form) and people appreciate the effort. Obviously, it is easier to save face if the mistake has not actually been published. Also, some people intentionally put stuff on arXiv before acceptance or even before submission explicitly to ask for comments.

  9. I suspect a recently published paper, Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour by Michael M. Kasumovic , Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, has some relevance here.

    A summary:

    Female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status: Poorly performing males are hostile toward a female teammate but submissive toward a male teammate.


    • James Dunlop Says:

      Scroll right to the bottom of today’s arXiv listing – to the bottom of the revised papers section.

      • Nicholas Cross Says:

        I hope Rychard does learn from this.

      • Indeed, there has been an effect, but I wonder if Bouwens has learnt anything. Haven’t had a chance yet to see if some of the other bullying terminology in the paper itself has changed.

      • The authors changed the text and apologised without any reservations. That sounds like a good outcome to me. Whether the lesson has been learned: based on today’s evidence, yes, whether it stays learned is a question for later. Peter, your log may have caused a positive change here (perhaps you weren’t the only one to raise this?). Now I would like to know who will turn out to be right on the science!

      • Yes, there is an interesting scientific issue to resolved. I look forward to seeing how that works out.

    • “Female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status: Poorly performing males are hostile toward a female teammate but submissive toward a male teammate.”

      OK, so there is a difference in that the senior person is affected differently.

      I think Peter’s original short statement about gender could be (and probably has been) misinterpreted. First, it could be construed as “if the junior scientist have been male, this wouldn’t have been as bad, because he could take it”. Second, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      One ingredient in stopping gender-based discrimination is to stop discriminating, even if it is reverse discrimination designed to protect the victim.

      The only relevant thing I can see here is whether the criticism would have been different had the junior researcher been male (which assumes that the senior researcher knows that the junior researcher is female).

  10. Peter/others, OT comment/question : Are you aware of the accusations in physics/0404029 or physics/0310134 form more than 13 years ago? What is your take on this

    • I remember reading them at the time.

      A general remark, not aimed at anything in particular: It is easy to make accusations, and it is difficult to defend oneself against false accusations. This doesn’t mean no accusations should be made. Rather, I think it means that we need some sort of court, similar to but perhaps outside the real legal system (though that is of course also an option), similar to the courts which hear disputes in sports and so on.

  11. […] In a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal, Bouwens explicitly called out Livermore in a couple of footnotes in his actual paper. Here are a number of points as to what makes these footnotes unprofessional, harassing, and unacceptable. (Peter Coles has an excellent breakdown of this.) […]

  12. The issue in this case is one of an unacceptable tone of criticism in a preprint. One would hope that had the draft paper not been revised before submission, a referee would have insisted the tone be changed. However, I am not confident that this would always happen.

    There is, however, another issue. Inappropriate, even bullying, criticism can be made in ways that are not public by an established academic against a junior researcher. This can adversely affect junior researchers fighting an uphill struggle to salvage a career in an overcompetitive career system.

    This can take a number of forms. It can be in referee’s reports, which can derail research paper submissions, fellowship applications and applications for facility time. It can be done within committees that assess applications by committee members, in a way that the junior researchers will not usually learn about. It can be done informally from one academic to another to derail applications for jobs.

  13. Version 2 of this paper on arXiv (dated Nov 9 2017) has the following in the comment field: “We sincerely apologize to the authors of Livermore+2017 for the unprofessional wording that we used in footnotes 8 and 9 in discussing their paper. The footnotes have now been removed and the text updated ….”

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