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:
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):