Against question and answer time

Here is a semi-serious suggestion: Let’s do away with questions and answers after talks.

I’ll preface with two examples:

First, a scientist I respect highly had just given a talk. As we were chatting away afterwards, I referred to someone who had asked a question during the talk. The answer: ”I didn’t pay attention. I don’t listen when people talk at me like that.”

Second, Swedish author Göran Hägg had this little joke about question and answer time. I paraphrase from memory: Question time is useless because no reasonable person who has a useful contribution will be socially uninhibited enough to ask a question in a public forum (at least not in Sweden). To phrase it more nicely: Having a useful contribution and feeling comfortable to speak up might not be that well correlated.

I have two intuitions about this. On the one hand, there’s the idea that science thrives on vigorous criticism. I have been at talks where people bounce questions at the speaker, even during the talk and even with pretty serious criticisms, and it works just fine. I presume it has to do both with respect, skill at asking and answering, and the power and knowledge differentials between interlocutors.

On the other hand, we would prefer to have a good conversation and productive arguments, and I’m sure everyone has been in seminar rooms where that wasn’t the case. It’s not a good conversation if, say, question and answers turn into old established guys (sic) shouting down students. In some cases, it seems the asker is not after a productive argument, nor indeed any honest attempt to answer the question. (You might be able to tell by them barking a new question before the respondent has finished.)

Personally, I’ve turned to asking fewer questions. If it’s something I’ve misunderstood, it’s unlikely that I will get the explanation I need without conversation and interaction. If I have a criticism, it’s unlikely that I will get the best possible answer from the speaker on the spot. If I didn’t like the seminar, am upset with the speaker’s advisor, hate it when people mangle the definition of ”epigenetics” or when someone shows a cartoon of left-handed DNA, it’s my problem and not something I need to share with the audience.

I think questions and answers is one of thing that actually has benefitted from a move to digital seminars on a distance, where questions are often written in chat. This might be because of a difference in tone between writing a question down or asking it verbally, or thanks to the filtering capabilities of moderators.

Neutral citation again

Here is a piece of advice about citation:

Rule 4: Cite transparently, not neutrally

Citing, even in accordance with content, requires context. This is especially important when it happens as part of the article’s argument. Not all citations are a part of an article’s argument. Citations to data, resources, materials, and established methods require less, if any, context. As part of the argument, however, the mere inclusion of a citation, even when in the right spot, does not convey the value of the reference and, accordingly, the rationale for including it. In a recent editorial, the Nature Genetics editors argued against so-called neutral citation. This citation practice, they argue, appears neutral or procedural yet lacks required displays of context of the cited source or rationale for including [11]. Rather, citations should mention assessments of value, worth, relevance, or significance in the context of whether findings support or oppose reported data or conclusions.

This flows from the realisation that citations are political, even though that term is rarely used in this context. Researchers can use them to accurately represent, inflate, or deflate contributions, based on (1) whether they are included and (2) whether their contributions are qualified. Context or rationale can be qualified by using the right verbs. The contribution of a specific reference can be inflated or deflated through the absence of or use of the wrong qualifying term (‘the authors suggest’ versus ‘the authors establish’; ‘this excellent study shows’ versus ‘this pilot study shows’). If intentional, it is a form of deception, rewriting the content of scientific canon. If unintentional, it is the result of sloppy writing. Ask yourself why you are citing prior work and which value you are attributing to it, and whether the answers to these questions are accessible to your readers.

When Nature Genetics had an editorial condemning neutral citation, I took it to be a demand that authors show that they’ve read and thought about the papers they cite.

This piece of advice seems to ask something different: that authors be honest about their opinions about a work they cite. That is a radical suggestion, because if people were, I believe readers would get offended. That is, if the paper wasn’t held back by offended peer reviewers before it reached any readers. Honestly, as a reviewer, I would probably complain if I saw a value-laden and vacuous statement like ‘this excellent study’ in front of a citation. It would seem to me an rude attempt to tell the reader what to think.

So how are we to cite a study? On the one hand, we can’t just drop the citation in a sentence, but are obliged to ‘mention assessments of value, worth, relevance or significance’. On the other hand, we must make sure that they are ‘qualified by using the right verbs’. And if citation is political, then whether a study ‘suggests’ or ‘establishes’ conclusions is also political.

Disclaimer: I don’t like the 10 simple rules format at all. I find that they belong on someone’s personal blog and not in a scientific journal, given that their evidence for their assertions usually amounts to nothing more than my own meandering experience … This one is an exception, because Bart Penders does research on how scientists collaborate and communicate (even if he cites no research in this particular part of the text).

Penders B (2018) Ten simple rules for responsible referencing. PLoS Computional Biology