Other professions don’t tolerate public rudeness. Why do academics?

Scholars should model the constructive criticism of ideas, not yell ‘you're wrong’ during each other’s talks, says Katy Barnett

May 13, 2021
Elegant woman hit with a cream pie illustrating public rudeness in academia
Source: Getty (edited)

A few years ago, when conferences were still public events, I was midway through giving a paper when someone shouted out “You’re wrong!” – but offered no further elaboration.

When I tell this tale to non-academic friends, they are typically horrified. Such public rudeness would not be tolerated in their workplaces, they say. Yet some academic colleagues see little wrong with my opponent’s behaviour.

I’m with the non-academics on this one.

Don’t get me wrong. Although it’s sometimes tough to hear, I welcome criticism. We are seekers after the truth, after all, not omniscient sages. The more we know, the more we know what we don’t know. So our job is not just to speak but also to listen. In my case, I have learned an immense amount by showing my work to people with very different intellectual and theoretical viewpoints from mine, leading me to develop or reconsider my argument in light of authors, theorists, data or cases that I’ve missed.

But criticism must be constructive for this process to work. And, unfortunately, that seems to be beyond some of us.

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This comes out most clearly in the dreaded peer-review process, whose anonymity can produce extreme rudeness. Everyone has a tale of a referee’s report that simply said: “This argument is without merit” (or an even more insulting version thereof). You are left to wonder how exactly your argument is without merit. Sometimes the implication is that your theoretical perspective does not agree precisely with the reviewer’s and must therefore be utterly wrong – and perhaps immoral and dangerous. Other times, the problem appears to be that you did not write the exact article the referee wanted or you reached a different conclusion from theirs.

When I was a junior lawyer, my rule of thumb was never to say anything I’d be ashamed to have brought before a judge under my own name. A non-legal equivalent might be: never say anything you’d be ashamed to see attributed to you on the front page of a tabloid.

Then again, social media are very public forums. Yet academics increasingly use them to conduct post-publication “peer review” of controversial papers, which can quickly descend into mobbing and grandstanding. Social media make it too easy to go down an outrage spiral when you feel personally piqued. I’m no exception – I fell into the trap once by publicly criticising judicial decisions intemperately. It takes courage to admit you were wrong and apologise.

As an aside, the tiresome reality is that someone reading this will probably google me, see my reddish hair and pale skin, and tell me to “check my privilege”. Academic decorum, they will say, is the least of our concerns in defending the rights of the historically underprivileged. As it happens, while I am lucky to have many advantages, I have suffered from cerebral palsy since birth and my grandfather had visible Aboriginal ancestry (his army nickname would be deemed offensive these days). But, frankly, I don’t see how my background is relevant to my views, either about the law or about how academics should conduct ourselves.

Intemperate criticism doesn’t even have the desired effect. Simply being told that I am wrong, stupid, dangerous or even bad has never changed my mind. If anything, I begin to suspect that the opposite is true: if this is the only retort available, perhaps there is a grain of truth in my thesis that is scaring my critic.

My non-academic friends are astonished that we don’t have any ground rules for how criticism should be conducted – such as that when we criticise someone, we do them the courtesy of explaining clearly and concisely how and where they are wrong – ideally with suggestions for improving their argument. But such rules would not even be necessary if we adopted a more charitable mindset that accepted that our opponent is not necessarily evil for holding a different view, that everyone makes mistakes (I make many) and that the famous “shit sandwich” (criticism inserted between two slabs of positivity) is the best way to deliver food for thought.

Sometimes an article does need to be withdrawn if it is shown to contain fraud, negligence or egregious errors. But when you simply disagree with the conclusion, the appropriate response is to write a considered academic rebuttal; this contributes to the greater fund of knowledge. Journals could help by soliciting such rebuttals rather than simply withdrawing articles caught up in Twitter storms. They should also do more to ensure that peer-review reports are constructive.

You might say all of this is ultimately academic, but I would argue that it undermines the academy’s position in society. When we shout “you’re wrong” at each other (or, worse, at members of the public) we don’t look clever; we look like playground bullies.

Of course, we aren’t the only culprits. But surely academia should model the constructive criticism of ideas. After all, if even professional thinkers can’t manage it, who in this increasingly bad-tempered world can be expected to?

Katy Barnett is a professor at Melbourne Law School. The views expressed here are her own.

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Reader's comments (10)

The license taken in peer review is particularly immoral. Editors ought to remove rude and unsubstantiated remarks.
I couldn't agree more. I have observed for a while how Twitter outrage about findings sometimes causes editors to retract articles. It's against the scientific spirit of discovering truth if we let bullies dictate whose findings are allowed to be published. If you disagree with a conclusion or analysis, write a rejoinder or publish follow-up research that proves the original authors wrong. You can get proper credit for it in terms of citations, and the original (potentially flawed) analysis is not erased from our collective scientific record. We also need to learn from mistakes, and maintaining the "version history" of science is important in this endeavour. And as the author points out, it is also what good manners dictate.
I agree, if they don't like your conclusions they should have the confidence to explain why clearly and as publicly as they have made their disagreement.
Academia does seem to be a useful shelter for those who are clever but have poor social skills, and so would fin a job elsewhere less satisfying and more challenging. This does come out in situations such as the one described. On the other hand, I suspect that the tolerance for inappropriate behaviour is different in different disciplines. I have attended hundreds of conference presentations over 25 years, in mathematics, computing, engineering, psychology, and physics. I have never once had the experience of someone shouting out in the middle of a presentation and only occasionally have the Q&As gone off the rails. Indeed, of the three times (in 25 years!) we have had aggressive Q&As, in two of the cases it was the speaker who was inappropriately aggressive in response to questions that they did not want to hear, and those Q&A sessions are remembered as cautionary tales within the community as "when answering questions after your talk, do not behave like Dr X did at the 2010 conference".
Yes. I totally agree. I have discovered—through writing this article!—that my experience is fortunately rare. My colleagues who operate in different fields of law say that they very rarely see behaviour like this, and several of them have written privately to me to express horror. By contrast, in my particular field it is reasonably common. I suspect that the behaviour was started by a doyen of the field who is long dead, but whose work continues to be very influential. Others model themselves on that person. A colleague in a different field of law observed, “In your field, it’s almost like some schools of thought are religions.” When you get that in *any* academic field, I think you’re more likely to get this kind of behaviour. I should note that I’m a “heretic” - I don’t follow any school of thought entirely, and I read and consider work from all over the place, hence why my work might be regarded as “wrong”.
In 50 years of attending conferences on cell and developmental biology, neurobiology and mathematical modelling, I have never experienced anything approaching rudeness, save for speakers going overtime! As editor for a number of journals, the standard of the reviews has been, in my view, variable but outright unfair or rude reviews have been rare - though they do occur. Memorably, one manuscript reviewer, a very senior figure in the field, described the author (even more senior) as being paranoid. There were other highly unusual aspects to the review so my thought was "it takes one to know one", and I deleted this intemperate person from the recommended reviewer list. And one early paper of mine was described as "a turkey" although the reviewer candidly admitted that they couldn't say why, other than that its conclusions differed in part from the current opinions -- and it was published and was highly cited.
As I said to the commenter above - I think it very much depends upon the field, and even the sub-discipline, and the culture that has developed in it. Sometimes I have considered moving out of my particular sub-discipline for this reason. I do papers at times in different areas (corporate law, consumer law, animal law, construction law, Asian law) to remind myself that others regard my work as worthwhile even when they throughly disagree with it. I had some reviewer say one of my papers was “not worth publishing” - I wasn’t sure why, except that like yours, it had conclusions which were unusual and not in keeping with the dominant school. Fortunately I persisted and had a similar experience - it’s been well received once it’s out there.
An interesting development of social media has been academics insulting academics from other disciplines, yet still trying to pretend the 'argument' is academic rather than personal or political.
The irony is the glorification of "interdisciplinarity", while some academics seem to still be so parrochial and territorial, with some having no qualms about publicly insulting colleagues they disagree with. Twitter is just the latest reailty of this phenomenon that previously remained confined to academic events only. The power of hiding behind a monitor... Academia seems to be the perfect breeding ground for entitled frustrated "should have been me winning the xyz prize/grant/position" people that outside of academia would have had very short-lived careers, let alone tenure or labs with minions working for them on precarious contracts. I'm exaggerating, of course, but there's fair degree of reality in this interesting phenomenon.
The argument is self-defeating, it claims that there is a problem with impoliteness but accepts that it is only in a minority of cases. If a politeness police were set-up it'd only make the Academy more narrow-minded, self-congratulatory and career-oriented than it already is.


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