Monday, 22 July 2013

Pretentious? Moi?

There is a reluctance to criticise people

It is hard not to be aware of the strong reluctance in the wave energy community (valid use of the much-abused term 'community') to be seen as critical of “other people's work”.  I think the problem is less the criticism of the work, and more the implied criticism of the people who identify with this work - there is concern that critique could cause offence. Perhaps more importantly, being critical of previous work bears a risk to one's reputation of being perceived as "pretentious". This is because criticism can be interpreted as an attempt to show that one is better than the person whose work is being criticised.

Discussing the work of the leaders in the field is particularly difficult, because of our tendency to deify our pioneers. I can't speak for other universities, but certainly at Edinburgh, we regarded the previous generation of researchers with a kind of reverence usually reserved for saintly figures. To question a pioneer was not just a sign of lack of humility, but was brazenly sacrilegious!

There are some types of criticism that inherently carry over to the author of the critiqued work. Words such as 'pretentious', 'over-optimistic', 'naive' or 'misinformed' imply a criticism of the author, because they are judgements of why the author has expressed a particular view. When confronted by an opinion that differs from mine, I naturally find myself trying to second-guess what the author's motivations were. Knowing how easy it is to slip into the habit of using language that implies a judgement of the author, I have set myself the following (hard to follow, but worthy) personal challenges:
  1. When critiquing someone else's work, check for words that imply a judgement of the author's motivations: this judgement is not objective and has no place in an objective discussion. Comment only on the idea; do not second-guess the motivation.
  2. When receiving critique from others, look out for words that imply judgement of my motivations. Put the discussion back onto an objective track by replying to the critique as though it were an objective comment about my work only.

There is a reluctance to criticise ideas

There are some good reasons why criticising someone's work could have negative consequences for the person whose work is criticised, even if this is not intended as a personal attack. In academia, career success is measured by reputation. Funding applications are strongly influenced by peer esteem. 

In industry, peer esteem also influences funding opportunities to some extent. The reputation of ideas is also extremely important for attracting investment in such a new field, as there is not yet enough proof of what types of concept are the most cost effective. As a result, there is a taboo about discussion of the relative merits of different types of device. The fear that a half-baked opinion about a particular class of device could reduce the healthy diversity of the design 'gene-pool' is a valid concern. However, I don't believe that it is necessarily healthy to avoid discussing whether there are any types of devices that are unlikely to ever be economical. I think it would be healthier to have these discussions, but to warn industry to reserve judgement until the academic discussion has reached an evidence-based consensus.

The reluctance to criticise ideas is harmful for our community

Most other science-based fields benefit from discussing previous work dispassionately, without insult to the author. It is part of normal academic discourse to discuss flaws in past work. Here are the reasons why I believe that wave energy would benefit from more open, frank, discussions:
  1. By avoiding open disagreement of existing ideas, one's peers are deprived of the opportunity to discuss this difference of opinions. This discussion may result in either or both parties gaining a better understanding of the problem.
  2. This is not a mature field; there is still a lot to learn. Small advances multiply, as ideas feed each other.
  3. An example of ideas feeding on each other is categorisation. Words are a linguistic model for describing our mental models of how the world works: if the words don't exist, our mental models will tend to reflect these gaps. For example, if we categorise wave energy converters as a fixed number of distinct design solutions, this could discourage consideration of new designs, or variations of existing designs, that do not fit into the existing categories.
  4. As criticism of ideas rather than people becomes the norm, this will make it easier for others to speak more freely, or to accept critique without questioning whether personal criticism was intended.
  5. Researchers new to wave energy often find the literature difficult to digest, because there are numerous methods and approaches, ambiguous terminology, and occasional errors. The reluctance to compare approaches, pin down terminology, or identify flaws and errors, makes it difficult to learn about the field from literature alone. Mistakes are repeated; wheels are reinvented. People need a good research group so that they can 'learn by osmosis'. This makes it difficult for isolated researchers or new research groups to break into the field. It may also be one of the reasons we deify our pioneers: the mentoring process results in a strong group identity.

Double-blind peer review

One thing that can be done on a community level is double blind peer review: it is possible for review papers to be stripped of the author and affiliation information. This would benefit the wave energy community in several ways. Not only would it remove one more link between the author and the work, making reviewers reserve judgement about the author's motivations, but it would remove unintentional bias, leading to fairer and more rigorous reviews. This would help new research groups enter into the field.

A double-blind peer review would encourage more impersonal, objective peer review of the ideas presented in papers. It will not immediately solve the problem of encouraging papers to discuss previous work in an impersonal objective manner. However, perhaps there will be an indirect impact: if reviewers can demonstrate how to disagree with ideas in an impartial, non-judgemental way, this will set the standard for the next generation of wave energy literature. 

Image credit:

'Duck on duck' : Original author unknown; appears in several locations on the internet; I would be grateful for more information.

1 comment:

  1. I believe critique can be constructive if digested properly, whether or not it is written judgmentally. The one being critiqued can read, digest for at least 24 hours, then write a reply. The community benefits from constructive critique more because trust builds between the two parties of critiqued and critic. Names should be used to build a bond between them.

    We all want the same thing, to have wave energy as a primary electric power source. We can work together and make that happen.

    Cynthia Osmun
    Wave Energy Associates