Let 2020 be the year in which we value those who ensure that science is self-correcting.
Last month, I got a private Twitter message from a postdoc bruised by the clash between science as it is and how it should be. He had published a commentary in which he pointed out errors in a famous researcher’s paper. The critique was accurate, important and measured — a service to his field. But it caused him problems: his adviser told him that publishing such criticism had crossed a line, and he should never do it again.
Scientists are very quick to say that science is self-correcting, but those who do the work behind this correction often get accused of damaging their field, or worse. My impression is that many error detectors are early-career researchers who stumble on mistakes made by eminent scientists, and naively think that they are helping by pointing out those problems — but, after doing so, are treated badly by the community.
Stories of scientists showing unwarranted hostility to error detectors are all too common. Yes, criticism, like science, should be done carefully, with due diligence and a sharp awareness of personal fallibility. Error detectors need to keep conversations focused on concrete facts, and should be open to benign explanations for apparent problems.