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Your theory is rubbish (but I won’t say it out loud)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Science seems to be full of controversies and conflicts; famous scientists willing to kill and be killed for their pet theories, former students challenging the views of their academic “parents” and so on. My favorite biology professor used to tell about the time when his post-doc advisor, after a lecture given by his former post-doc advisor, stood up, declared everything his academic “father” just said is wrong and that he is going to present the right theory the day after. That led to a long and bitter battle, until a third researcher offered a different theory altogether, forcing both professors to fight the new threat. However, usually science is less dramatic or controversial. Out of the fifteen reasons Eugene Garfield, founder of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) named as reference motivators, only three are negative:

  • Criticizing previous work
  • Disclaiming work or ideas of others (negative claims)
  • Disputing priority claims of others (negative homage)

It’s not that negative references don’t exist; it’s just that they go “undercover”. MacRoberts and MacRoberts (1984) called this practice “The art of dissembling.” They described three methods of avoiding or disguising criticism:

1. Praising – calling the work one wants to criticize ‘important’, ‘pioneering’, ‘classical’ and so forth. Of course, there are times in which these words are used to actually praise a work, but sometimes they are used to disguise criticism.

However, Harwood (2008) claims it’s possible that the authors praise works’ strengths as well as pointing out their weaknesses. The praises are genuine, but they tell only part of the story. He says it might be that MacRoberts and MacRoberts have been “overly cynical” regarding those praises. Having read several of their papers, I tend to agree with Harwood about the cynicism. If we take into account that most references serve more than one purpose (Brooks, 1986) we can assume the praises genuinely compliment the referenced work while dissembling the criticism against it at the same time.

2. I’m just going to leave this reference here… – That is when one mentions that work has been done in the field by X, Y and Z, but doesn’t say she thinks X’s work is a waste of funding.

3. I didn’t mean you, Professor X! – In this case, the authors don’t directly challenge the theories of influential people in their field. Instead, they use quotes from outsiders who hold similar theories. Even better: they attribute theories and views to people who passed away. Dead people don’t attend conferences and can’t punch anyone.

The use of negative references may also change across disciplines. Authors at the art and humanities disciplines tend to cite critically more than the hard science disciplines. Linguist Ken Hyland examined verbs used in citations and found that while the popular verbs in sociology were “argue”, “suggest”, “describe”, “note”, “analyse” and “describe”, the verbs used most in physics were “develop”, “report” and “study.” The verb “Argue” was used only by social sciences and humanities authors while “report” was used by science and engineering authors in 82% of the cases Hyland studied.

Why do authors disguise or avoid criticism? One reason is to avoid confrontation with colleagues who might be friends, mentors or influential in the field. Another reason is the peer review process. If the authors know the journal often sends articles for review to those being criticized in the manuscript, they might tone down their criticism to increase their chances of getting published. If they don’t tone down the criticism by their own accord, the editors might ask them to do that, in order to avoid arguments between the referees and the authors. A different case altogether is when authors don’t even bother referring to works they believe are incorrect, simply because they had no use for them.

To quote MacRoberts and MacRoberts:

“…not only is the form of the scientific paper highly ritualized and artificial, but so is published ‘criticism’, for if criticism were aired in the journals as it actually occurs in the lab, its frequency and nature, and hence that of negational citations, would be quite different from what ultimately appears in print.”

In short, what you hear in the lab is not what you’re going to read in the journal. Science, unfortunately, is not as impartial or impersonal as we would like to believe.

Brooks, T. A. (1986). Evidence of Complex Citer Motivations. JASIS

Hyland, K. (1999). Academic attribution: citation and the construction of disciplinary knowledge Applied Linguistics, 20 (3), 341-367 DOI: 10.1093/applin/20.3.341

MacRoberts, M., & MacRoberts, B. (1984). The Negational Reference: or the Art of Dissembling Social Studies of Science, 14 (1), 91-94 DOI: 10.1177/030631284014001006

Garfield, E. (1962). Can citation indexing be automated? Essays of an Information Scientist, 1, 84-90

Hadas Shema About the Author: Hadas Shema is an Information Science graduate student at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. She studies the characteristics of online scientific discourse and is a member of the European Union’s Academic Careers Understood through Measurement and Norms (ACUMEN) project. Hadas tweets at @Hadas_Shema.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. HubertB 8:17 pm 02/12/2013

    Who says you will not tell me my theory is rubbish? I have used an example from “The Theory of Relativity,” describing what actually happens to the photon emitted form the tail lamp when two trains pull away from each other with each going at half the speed of light. I have had more than one scientist tell me that I am crazy. That is not what the theory of relativity is all about.
    Of course, you are correct. Famous scientists do not criticize each other. They have caught too much flack on the way up defending their crazy theories.

    Link to this

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