Authors’ guide to handling criticism

None of our research ideas, work, or reporting are perfect, which means they are all destined to be criticized and potentially discarded. This process makes science better in the battlefield of ideas, with the best ideas presumably winning out. However, this can generate anxiety and unpleasantness for authors submitting the reports of their studies to medical journals.

It’s Not Personal. Science invites scrutiny and revision of any claims. In fact, scrutiny and revisions mean that your work has been taken seriously enough that someone is willing to read it and share their critiques. Therefore, look for the useful parts of the criticism. What can you learn from it to improve your work? Focus on the substance of the critique and not the fact that your own work is part of the criticism. For instance, my first paper came under criticism for improper attribution. I used the feedback to seek sound knowledge and improve reporting of my work. Over time, it definitely made my work much better.

Critics might be correct. We all find it hard to be on the wrong end of scientific criticism—especially if the criticism addresses a fatal flaw in your work—and it is natural to feel defensive. But we think it is usually a better career move to be open to the possibility that the criticism has merit. In my own experience, such a mindset is key to moving on a solid ground of sound knowledge.

Take the high ground. Regardless of the tone of the criticism, it is always best to respond politely. Thank the person for taking the time they took to engage with your work and think carefully about whether the issues they raise are worth addressing. Focusing on a constructive exchange of ideas, rather than a person’s tone, will set a good example and may open the door to a productive collaboration.

Ignore the toxic comments. Unfortunately, there are some critiques that are not constructive because they aim to agitate rather than inform. As scientific dialogue has moved to the internet, and now social media, you are likely to attract toxic criticism. In that case, you must avoid drowning into a sea of toxins.

Science is a process, but it’s also a community. Strive to be a constructive critic and a scientist who invites helpful feedback on your own work. Adding toxicity into the mix creates a culture where people feel the need to be defensive and closed off to valuable critiques.

Remember that science involves people who are trying their best. We all deserve to be treated with respect—and you can start by modeling the type of behaviors you hope to encounter in others.

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