A few of you might have followed a very recent pile-on on Twitter. For those that have not, here is some context: a recent paper by Felig et al. (2021) investigated the notion of whether women that dress lightly in the evening when going out, feel “hot” despite the cold temperatures and if this phenomenon could be explained with self-objectification. The authors are female PhD students and early-career researchers (ECR) from Florida. After their paper – first published in the British Journal for Social Psychology – was promoted on Twitter, it was heavily criticized by – what has been coined – “bropen science”. Although supportive posts quickly outnumbered the initial attackers, the consequences for the authors and those involved are heavy. In this post, I will outline why we should view such attacks under a lens of power asymmetry, and why this is particularly detrimental for those still trying to gain credibility. I make some suggestions on how to deal with this issue.
Considering psychology’s (especially experimental social psychology’s) replication crisis, the idea behind exposing “bad science” is certainly not a bad one; exposing intentionally p-hacked, dubious, or fake studies is important for gaining credibility as a field. However, when such “vigilantism” involves crossing boundaries and either attacking the researcher(s) personally or questioning the entire relevance of the study subject (or both) we should ask: Who is in power in such conversations?
The open science movement conveys the message that we as researchers need to be transparent and make our work accessible to be credible. Because of that it has become a powerful institution and dictates research routines more and more. However, the system seems to work better for some than for others. Against its initial objectives to reform the field and make it better for all, it rather is a reflection of societal power structures and privileges, benefitting those who have achieved a position that does not make them worry about career prospectives anymore (e.g., academic tenure, but also retirement). It systematically allows little diversity, imposes often impractical requirements on research strands that are not quantitative, and keeps its eyes closed when those that, in line with the movement’s criteria, transparently provide their work and by doing so exhibit potential shortcomings, limitations, or imperfections, get punished, rather than positively reinforced.
The twist in “bropen science” then linguistically illustrates which characteristics are fostered by the system (Kirstie Whitaker and Olivia Guest provide a brilliant elaboration on the term) and who seems to get away with such attacks in the name of open science. The asymmetry in power relations in those attacks become obvious when considering that, first, the target of such attacks often is a woman, women-led research or a team of females researchers (even established ones, such as in the case of Dr Amy Cuddy), concerned with women empowerment; second, that such attacks can have heavy consequences for the attacked; the least harmful might revolve around pre-existing statistics anxieties which may become worse among the attacked but also among to-be-authors after witnessing what online promotion can entail. As many have pointed out, while the attackers will move on, the scars will remain with the victims; and that third, the consequences weigh heavily also for the reputation and credibility among those that are still building such up (i.e., PhD students and/ or ECR).
What happened to Felig et al. (2021), concerned with self-objectification among young women, shows such signs of asymmetry: The attack involved an original post by a now retired researcher retweeting the promotion of the paper, ridiculing its relevance, and questioning its statistical credibility while tagging established others from which, presuming, support was expected. While this remained absent, the post was promptly turned into a heavy pile-on, involving people – among them established statisticians and psychologists – almost entirely men (followed by a few “Karens”) sharing silly memes and ridiculing the paper and authors even more. The attack went on over days, even after (or because of?) Felig defended herself online but was evidently emotionally affected. It went as far as re-examining the (transparently!) provided dataset by including outliers and DVs that were openly declared by Felig et al. (2021) as left out for good reasons. Apart from the fact that some might call this p-hacking, that such re-analyses take place in public space is not helpful for the authors, nor is the original attack that contributed nothing to constructive feedback from which the authors could have learned and improved their skills for future open science studies, if necessary.
Fortunately, since then, many academic Twitter users stood up for the authors and called the unacceptable behaviour out. This not only involved other PhD students, established academics, and even one of the peer reviewers but also researchers who admitted to having engaged in similar inappropriate behaviour themselves before but who now had “learned their lesson”. One of the people who had initially jumped on the pile now even took the time to carefully analyse the paper and provided the authors with constructive feedback and emphasised the effort and transparency the authors provided. Again, whether such public criticism is the best solution, is up for debate.
Publishing and promoting academic work online is crucial for us as researchers; for our reputation, for job perspectives (after the PhD), and networking, but it makes us vulnerable, too. The recent situation has shown me even more how vulnerable we are. Criticism is always uncomfortable, and while no serious researcher ever wants to engage in questionable methods, mistakes can happen, especially in early work. Although open science should reward learning processes, the recent situation has revealed how public engagement in the name of open science can also be detrimental; those that engaged in the pile-on were neither interested in contributing to “good science” nor in mentoring the to-be-scientists, but acted in self-interest, cementing their position of power, and using it against a group of ECRs, who are still building up reputation and credibility.
So, what can we do?
Get in touch with the authors or editor if you have concerns
The first author provides their email address for a reason. If you see a paper, you do not agree with or you have your concerns about, why not get in touch directly? You can do so with the authors themselves, but also with the journal or editor. This way, concerns can be expressed and clarified in a way that gives the authors a chance to write a correction or erratum if needed.
Get in touch with the authors and/ or influential others if you want to support them
Being a female PhD student myself, I was in shock observing how the conversation unfolded. The fear of being yet another target has made me step back from calling out anyone on Twitter myself. Instead, I decided to get in touch with the first author and express my solidarity. I also reached out to an influential researcher who was tagged in the tweet and asked them to act. However, I was left disappointed since they explained that they would prefer to stay silent, which unfortunately only contributes to letting the attackers off the hook, unpunished.
Contribute to shifting power dynamics
Open science being a powerful movement, we should focus on its core values, namely, to make science transparent and accessible and to foster learning and improvement in a respectable way. Observing the situation unfold, supportive and constructive comments eventually outnumbered the original attack by far. You can contribute to this by speaking out yourself or by amplifying such posts. In this way, weights may be shifted in the conversation.
Finally, the majority might agree with me that Twitter is not an ideal medium for academic discussion (perhaps not for any discussion). However, the reason why I put a question mark at this point is because that there are obvious benefits in being on academic Twitter: It helps us with staying up to date with research and colleagues, networking, promoting ourselves, and perhaps even with finding a job. So how can we reconcile the benefits and risks? While I do not have a definite answer, there are ways to protect yourself on social media, including using a fake name or anonymous account (or writing a blog post anonymously?!). You may be even able to change your name on the publication and use a pseudonym. The obvious downside is that with anonymity, publications cannot be attributed to us and therefore not contribute to professional development. Thus, protection goes at the expense of progression and reputation!
Concluding, what we have witnessed is unacceptable, and strongly shaped by what the open science movement allows to happen. Fortunately, people have positioned themselves and supported the ones concerned. I have outlined some ways in which you can contribute to this without exposing yourself or others (even more).
 The “Karen” trope is commonly used in the context of racist attacks on Black people, dominantly in the US. A “Karen” thereby represents white middle-class, middle-aged women complaining about what they – against all face value – describe as “criminal behaviour” of a Black person (mainly men). This can go as far as calling the police (which can constitute lethal consequences for the Black person). I argue that we can use this term here too since the trope represents an attempt by a “Karen” to gain her share of the power in a (white) male-dominated world by playing along with it – even at the expense of those systematically disadvantaged, which on another level includes the “Karen” herself.
I agree with everything you say except the “Karen” justification. It’s moved far beyond its origins of calling out anti-Black sentiment and – particularly outside North America where there name has different class associations – it is now used to shut down the speech of any woman who disagrees with a stated opinion.
I’ve seen it directed irl at 30 year old black women making a feminist point. I’ve seen it directed against women online who were *defending* the Fiegl et al. paper. Calling someone a “Karen” is not punching up against racist oppression; it’s punching down again women for speaking out. It’s misogyny, pure and simple. Please don’t perpetuate it.
thanks for your comment on the post. It’s a very important point you make that further nuances the picture. I totally agree with you that shutting a woman’s voice down when speaking up in a justified matter (especially when the context is misogynistic from the start) by reversing the “Karen” trop is deeply misogynistic in its core and nothing else. In my post, I specifically referred to replies that I have seen by women that used the same narrative as their male counterparts and by doing so play along with a system that eventually is directed towards themselves (Guest & Whitaker cluster women and men that follow such toxic narratives as “bros”). For this, I found the “Karen” trop quite applicable. But thanks for your clarification, this is important to have under the original post.
Thank you for publishing this piece!
Dear Roxanne, thanks for your comment. In solidarity