Papers and pot-shots: when geologists attack

One of my most valuable learning experiences as a Geology undergraduate was a first-year tutorial with the  legendary Harold Reading. We were give an academic paper to write about (concerning alluvial fans) and we dutifully did so, showing we understood it, but simply taking it at face value, applying no critical analysis.

Discussing what we’d written, it became clear that my tutor thought the paper was rubbish. He proceeded to explain the many ways in which it got things wrong and finished up with a brief and funny attack on the characters of the authors.

This taught me not only a valuable lesson about critical thinking and scepticism, something any university course should convey, but also an insight into how science works. Getting a scientific paper published is not easy, but it is only the beginning of the process of creating science. If a paper is read, appreciated, cited and generally built upon then it becomes a brick embedded in one of humanity’s greatest achievements: the great structure of Science. Some papers are read, disagreed with and generally ignored, they end up as mere forgotten words.

With his remarks about the authors my tutor taught me something else: this noble calling of finding out what is ‘objectively true’ and what is not is performed by people, who are after all, only human. Academia is famously riven by jealousy, feuds, rivalry and outright bitchiness. This happens mostly in coffee lounges, conferences and field-trips but sometimes it seeps out into academic papers. I’m rather a fan of this sort of thing (I am very shallow) and I have a few examples to share.

There is a persuasive case to be made that, at least in the English-speaking world, modern science started in the Royal Society in Seventeenth Century England. It started with bitchiness, no doubt. Sir Isaac Newton’s famous remark “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants in a letter to Robert Boyle is interpreted by some as a snipe at Boyle himself, who was somewhat short. What is certain is that the two fell out on a personal level over scientific matters.**

In academic papers, the best source of vitriol is in “Discussion” and “Reply to Discussion” papers. This is the formal mechanism for group A to raise concerns with a paper published by group B and then for group B to reply and address those concerns. Sometimes this is all that happens and everyone is very polite and thanks everyone for their useful feedback. This is dull. The best ones are where the raw emotions are barely concealed beneath superficially polite formal language.

Let’s start with an old school example and a nice turn of phrase: “The authors fail to reply to the point raised by Professor Wood… that field mapping and petrographic evidence show the northern contact to be of a ‘purely hallucinatory nature‘ “doi: 10.1144/gsjgs.137.4.0513 August 1980 Journal of the Geological Society, 137, 513-514.

An up-to-date one: “Westaway also suggests … however a glimpse of the map shows that … “ Michael P. Searle, Sun-Lin Chung, and Ching-Hua Lo Reply to Discussion on ‘Geological offsets and age constraints along the northern Dead Sea fault, Syria’ Journal, 167, 1001–1008 Journal of the Geological Society March 2011, v. 168:623-624; doi:10.1144/0016-76492010-166

The use of ‘glimpse’ is a nice example of English as spoken by the English: forms of words that are superficially neutral but in fact conceal far stronger meanings. The comedy “Yes (Prime) Minister” has some nice examples plus there is a useful guide in The Economist magazine. In my example, using ‘glimpse’ instead of say ‘careful study’ sends a clear message of disdain.

Some stronger language: “Owen refers to the interpretation of the Silverpit structure as an impact crater as a ‘speculative hypothesis’. This is consistent with an earlier statement he has made: ‘This feature, termed the Silverpit Crater, has earlier been interpreted as a meteor impact structure (Stewart & Allen 2002), without a shred of scientific justification’ (Thomson et al. 2005). The inference that the hypothesis lacks any observational basis disregards a wealth of 3D seismic analysis by Stewart & Allen (2002, 2005). The statement is at best disingenuous, as Owen chooses to ignore the thorough work of earlier workers. ”  M.L.T. Wall, J. Cartwright, and R.J. Davies Reply to discussion on ‘An Eocene age for the proposed Silverpit Impact Crater’ Journal, Vol. 165, 781–794 Journal of the Geological Society December 2009, v. 166:1159-1160; doi:10.1144/0016-76492009-061

The emotion in that is clear. See here for some background to the interesting geology being debated.

My favourite example of all is found in a pair of papers concerning porphyroblasts. First some background; Professor Tim Bell, self-described on his own university web-site as a maverick structural geologist has spent the last 20 years promoting a startling idea. The many research papers produced by him and his group seek to prove that during orogensis, porphyroblasts do not rotate with respect to geographical coordinates and that the fabrics preserved in them contain extremely valuable information about past deformation. Put simply, in the case where curved fabrics are seen in porphyroblasts, the fabric (and therefore the entire rock) has rotated, but the mineral grain itself hasn’t. This is not a mainstream view and the debate is ongoing (my very English use of ‘startling’ above is a guide to my feelings on the matter, for what its worth).

Prof. Bell’s ideas were first published in the Journal of Metamorphic Geology in the early 90’s. From gossip at the time, I gather that they ended up there as the structural geology journals wouldn’t publish it. In 1992 a critical response was published in the same journal: “Porphyroblast rotation: eppur si muove?” (DOI: 10.1111/j.1525-1314.1992.tb00083.x).

The ‘eppur si muove’ bit is explained as “Italian: ‘but she moves nonetheless’, the words reportedly spoken by Galileo Galilei on 22 June 1633 at the offices of the Holy Inquisition in Rome, after having been forced to renounce the idea that the Earth rotates around the Sun.” The paper then proceeds to critique the original paper with lines like “Critical assessment of the assumptions and data used to support the theory of irrotational porphyroblasts reveals numerous flaws“.

So, facing a robust rebuttal of their work that uses a pretentious Italian quote, how would any Australian act? Why, with a vigorous response and a vulgar mockery of the quote, of course!

T. H. BELL, S. E. JOHNSON, B. DAVIS, A. FORDE, N. HAYWARD, C. WILKINS, Porphyroblast inclusion-trail orientation data:eppure non son girate!, Journal of Metamorphic Geology, 1992, 10, 3.

The tag explained as: “Italian: ‘and yet they have not rotated’, the words reportedly spoken, after a strenuous performance, by Santaccia, a lady informant of ill repute for the Roman poet Belli (1832).”

All my examples are rigorous scientific papers in proper journals, but I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of what is out there. Does anyone else have any good examples they’d like to share?


** I urge you to find out more about the Royal Society as it is fascinating stuff. Both Boyle and Newton have ‘Laws’ named after them, but that is just scratching the surface of what they achieved. There is also a tension between Newton as ‘theorist’ and Boyle as a mere ’empiricist’ which has a lot of contemporary resonance with Geology vs. Earth Sciences. Anything by Lisa Jardine is worth reading and there are some interesting podcasts about the Royal Society, both via the Royal Society itself (via ITunes) and on the awesome In Our Time on the BBC website.




Categories: Uncategorized
Tags: ,

Comments (2)

  1. Chris says:

    Our very own Brian Romans (@clasticdetritus) alerted geotweeps on Twitter a while back about a reply to a paper on deep sea sedimentation accumulation rates. The criticism was not about the methods, or even the findings. Just the general presentation of the paper (fussy!).

    Here was the author’s response:


  2. Tim Bell says:

    Hi Simon
    My daughter emailed me your link this morning (she was being interviewed about academic controversy and they wanted examples) and I have just read it before I depart to China in 4 hours to talk on where I have gone scientifically as a result of that paper & the 1989 one. I loved it and you got it spot on except for one thing. I submitted that first paper only to JMG because I was on sabbatical leave with the Aussie editor of JMG at Univ New Mexico in 1984 (JMG & JSG started around the same time) and I had stuck to the main stream journal at that time, for Structural Geos with a Metamorphic bent, Tectonophysics, rather than try any new kids on the block. He persuaded me to try JMG and I did and continued to do so for many years because getting good quality photos out was hard before the digital age.

    It was after the more controversial paper (porphs being the key to orogenesis in 1989, which I only submitted to JMG as well) that I could not get papers published on where I was going with this for about 5 years. I was not enamoured with JSG. A rather brittle journal.

    Indeed, as a result, when I got the Passchier et al discussion, I leapt for joy because it meant that I could get some stuff out that I had not been able to. I had the greatest fun writing it and you appear to have found out what the Italian means in the Roman Dialect! I played squash daily with Bruce Merry who did his PhD on translating Bellis classic, but certainly vulgar poems, into English.

    If you want a look at where I had more fun, directly compare their Final Statement in 1992 with mine.

    On supposedly retiring (you apparently still need convincing), I sent JMG a paper (2012) showing one ultimate product of where this stuff can get you scientifically as a thank you for having enough courage to publish the 1989 paper. I sent the other to Tectonophysics (2013). With regards to the readers of each journal it should have gone the opposite way around but time will fix that.

    Keep it up! An Italian met pet (now dead) who was at Univ New Hampshire in 1992 wrote on the reprint request card that he sent me for the eppure non son girate paper, “science should not be without humour!”

    Tim Bell

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *