As I was working on a manuscript the other day, I encountered the usual decision about which papers to cite for a particular statement. I had a large number of choices in this case, and I just needed to select a few as good examples. I wanted to show that the relevant concept had been studied by many people for a long time, so I picked some old papers and some very recent papers. And of course I picked papers that I thought were exemplary for the point I wanted to make. Mostly I made positive choices -- that is, I selected papers that I thought were good to include. In one case, however, I made a negative choice -- that is, a specific decision to exclude a reference to a paper, not because the paper was bad, but because I loathed the author.
If that paper really had to be cited and it would be inappropriate for me to omit it, I would have included it, despite my feelings about the author. I have, in the past, cited this person's work in my papers. But, in this case, I had lots of choices and it was not essential to cite that particular paper, so I used an unprofessional criterion for one decision. The loathsome individual in question was an abusive person, physically and emotionally, and I'd rather not see his name in one of my papers if there is not a compelling (ethical, scientific) reason to include it.
I thought about this when I got an e-mail from a reader wondering whether s/he should change a plan that involved pursuing/writing about research ideas that had been promoted by someone who was had been arrested for a crime of a truly sickening sort. The crime had nothing to do with the research. It just happened that a person who was doing some interesting research is a criminal and a creep.
Should the research ideas be ignored, not written about, locked up along with the creep?
This is a much more extreme case than the minor one I confronted in my recent citing decision, both because of the nature of the crimes and because this is about pursuing research ideas, not just tossing in a citation in a paper. The general issue is similar, though:
- How is your research affected if you are sickened by the crimes or other unsavory behavior of another researcher (but not necessarily by the research related to that person)?
- Does anyone think that citing a creep somehow condones the creepish behavior?
In this particular situation, there is no ethical reason why my correspondent has to follow up on and/or write about the creep's research ideas; it is entirely a choice based on the fact that the ideas are interesting. Even so, the research ideas will inevitably lead to thoughts of this other person who is closely associated with them, and therefore to his crimes. This may therefore affect not only how you feel about the research, but also how others perceive the work, and therefore you.
Context is of course important, but without knowing any specifics of the people, the crime, and the research, what would you do in this general situation? As long as the crime was unrelated to the research, can opinions about the research be considered independently of the researcher?
I just looked up the citation data for the one scientist that I know of in recent years to be arrested for a sickening crime; this person is in a field sort of related to mine, and it was a huge shock when he was arrested and the nature of his crimes revealed. The data show that his citation rate is holding steady at a very high rate, the same as before he went to prison, even though his publication rate dropped to zero while he was incarcerated. I would kill for his h-index (<-- sorry, inappropriate joke!).
I am not surprised by the citation data; he has done excellent, fundamental work in his field over the years, and it would be strange if his major publications were not cited often. I would also not be surprised, however, if anyone who knows of his crimes thinks of them every time they see his name. I certainly do.
So, are there ways in which you are influenced in your research decisions (major or minor) by your feelings about someone's reprehensible behavior outside of the research sphere? Note that I am not talking about ordinary jerks. I am talking about criminals and major creeps whose very name makes you feel sick and angry.