The scientist’s guide to insulting other scientists: elephant in the lab series

elephant in the roomScientists have special ways of using words to insult each other and believe me it can be vicious even if almost uninterpretable to those not fluent in that language.

These insults are sometimes brutal or fatal career-wise, but also sometimes ironic and telling of our scientific culture.

They are often also not talked about because people are too embarrassed. Thus, as part of my “elephant in the lab series” (see previous installments here on taboo topics in iPS cells and how to kill papers as a reviewer), today I’m blogging about the special ways that scientists skewer each other and I’m translating them for you.

mud slinging

I’m not saying I agree with the basis of these insults or that these insults are even really insulting to a normal person, but they are things scientists say to insult each other.

Here are some top 10 insults. Inserting one or more of these into a grant critique or tenure review could be lethal so use with caution unless of course you are a jerk or want revenge or…you get the picture.

1.) Mostly publishes in specialized journals. Ouch. What the heck does it mean? “Specialized journals” is a euphemism for lower impact journals. Not Cell, not Science, not Nature, not Cell Stem Cell, etc. It is not unusual to see this term “specialized journal” in a paper review in which the reviewer is being an ass by saying your paper is not good enough for the journal in question.

2. ) Moderate productivity. This can be lethal. Productivity is the number of papers you are cranking out and if you are only putting out a trickle of papers, other scientists will slap you for it. Even if you are putting out a reasonable number of papers, scientists may still say this about you as a way to insult you.

3. ) Attends few international meetings. Snap. How is this translated? “You are off the radar screen of the leaders in your field.” You are not being invited to THE meetings, for God’s sake. Out of the loop. Out of touch. Of course this might also mean on the positive side that you have more time for your trainees and lab, but that’s not how most scientists view it.

4. ) Papers are mostly descriptive. Vicious. Your work is boring. It is not mechanistic, but simplistic. A monkey could do this kind of science.

5. ) Trainees are not attaining academic positions. Brutal. As a mentor, you suck. You’re attracting and/or guiding your trainees to be patent lawyers, glorified technicians, industry pawns, teachers, or worse…anything but independent PIs running their own labs.

6. ) Overly ambitious. Translation? You take off more than you can chew. You might think in science, where ambition could be a virtue, that saying one is overly ambitious is an oxymoron, but alas it is not. You need just the right amount of ambition. How much? Hell if I know.

7. ) Mostly middle author publications. Of course not everyone can be first or corresponding authors on all their papers, right? Even if we see 7 co-third authors on some papers, the reality most of us realize is that being a middle author is less important than being an author in a place of prominence. Therefore, if someone says you mostly have middle author publications they are basically calling you a loser.

8. ) Outstanding educator. This one is tricky. It could be a compliment or it could be a backhanded way of insulting you for spending too much time and effort teaching rather than on what is of course more important to the powers that be in academia: research.

9. ) Very good scientist. Wait, that sounds positive, right? Wrong. In science, “very good” means bad. Even “excellent” is kind of borderline. You think Stanford or Harvard have grade inflation problems? Ha, nothing compared to science where being called “excellent”, for example in a grant, might bring someone to tears.

10.) Science is derivative and/or incremental. This is a stinger. It means your work lacks innovation and creativity, being mostly derived from that of others. It is not revolutionary, but rather stepwise and cautious in nature. The bottom line is that your work isn’t going to inspire anyone or anything interesting.


  1. Two more zingers:
    1) His wife is charming (or as appropriate, husband is charming)
    2) Is not an atheist (but there must be a more clever, sneaky way to say this)

  2. At the age of twelve I was called into The Presence of my French grandmother–seriously people, there is nothing equivalent in plain American English to the dreaded Mémère–so that she might pronounce upon my fortune, my fate, and my figure. I heard, directed to my mother (nothing like being talked about in the third person when you are in the room) these immortal words of love and approbation:

    “Well, she has a nice complexion.”

    Gawd, she was a nasty piece of work.

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