How dare you to “speculate” about what your results might mean?

That’s the attitude I’ve received twice now, from two different reviewers, on two different papers.

In the latest case, we did some work related to antibiotic resistance, and we found interesting new pathways activated in one resistant strain.

At the end of the paper, we speculated about what these pathways might be doing. We even came up with a model for it.

We didn’t claim that this was “the correct answer” – we just said, “hey, here’s our model, it’s the best we can come up with given what we know so far.”

The important thing about a model is that then you have something to test.

Science always proceeds in two stages:

1. Start with a model (e.g. a hypothesis)
2. Test that hypothesis, attempting to falsify it

For some reason, certain people seem to think that science solely consists of step number 2 – falsifying.

But, actually, step 1 is just as important, if not more. Step 1 is what leads to the real innovative leaps (and things like Nobel prizes).

But, because it involves “creativity,” and because nobody really understands what “creativity” is (a topic for a future book of mine), it gets swept under the rug.

Hence, when we use our creativity to speculate and build a model of what our results might mean, we get reviewers who say: OMG, hey, that’s way too speculative! You shouldn’t put that in your paper!

Let’s consider two scenarios:

1. We publish a paper with just the results, giving no interpretation/speculation.

2. We publish a paper with the results plus our speculative model of what they mean.

Which one of those two papers is more likely to lead someone to follow up to actually figure out what is going on?

In case number 2, where we provide the model, it is easy. We’ve provided a model, and all someone has to do is to test it (or prove it wrong).

In case number 1, we’ve only provided some data. Someone else can go test it to make sure that their data produces the same results – but if they also refuse to speculate about what it means, their paper will be even more boring than ours (unless it is a conflicting result).

Speculation is the cornerstone of science. It is what pushes things forward. I don’t like reading papers that leave me without any speculation as to what the results mean – they are dry and boring. And I certainly don’t like writing such papers because they are dry and boring.

As long as speculation is labeled for what it is, nobody is being misled. Any reader can choose to agree with it or disagree with it. In fact, that goes for any model of anything – they are just models, and they’re all speculative.

This comes back to my core motto: don’t be afraid to be proven wrong. You may be wrong. But if the fear of being wrong prevents you from speaking out and arguing a concept to the best of your ability, you’ll go forever unnoticed, into obscurity. I’ve decided that obscurity is not for me. What about you?


ps – The paper was accepted with only minor revisions, despite the objections of the reviewer over our speculative model.

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