Why Resist? #Scio12

Jan 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I will be doing more than having fun in real life with my blogging buddies at Science Online next week, although fun will happen. On Saturday, from 10:45 - 11:45, Holly Bik and I will moderate a discussion on the resistance to science blogging.

Resistance occurs at two levels. Many in academia see online activities as a waste of time. They may admit to some value in outreach via the internet, but blogs are not something for your CV. Certainly, these social media activities could not provide any value to your career. So quit wasting your time and get off my lawn!

Traditional journals have generally had the same attitude. While most publish manuscripts online, it's the version that gets typesetting (pixel-setting?) that is the official version forever and ever, amen. Our publications still get referenced as if in print, even though many of us no longer deal with the dead-tree form of articles. When I changed institutions recently, I bought a high-speed scanner with a sheet feed and made into PDFs any articles I could not download. Not moving almost 3,000 articles is a good thing!

The most interesting example of internet-age post-publication review happened about a year ago. On 2 December 2010, Science published online an article suggesting that arsenate could replace phosphate in bacteria. Aided and abetted by a rumor mill leading up to a NASA press conference, this paper provoked immediate reactions. These ranged from disappointment (not really extraterrestrial life) to interest (growing with arsenate is interesting) to outrage (this science is flawed). The science blogosphere exploded with posts, many by reputable scientists who could have been peer-reviewers for the original article. Two nice lay summaries of these reactions were written by Carl Zimmer for Slate and Ed Yong for Discover.  On 10 January 2012, a google search for "arsenic life nasa" yields approximately 6,000,000 hits.

The discussion ranged freely from serious scientific critiques to bashing NASA for over-hyping the study. It was messy, disorganized, unregulated, and fun. It reminded me of some places that hold journal clubs with wine.

Many of the microbiologists who blogged their problems with the paper turned their critiques into real comments submitted to Science. When the "Arsenic Life" paper actually hit the print version of Science on 3 June 2011, 5 of these formal commentaries also appeared in print (after online publication 27 May 2011). By then, the hurricane was downgraded, moving over land. The real discussion had taken place months before.

I decided to look more formally at the gap between print publication and correspondence in another weekly journal, New England Journal of Medicine. NEJM, now 200 years old, published 51 issues in 2011. I examined the Correspondence section of each issue for letters regarding previously published articles; case reports and corrections were not counted. The time from original print publication to the correspondence publication was determined for each of 517 letters to the editor.

Each issue contained, on average, 10 letters (range 5-20). Two letters regarding each article were published in an issue, on average (range 1-7). The average time from print article to letter publication was 14 weeks. Three articles had correspondence published simultaneously in the print edition a few weeks after online publication. One letter got in 41 weeks after the original publication. Only one letter showed a real "conversation": a July 2010 paper led to an October 2010 letter which led to a February 2011 letter. 

The official correspondence proceeds at a stately pace, and NEJM requires that those authoring letters reveal potential conflict of interest, something that may not be obvious in the online world. This world is completely dignified and authorized, but slow. It also lacks the interaction of the net, where astute readers may alter one's perceptions within hours. Yes, the millions of voices fighting it out online can be overwhelming, and you do not have the validation of the journal. It still seems like there must be some way to capture that process, often more thoroughly written and referenced than letters (in which brevity rules) and make it an official post-publication review forum.

Even if we fail to make this chaotic interaction official, we need to encourage it so that all viewpoints can be examined. Too many journals do not allow any official discussion about their offerings. We bloggers can pick out an article, review it, and let the discussion proceed on our sites, but it would be more direct if the journal helped make this activity happen! Some editors argue that alternative opinions may lead to lawsuits, although I think they underestimate their liability for the science.

What do you think? Can we make this happen? Should we do this?

Attend the session in real life or virtually; I hope we have  a good discussion and a great time.


3 responses so far

  • I'm with you for the conversation, the interaction, the necessity for journals to embark. This is a great post.

    But I want to submit one fear, one risk, that I didn't see a lot last year around the bacteria story. What if, instead of a very clear-cut story like this bacteria, a journal like Nature published a research on, say, climate change, and then you had comments by people like Steve McIntyre or Anthony Watts or others that I don't know of, able to speak the scientific language, maybe even with university degrees. At one point does this become an unproductive discussion? Should a science journal establish rules as to who could and who could not comment?

    • Zuska says:

      Oh dear god please no. Let the wild rumpus begin. Scientists have to be willing and able to engage and deconstruct the arguments of deniers as well as reasonable critics, for the public's sake. You don't want to hand them the opportunity to go off and say they were CENSORED!!!

      What about moderated discussions, with someone reminding participants to stay on topic, not to derail, etc.

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