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November 2005


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A need for non-peer reviewed scientific communication (interrupted)

Sigh. I was drafting a post, enthusiastically sketching the need to non-peer reviewed scientific communication using web technologies, when a friend of mine notified me that work that was carried out in our department was featured on Slashdot. I was not involved in the project now published in PLoS Pathogens other than donating blood once (my poor neutrophils ...) but got curious and paused. So, I went to find out how a technologically and scientifically open and informed group of people would take on the publication. As Bacillus anthracis was studied I was already expecting little interesting considerations of the actual work. I guess, most readers missed the point that we study host-pathogen interaction and that the discoveries are made more on the host side than the bug side. I still was very disappointed with the responses and scrapped my sketch.
I don't want to start bashing Slashdot - it's an interesting place and it's a fairly informed audience. However, I wonder how a "serious" open scientific discussion would work and I am less surprised about the strict rules that for instance PLoS imposes on scientific comments.
What do we need to do to ensure high quality discussion? - moderation only won't work in the very diverse field of the modern sciences as you would have to have editors that are very much skilled in their field and one would practically introduce peer review.
Also, the short-lived comment wave is not stimulating a real discussion. Science blogs and related community pages, in particular those running longer discussions must develop longer threads and thinking to deliver a value that is worth reading and live with small numbers of informed readers. I wonder, whether the reason why there are so few life science blogs about science (not life in the lab or creationists) is caused in part by the need for slower but more thorough formats that are not served by blogs and news groups currently.
Neil (guest) - 2005-11-15 08:06

It's fine to bash slashdot

My advice with slashdot is - the headlines can sometimes point you to an interesting link but for your sanity, stay away from the comments. They're largely from kids who think they're very funny and/or well-informed but in fact are neither.

You make interesting points though. I think open discussion relies on both expert individuals with the time and inclination to guide the debate and curious non-experts who are prepared to listen and learn.

spitshine - 2005-11-16 22:17

You got my point, which could have been a little more explicit: If we want to discuss scientific issues on a useful level, how do we deal with the small number of people that deeply understand the research being performed vs the large number of potentially interested (affected)?. Actually, the particular post on Slashdot was somewhat off-topic anyway.
Pedro Beltrao (guest) - 2005-11-15 15:30

Slashdot is a tech/geek site

I like slashdot, the same way I like digg. They are both good sites to keep up with the tech world, but I don't really on them to keep track of scientific news nor would I expect the readers to have a lot to say on bio news in the comments. There is so many people there that I tend to skim through the comments in a kind of statistical opinion mode, you get a feeling for what the geek community thinks about it (positive vs negative reaction) and a lot of times you get very good individual comments (sometimes more informative than the initial post). That is why they have such a complex rating schema for the comments, you really have to filter to find good things.

There are important differences between a post in slashdot and a scientific paper. They are very different and will therefore also attract different communities and comments.
A scientific communication has a much longer life and we are used to this. People revisit very old papers all the time because we build on top of previous scientific communications. We also have a very different mentality when it comes to criticizing other people's work because we all went through journal clubs, conferences, peer-review, etc.

Right now I think that the lack of good scientific blogs (and comments) is a general lack of participation. Maybe people are afraid to have their opinions in the open, maybe they think that have to protect their opinions not to get scooped, I really don't know. Even in Nodalpoint that has so many daily visitors we always see the same people making posts and comments and there is no limitations. So, my point is that I would prefer that the main journals would allow unrestricted comments around their papers (just set some guidelines) to spur participation and then if trouble starts react to it by imposing restrictions of some sort.
The usual problem with comments is anonymity but the scientific community is built on identity (names in papers, conference abstracts, institute websites, etc). It would be reasonable for the publishers to restrict comments to people they can identify by linking to published work for example but they would have to set up some kind of scientific id.

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