Accelerating and widening scientific debate: blogs v. open-review journals

[Thanks Peter Suber]

Carl Zimmer, When Scientists Go All Bloggy, ScienceBlogs, April 17, 2007.  Excerpt:

It’s getting harder and harder to remember what it was like to write about science in the pre-Web 2.0 days. Back then (i.e., 2004), I’d come across an intriguing paper, I’d interview the authors, I’d get comments–supportive or nasty–from other experts in the field, and then publish an article distilling everything I’d learned. It would take months or years for the authors to follow up on their work or for other scientists to publish their own papers attacking or supporting the original research.

How quaint. Let’s take a look at an experience I had yesterday….Yesterday [John] Dennehy wrote [a blog post] about a new paper on the evolution of the flagellum, the spinning filament that microbes use to swim. This is a topic of some interest to me, because I’m writing a book about E. coli, and much of what scientists know about the flagellum they’ve gotten from studying E. coli….In the new paper, scientists at Arizona State University report on searches they’ve made for flagellum genes in the genomes of 41 different species of microbes….

So, I do what any science writer does. I read the new paper and looked for some comments. I email Nick Matzke, a co-author of an earlier paper on this topic. He wasn’t impressed. To register his displeasure, he wasn’t content just to send me a grousing email. He blogged at length on Panda’s Thumb. Commenters threw in their own two cents. Meanwhile, another source-turned-blogger, Ryan Gregory (whom I wrote about in an article on dinosaur genomes), wrote about the study as well, to which Larry Moran, himself a blogger as well as University of Toronto biochemist, responded harshly in the comments, saying that the paper should never have been published. (Moran, Matzke, and others complain about the methods the ASU scientists used to identify related genes.)

Now, in the pre-Web 2.0 era, all this to-ing and fro-ing happened all the time. At a packed presentation at a scientific conference, people would stand up during the question period and have at it, or head out to the hallways to continue the arguments. But most of this sort of debate didn’t get far beyond the walls of the conference hall. Science writers like me would try to offer a glimpse into the arguments, but there’s a hard limit to how much we can convey in a thousand-word piece. Any other debate had to get channeled into the glacial flow of scientific publications. Now, as this flagellum exchange makes clear, freewheeling scientific debates can reach a wider audience….

[I]t seems to me that productive debate is a lot like life. If you pack a lot of enzymes and DNA and other molecules in a tight package, you get life. Disperse them, and you get a few random reactions. Pack comments about a particular paper in one place, and a real debate can emerge. Disperse them across the blogosphere, and you encourage cheap shots and irrelevant tangents, while good observations go unappreciated.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been a lot of talk about how to make this sort of conversation possible. Science papers could be published in an open-access format and readers could post comments directly to the paper. And in fact, there is such a system in place, called PLOS One. In case you’re not familiar with PLOS (short for Public Library of Science), it’s now a real powerhouse in the world of scientific literature, with a number of high-impact journals. (Full disclosure: I was asked to write an essay for one of their journals.) PLOS One, started in January, takes their philosophy a step further.

What I find striking, however, is how quiet it is over at PLOS One. Check out a few for yourself. My search turned up a lot of papers with no discussion attached. Many others had a few comments such as, „This is a neat paper.“ There’s nothing like the tough criticism coming out about the new flagellum paper to be found at PLOS One.

I suspect this situation has come about because scientists as a group are only just becoming comfortable in the blogging environment….So perhaps in a couple years I’ll revisit this issue and see if indeed the debate really has crossed over into a new incarnation….