What makes scientists not comment online?

by Alexey Bersenev on April 6, 2008 · 10 comments

in open science

I’d like to start a new category on the blog: Open Science.

The first topic that I’d like to talk about here is the activity of scientists on the web. It was discussed by other bloggers before, but this topic is so interesting. For example one of the last and very good discussion on the JOVE blog.

Today scientists have some very nice open access resources ( PLoS, Nature Precedings, JOVE…) where they can easily leave a comment and start a discussion. I was happy when Nature Publishing Group Web made a possibility for commenting and discussion on the web right after the paper published in Nature journals, which is the same option we have today in popular scientific journals, such as the Scientist.

But if you look at many publications on those resources you will find field for discussion/commenting is neat. Why so?

I’ve heard sometimes from my colleagues about many papers, published in Nature even – “This is a bullshit!“. But what make these guys not put this opinion right after paper online and explain why he/she thinks that? Otherwise nobody will hear their opinion. Now we have tools and possibilities – go ahead and do it! You’re an expert and YOU can make an impact on society! A print version never allow you to do that.

Unfortunately we have very low, even close to zero, activity of scientists commenting or starting public discussion. I was thinking about it a lot. Why do we need to comment? I’d like to highlight only a few reasons:

* to introduce yourself and show to whole world that you’re an expert and “know shit”;
* to increase impact on society of particular work that has been done;
* to make science more smart and productive by avoiding mistakes (what you found in particular published work) or troubleshooting online;
* to support your favorite scientists/authors or poke the competitors;
* to stimulate and support developers (such as NPG web or PLoS team or bloggers) to continue developing web tools for scientists and creating more intellectual products. They are need your feedback!
* to create your professional network;
* …. ect (you’ll ad more in comments)

So what makes scientists do not comment? Do they need more time to realize that? But aren’t they smart people who are always on leading edge? Too lazy? or maybe just scared of something? Like a phobia of public speaking…

Please feel free to express your opinion below.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Joanna April 6, 2008 at 5:10 pm

A more compelling article will be if you write something about the negative effects of not discussing, before you encourage people to speak.

I think the worst things are:
not communicating leads to lack of knowledge spreading. It used to be that paper publication was the best and most reliable way to communicate ideas. Now, there’s the internet. If we don’t embrace it, science won’t be able to jump to the next level.


Alex April 6, 2008 at 5:22 pm

to Joanna –
thank you for comment, I agree.
Other thing what I was thinking how to stimulate scientist to comment is that show them good examples
for ex: Participate in our stem cell cloning discussion By The editors of The Scientist.


but still, it’s not an article.


Jae-Won Shin April 6, 2008 at 9:37 pm

I’ll put an article about this topic. Long discussion is not always necessarily a good example of discussion, like your link from The Scientist; I don’t know about the first people, but for someone who reads that article right now, it is even difficult and rather inefficient to read all of those comments and comment back…


Barbara April 7, 2008 at 11:06 am

some guys are not confident(like me),but most of them are just lazy
And be carefull- there r some people (grapho-maniacs)that just like to share their opinions (sometimes not even worth reading)


Joanna April 7, 2008 at 1:31 pm

Three things to add:
1. Jae-won makes a good point – it’s hard to read through discussions, especially since people tend to repeat things and argue back and forth, which leads me to #2:

2. in order for discussions to become popular, they need to be useful. To be useful (in my opinion) they need to be efficient, leave the reader more educated than before, and be somehow managed to keep on point with their purpose (to be useful).

3. I don’t comment because I don’t consider myself an expert. I speculate that many other people don’t comment for the same reason, or because they ask, ‘what’s the point if I do? who will read this and who will care?’. There is no guarantee that a comment will lead to a good discussion at all. Until that changes, I doubt people will be encouraged to discuss.


cc April 7, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Maybe people are afraid of speaking up and saying such and such paper is ‘crap’ because they are scared of backlash, creating animosity or offending the authors. They can discuss about it in journal club or lab meetings etc because the authors are not there. Just my naive opinion!


Alex April 7, 2008 at 8:54 pm

to Barbara & Joanna –
right, agree about grapho-maniacs and bullshitters in comments,
solution = 1. there is a moderator who should filter bullshit and lead discussion in the right way;
2. users can easily recognize those kind of people and ignore them, don’t take these comments seriously;

About confidence and “not an expert” –
1. your curiosity (if you really care about topic/article of discussion) will take over and you will start comment, frequently you can do it anonymously;
2. don’t afraid to ask! if you’re not an expert = you’re student – author is an expert, ask him/her – he/she will be more then happy to answer ANY question about work what was done, don’t afraid ask “stupid” (in your opinion) question, you don’t know the level of others

Discussions need to be useful!!! Great point!
1. make them useful, don’t comment just for comment;
2. discussion is an exchange of useful information – so every participant should be really careful to keep it useful – in this case everybody going to benefit from it!

hard to read through discussions –
developers working on that and maybe will give us some form of discussions what will be extremely easy to read, go through text – with hyperlinks and visualization, possibility to search through text and filter only what you need

to cc:
If authors are not right – it’s should be public ASAP because we can loose time, considered it was right because it was published in Nature;
as fast we will fix the problem by open discussion on it, as will increase impact of academic science to society, find way for practical application of scientific findings in real life and translate research to the clinic, finally cure diseases (an example in biomedical research)

PS: I think this discussion is very productive!


Vlad February 18, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Most scientists also try to avoid critique in the published articles. All people make mistakes from time to time, so a standard way to deal with an article which is completely wrong is just not cite it, as if it did not exist. Not many people use the possibility to write a “reply” on someone’s previous article. So I do not know how this obstacle could be avoided in the online commenting. Perhaps, online commenting should be done in a somewhat different way. May be even anonymous commenting would be better. Not necessarily anonymous, you choose to disclose or not to disclose your name, similar to forums.


Alex February 21, 2009 at 10:56 pm

I agree, user should be provided by choice of possibilities to comment – disclose or not to disclose your name


Mr. Gunn May 25, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Vlad, your position this whole time has been that people comment on scientific articles to fix mistakes. Nowhere in any of the above comments was this mentioned. Looking at why people don’t, it’s out of modesty and apathy.

This issue is quite a complex one, not as simple as you may think, because if it were easy, one of the many, many efforts by very smart people to crack this issue would have worked already.

Perhaps we just need to discuss, as Joanna mentions, the dangers of NOT commenting?


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