As the boundaries between formal and informal scientific communication is blurring – think of pre-print sites, Open Notebook Science and blogs, for starters – the issue of what is citable and how it should be cited is becoming more and more prominent.
There is a very interesting discussion on this topic in the comments section at the Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week blog, discussing the place of science blogs in the new communication ecosystem and if a blog post can be and should be cited. What counts as a “real publication”? Is the use of the phrase “real publication” in itself misleading?
You may remember that I have touched on this topic several times over the past few years (as two of my blog posts got cited in scientific papers), most recently in the bottom third (after the word “Except…”) of this post, where I wrote:
National Library of Medicine even made some kind of “official rules for citing blogs” which are incredibly misguided and stupid (and were not changed despite some of us, including myself, contacting them and explaining why their rules are stupid – I got a seemingly polite response telling me pretty much that my opinion does not matter). Anyway, how can anyone make such things ‘official’ when each journal has its own reference formatting rules? If you decide to cite a blog post, you can pretty much use your own brain and put together a citation in a format that makes sense.
The thing is, citing blogs is a pretty new thing, and many people are going to be uneasy about it, or ignorant of the ability and appropriateness to cite blogs, or just so unaware of blogs they would not even know that relevant information can be found on them and subsequently cited. So, if you see that a new paper did not cite your paper with relevant information in it, you can get rightfully angry, but if you see that a new paper did not cite your blog post with relevant information in it, you just shrug your shoulders and hope that one day people will learn….
One of the usual reasons given for not citing blog posts is that they are not peer-reviewed. Which is not true. First, if the post contained errors, readers would point them out in the comments. That is the first layer of peer review. Then, the authors of the manuscript found and read a blog post, evaluated its accuracy and relevance and CHOSE to use it as a reference. That is the second layer of peer-review. Then, the people who review the manuscript will also check the references and, if there is a problem with the cited blog post, they will point this out to the editor. This is the third layer of peer-review. How much more peer-review can one ask for?
And all of that ignores that book chapters, books, popular magazine articles and even newspaper articles are regularly cited, not to mention the ubiqutous “personal communication”. But blogs have a bad rep, because dinosaur corporate curmudgeon journalists think that Drudge and Powerline are blogs – the best blogs, actually – and thus write idiotic articles about the bad quality of blogs and other similar nonsense. Well, if you thought Powerline is the best blog (as Time did, quite intentionally, in order to smear all of the blogosphere by equating it with the very worst right-wing blathering idiotic website that happens to use a blogging software), you would have a low of opinion of blogs, too, wouldn’t you?
But what about one’s inability to detect relevant blog posts, as opposed to research papers to cite? Well, Google it. Google loves blogs and puts them high up in searches. If you are doing research, you are likely to regularly search your keywords not just on MedLine or Web Of Science, but also on Google, in which case the relevant blog posts will pop right up. So, there is no excuse there.
But, some will say, still….a blog post is not peer-reviewed!
Remember that the institution of peer review is very recent. It developed gradually in mid-20th century. None of the science published before that was peer reviewed. Yup, only one of Einstein’s papers ever saw peer review.
Much of the science published today is not peer reviewed either as it is done by industry and by the military and, if published at all, is published only internally (or on the other extreme: citizen science which is published on Flickr or Twitter!). But we see and tend to focus only on the academic research that shows up in academic journals – a tip of the iceberg.
If you think that the editorial process is really important, remember that manuscripts, in their final version, need to be submitted by the authors in the form and format ready for publication. It is not the job of editors to rewrite your poorly written manuscript for you. Thus, scientific papers, even those that went through several rounds of peer review on content are, just like blog posts, self-edited on style, grammar and punctuation (and comprehensibility!). What is the difference between peer reviewers and blog commenters? There are more commenters.
Then, think about the way gradual moving away from the Impact Factor erodes the importance of the venue of publication. This kind of GlamorMagz worship is bound to vanish as article-level metrics get more broadly accepted – faster in less competitive areas of research and in bigger countries, slower in biomedical/cancer research and in small countries.
As the form of the scientific paper itself becomes more and more dynamic and individuals get recognized for their contributions regardless of the URL where that contribution happens, why not cite quality blog posts? Or quality comments on papers themselves?