If you remember some months ago, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon held a press conference announcing that they had discovered a bacterium that uses arsenic in place of phosphorus. The paper, when released, had compromising methodological problems (for good coverage, read here, here, and here; and snark). At the time Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues were upset at the treatment the paper received on the internet, and initially refused to respond in any forum other than published journals (this policy didn’t seem to stop her from giving a TED talk without any forum for critical feedback. Kinda hypocritical).
As part of our response to Dr. Redfield, we also take this opportunity to offer a general comment on the use of the Internet to “review” the technical literature. To be perfectly clear, to the extent that we are familiar with those who offered signed comments regarding the particular case of the Wolfe-Simon et al. paper, we do not in any way question their scientific expertise. Signed comments should be applauded and indeed offer a measure of authenticity, but nevertheless these “chat room” environments are not constrained or screened and at times become ad hominem attacks, which have no place in the scientific literature. And, further, such communications do not, themselves, offer specific citations to support their position. If they are to be viewed as authoritative and do not simply reflect general knowledge, then they too should at least refer to important, foundational papers that support their view. In general and not in reference to the case of the Wolfe-Simon et al. paper, until there is a process in place to screen and edit such commentary (such as here for our current scientific exchange with Dr. Redfield), there remains a credibility issue. We are all aware of the massive misinformation that pervades the Internet and that is why so many simply choose to ignore it rather than track it as part of their efforts to stay informed of the scientific literature pertinent to their research. Because of such accuracy issues, at present and in its current structure, organization and process, the term “authoritative blogs” far too often represents an oxymoron.
We’ll leave aside that much of the commentary by bloggers wasn’t anonymous (although some of it was pseudonymous). And we’ll leave aside the issue that most of these criticisms were written as if they were solicited reviews of the article–which typically aren’t laden with citations either.
What mindboggling is that these reviewers have no idea that there is a different between an authored blogpost and comments left on a blog. They’re right in that the validity of a statement left by “Big Schlong 69″ in the comments section might be questionable. But if someone writes a detailed post, as Rosie Redfield did, with substantial criticisms, that is different in kind from an anonymous statement in the comments. But comments show up, often unsigned. That’s just part of the form. Hell, it’s hard enough to keep spam out of the comments section. But it doesn’t reflect on what the blogger wrote–in fact, some bloggers like John Hawks don’t even have comments. Comments are separate from the post–which can be well written and have scientific merit and a track record of other posts.
Utterly clueless about the intertoobz.