Myrmecos

Shortly before I left for Florida, my post on the taxonomy of Strumigenys spurred a comment from an anonymous colleague:

I wouldn’t be so bold as to publish so many evaluations of ideas without the backing of formal peer review. I wouldn’t be as concerned about the validity of my criticisms, but rather the perceived validity. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to alienating other scientists. I just wouldn’t want to be responsible for airing other people’s dirty laundry.

I’m not saying that you’re unfair. But I think most people whose work is being reviewed on your site feel that it won’t stand up to rigorous review.

In spite of many of my commentators who leaped to my defense (thanks!), I am inclined to agree with my unknown colleague.  Since the beginning, I have had two recurring thoughts that give me pause about blogging on scientific topics, both related to the lack of peer review.


First is the nakedness of blogging.  I’m the only person keeping me from looking like an idiot in public. There’s no editor to purge any of my flat-earthisms before I click “publish”.  So if I’m horribly, terribly mistaken on some obvious point, if I routinely misspell some common latin name, well, there it is for all to see.  It’s far easier to be seen as a moron as a blogger than it is as a carefully vetted publishing scientist.

Second, the fact that my posts aren’t reviewed provides a ready excuse to dismiss any legitimate criticisms I might have about a particular bit of work.  For example, A few weeks ago I published a criticism of a rather large study of ant macroecology.  Authors of that paper- rather than address my argument, can if they like point to the fact that this is an unreviewed blog and ignore it.  In fact, I was privy to some behind-the-scenes emails about the post, and that’s exactly what happened.  Had I published my critique in a technical journal it’d carry much more weight.

And the thing is, that’s true.  People are welcome to ignore everything I write here.   This blog is not a scientific journal and it is not intended to be taken like one.

There are research topics that I am deeply invested in, and for those I use the traditional peer-reviewed outlets.  Then there are areas where I’ve only got passing opinions, topics that are interesting but not enough for me to devote a couple weeks to getting an article through the journal system.  If it is something that’s worth only an hour, well, the blog fills a niche that wasn’t there before.

I am not trying to avoid accountability by ducking the review system.  It’s that the blog is an outlet for short snippets that I’d not have tried to publish previously.  Does exercising this new niche damage my academic credibility?  I don’t really know.  Scientific blogging is an emerging media without established norms.

But granting these two risks, blogging also has benefits.  On a personal level I enjoy the venue.  And I can’t pretend blogging hasn’t increased my visibility among scientists.  I know from various sources that a large portion of the myrmecological community reads the blog regularly, regardless of whether they agree with my various rantings.

So, mindful of the risk that I’m only broadcasting my own shortcomings, I have no immediate plans to change course.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    June 24, 2009

    Good for you!

    Some people have used blogging as a way of sorting out their arguments before submitting to a journal, and I’ve written stuff that has been turned into part of a letter to a journal criticizing some other work. I can’t really understand the argument that it’s bad to blog about research: is it also bad to chat about it over coffee, or at meetings?

  2. #2 homebuggarden
    June 24, 2009

    Scientific credibility is based on reputation. Ignoring cultural obstacles, scientific reputation used to derive primarily from books and pamphlets or papers presented to a scientific society – and formal pre-publication review wasn’t really part of the process. Within the scientific community, papers published in ‘peer reviewed’ scientific journals have more or less supplanted the earlier mode of earning a reputation. At least in my experience, academic administrators and government granting bodies treat books, book chapters, and conference papers as of secondary or lesser importance even if they have been subjected to ‘peer review’. And, of course, the higher the ISI impact factor of the journal, the better the science.

    If you think our current anonymous ‘peer review’ system is the best way to pursue science, perhaps you shouldn’t air your opinions on a public blog. The free expression of ideas is always a dangerous pursuit to engage in, so I have no doubt that you could hurt your career by expressing opinions that offend people in positions of power. Scientists may be fascinated by ideas, but they are people before they are scientists and act accordingly. Administrators and managers – I was going to say ‘aren’t even human’ – but that is both untrue and rude. Still, they will squash you like a bug if you offend them.

    In my opinion, our current anonymous peer review system and ISI worship is not good for science, so I see blogs as a possibly better way to share ideas and data. You should self censor when it comes to spouting off – as you would in a face-to-face discussion with someone you disagreed with – but you should be able to air new ideas, even if they turn out to be wrong and embarrassing (and peer review doesn’t save you from having to live with having been wrong). Myrmecos Blog is one of the few blogs where ideas are presented in a measured and fair way and I enjoy reading it (and I’m no myrmecophile). It would be a shame if all I came here for were the pictures.

  3. #3 Psi Wavefunction
    June 24, 2009

    I don’t get the whole peer review worship going on in the general public as well as academia. It’s almost as if people in the whole WANT to keep scientific knowledge locked up accessible to few and practiced by even fewer. Reviewers screw things up too, and that’s when they even bother. I find mistakes in people’s blogs, but I also find glaring mistakes in peer reviewed articles from time to time.

    As a matter of fact, blogging should be safer for discussing controversies as people generally [should] take in information with a large grain of salt. Many people don’t exercise the same skepticism when reading peer reviewed because… it’s peer review. Therefore ’tis The Truth.

    I got viciously attacked on Pharyngula once for suggesting that peer review and the whole publication process can be heavily politically weighted. Merely suggesting that got me labeled as ‘anti science’ and a ‘creationist’ (I work in a lab; definitely ‘anti-science’…). It’s as if peer review suddenly makes stuff automatically true. While it may be perhaps the best way we have at the moment to do science (something better may be thought up in the future, perhaps?), it is certainly not flawless, and I don’t see the big problem with science blogging.

    I’d only be quite wary of publishing novel scientific ideas on the blog first, since there may one day appear a shady colleague who may help themselves to one or two… online publication is considered generally unreliable; you could easily change your blog post date to something earlier and complain about it; thus if this shady colleague publishes your stuff in peer review, it would be rather hard to defend intellectual property. But perhaps in less volatile fields that is less applicable.

    And as for accuracy and not looking like an idiot, yes, science blogging is hard! It takes me a few hours to type a fairly modest post as I have to fact check as much as humanly possible. Here I feel even more pressured not to say something stupid – people outside the discussed fields (and outside academia) read the stuff I write, so if I screw up some may not actually be aware. And then I’d be responsible for their being misinformed. And that’s kinda worse than looking like an idiot…

    Just my $0.02… but do keep blogging! Science isn’t all fact – opinions/theories play a large role there (otherwise we’d be out of work!), and the public needs to see their tax dollars at work!

    Cheers,

    -Psi-

    (now we can also kinda see why many blog under a pseudonym… (either that or really censoring what gets blogged about…))

  4. #4 Chanda
    June 24, 2009

    I’m no entomologist. Hell, spelling that took a second. But I’m incredibly interested in your opinions even when I have no idea what you are talking about. I’m just a pathetic little home schooler that has a bug fetish, er an ant fetish.

    (Ok, I am a scientist in a completely unrelated field that is published in peer reviewed journals as well.)

    But I think accessibility to GOOD science without the trouble of digging through the journals of unfamiliar science terms is a gift from god or goddess or whatever. Keep it real. Keep it funny. I’ll keep reading, misspelled words or no. You make bugs, oops again, ants a part of my life. Thanks to you and thppppt to anyone too uptight to let us all share in the fun.

    Blog on dude!

  5. #5 Dave Lunt
    June 24, 2009

    Regarding your second point (peer review) I think blogging about papers is like a journal club, but better. How many times have you identified errors or problems with a paper in a journal club? About once per month for me. How many times do you actually write a letter to a journal? Twice in my entire scientific career for me. Both were bad experiences. Both took >6 months to resolve, and then were not published on the whim of an editor after very light touch peer review indeed. In one case the authors responded to our pointing out the error in an aggressive manner, but then included the same point in a paper a year later. Despite their u-turn, the front cover of Science article stands. Blogging criticism is out in the open immediately. Good. Comments allow a discussion, and response from the authors if they wish. A discussion is much better than one letter each. Letters are very short, no real space for detailed criticism. Blogs have space. We need more blog journal clubs not less!

    Regarding your other point (does it make people look bad), sometimes, but at least its honest. Deep down we all know that the big guys who don’t blog still have their bad days, idiot ideas, just like us even if they try to hide it.

    You should carry on and not worry.

    I really disagree with some comments here, anonymous peer review is one of science’s greatest achievements and is something that should be celebrated very loudly.

  6. #6 homebuggarden
    June 24, 2009

    Hi Dave Lunt,

    I think you have a good model with the ‘blog as journal club’ and only wish that my discipline had something similar. However, doesn’t your last statement contradict your anecdotes about responding to published errors? Both papers that got you worked up enough about them to write the editor were presumably peer reviewed and, if I understand your comment, ‘peer review’ was used to quash your criticisms?

    Anonymous peer review may be what we are stuck with, but I disagree (anonymously) that it is a great achievement. ‘Peer’ review is usually a misnomer, at best, and anonymity is often misused. We are just muddling through. Double blind reviews may be better (but I’ve never tried them) and signed reviews at least are honest and probably less insidious (but I could count the number of reviews I’ve signed on one hand). I’d like to see some good data first, but I think we could do better.

    Perhaps slightly off tangent, but I think straight to the heart of the mattter, Bug Girl’s Blog had an interesting post on “Pseudonyms and anonymity” on 16 June and a follow-up on 21 June “Anonymity, revisited”. I won’t link to them because I’m not sure of the rules here, but Alex has a link to Bug Girl’s Blog in his blog roll.

  7. #7 MrILoveTheAnts
    June 24, 2009

    You mean all those videos you posted of the Muppets weren’t to be taken scientifically?

    Writing a scientific paper wouldn’t alienate you from scientists who disagree with it? But somehow blogging your thoughts will? Omitting the peer review thing for just a moment, if you could post comments on scientific papers how would blogging be different?

  8. #8 James C. Trager
    June 24, 2009

    Hi Alex:

    The caliber of your blogging hardly could be construed to damage your career in any way that I can detect.

    I dare say that even some time spent on internet forums has some value, both in educating the interested amateurs, and through an occasional good interchange with another pro or highly knowledgeable amateur. In my case, it doesn’t detract from my research in any significant way. This is what I have a job not closely related to my research interest for!

  9. #9 brad dunbar
    June 24, 2009

    Whatever problems may arise from this blog, I personally think its worth doing if only for my enjoyment.

    I’m not a myrmecologist (I’m actually a programmer, and programming blogs are often criticized for this too) but I enjoy your blog just the same.

    Credibility be damned, you’re spreading knowledge and there is never anything wrong with that.

  10. #10 myrmecos
    June 24, 2009

    Thanks for all the thoughtful commentary-I feel lucky to have such an articulate group of readers!

    I don’t wish to imply that I dislike peer-review. For whatever problems the peer-review system has (and it does have problems!), it seems clear enough that it’s been a relatively successful quality-control measure for scientific publications. If you doubt this, just peruse a non-reviewed journal for typos and mislabelled figures.

    Rather, for me this issue is strictly one about blogging, and the political consequences of airing my opinion of the work of others.

    Oh, and buggirl’s anonymity post can be found here.

  11. #11 Roberto Keller
    June 25, 2009

    I share your thoughts on blogging Alex.

    Yet coming from Academia, and specially systematics of all branches of biology, I find puzzling, again and again, the strong reactions of some of the people commenting on Myrmecos Blog. Knowing you only through reading your blog really, you come out as a true sweetheart compared to what scientist’s interaction is in real life.

    I am very conscious that one’s blog will inevitable act as a business card, for good or bad, and always think twice before posting. As a result I think that the people who know me best will not recognize my moderate blogging style.

    I have probably deviated towards science fiction in my blog and have surely come out as an idiot more than once. But for this last point I like to take John Wilkins approach to blogging:

    This blog acts as my scratch pad. What I say here can be stupid, so that kind readers (hello, kind reader) can correct me and educate me before I rush into print.

    Keep the good work.

  12. #12 Ted C. MacRae
    June 25, 2009

    Roberto’s final quote couldn’t be more appropriate. Here is why I love Myrmecos:

    – You show passion for your chosen subject.

    – You make the subject interesting to me, even though it is not my chosen subject.

    – You invite dialogue about your opinions.

    – None (or very little) of the snarkiness that so permeates the majority of other academic blogs that I have largely quit visiting them.

    – And, of course, great photography.

    Note that I said nothing to the effect of “I agree with all of your opinions.” I’m not as articulate in comments as most of your regulars (I need time to digest and process – that’s what my own blog is for), but I find the challenges to thinking that you present and the ensuing dialogues to be nicely provocative for my own thinking. Moreover, you present these challenges while still coming off as a likeable, affable guy – all it takes is a little humility and self-deprecation. I’m not in a position of power, so perhaps offending me is of no risk to you to begin with, but if I were an administrator at University of Ivory Tower, I would view you with enhanced reputation because of your blog rather than more critically.

    Back to beetles!

  13. #13 Ted C. MacRae
    June 25, 2009

    p.s. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but there are really only a select few blogs that I regularly visit without first scanning RSS feeds to decide if it’s worth it – this is one of them.

  14. #14 myrmecos
    June 25, 2009

    Roberto- That’s a lovely quote by Wilkins, except that I don’t buy it. I’d be willing to bet more people read his blog (an excellent blog, in any case) than his print publications. What if your scratchpad is more popular than your formal work?

    Ted. You are far too kind. Really. Even for a beetle guy.

  15. #15 Psi Wavefunction
    June 26, 2009

    Scratchwork often seems more interesting than the published formal final product. Somehow, the formality makes it rather sterile. You read some of the Nature papers where it goes: “We predicted blah because of blah, we did blah, then we did blah to confirm blah” etc in a very directed manner. Thing is… science doesn’t really actually work like that!

    We spend countless hours poking about half blindly in search of interesting data… when writing it up, however, we must pretend we knew what we were doing since the very beginning (there’s not enough space otherwise). But in some ways, that seemingly aimless poking about is interesting, and useful, and makes for great storytelling!

    That ‘exploratory’ part of science rarely makes it to formal publications, so personal blogs and books for the general public are the only places one can publish the true path of science. It is, by nature, scratchpaddy, and disorganised – and that is part of what gives it character! And there is a need for display of this facet of science; yes, peer review and pretty graphs are nice, but there is a whole other dimension to that world that is fascinating, and should be shared with others!

    I still don’t get the fierce opposition to sharing the live side of science…

  16. #16 Mike from Ottawa
    June 27, 2009

    “Authors of that paper- rather than address my argument, can if they like point to the fact that this is an unreviewed blog and ignore it.”

    If they do that, continue on in their error (assuming you were right on the substance) and you or someone else subsequently publishes your argument then the authors of that paper look like serious fat-heads and some part of them would have to understand that risk.

    One of the other places where the role of blogging in scientific publication is being discussed recently is near the other end of the zoological size scale, at the Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!) blog, which, with Myrmecos, is one of a handful of blogs I seldom go a day without reading. On SV-POW!, and Tetrapod Zoology (related as TetZoo’s Darren Naish is one of the bloggers at SV-POW!), IIRC, there have been discussions in blog posts and the comments that have resulted in peer-reviewed papers being done on those subjects. The SV-POWsketeers have also put out a lot of supplementary and explanatory material for papers on the blog.

    Anyway, I think, Alex, the naysayers are just envious of your blogcelebrity and that Myrmecos has way cooler pictures than their papers ever will. :-)

  17. #17 Zen Faulkes
    June 29, 2009

    The way I handle this is to blog around my own research topic (crustacean neuroethology). I usually do not blog about research closely related to my own. My thoughts there I save for the actual technical papers.

    So I blog about behaviour or evolution or neurobiology, which are all things I’m interested in and have some knowledge about, but where I’m less likely to cause a problem for myself down the road.

  18. #18 Brian O'Meara
    June 29, 2009

    Selfishly, I’m glad you’ve decided not to change course and to keep posting. Peer-reviewed publications are an important part of science, but there have always been other forms of communication which help resolve conflicts and present new information faster than the 6 months to a year turnaround that is journal publishing today: think of presentations and discussions at meetings, letters between scientists, and informal discussions of papers and books. None of that is formally peer-reviewed (well, except for presentations in some fields like computer science), but all is part of the scientific process. Blogging is just another way to do it.

    Professionally, having a blog can help in communicating your ideas and increasing your prominence (I think I was added onto a grant partly due to a post on my rarely-read and infrequently-updated blog). However, it does create a risk of offending people, even if your criticism is well-intentioned. As a relatively junior scientist, there’s a chance of inadvertently annoying the wrong people. There was an issue on the dechronization blog where a post about a cladistics workshop generated strong criticism and resulted in the post being withdrawn. You could imagine this sort of thing hurting the original poster in job searches (even if the offended party did not take action, a colleague might be more critical of the applicant in a search).

    I’m curious — your blog isn’t anonymous, and you critique published papers. Do you always sign your reviews, too? Seems like a pretty similar decision (and both places have opportunities for author response), though of course the blog is more public.

  19. #19 Cole
    June 30, 2009

    Hi Alex

    Thanks for sticking your head out from behind the parapet.

    As someone who completed their PhD in 2005 and once aspired to have a career in academia it is the closed (and ultimately competitive) nature of the academic world that was one of the driving factors behind me making a career switch.

    The veil of secrecy behind academic rigour and the obsession with publication (often for the sake of itself) drove the passion out of me when I wanted to be open and transparent about the research I was undertaking.

    Now that I am a web designer I find people that I have a genuine (commercial) competitiveness with to be much more open, friendly and willing to share their knowledge and experiences with me.

    I may be naive but In the Information Age this is how information should be, rather than the antiquated guarded and defensive possession of information.

    This is not to say that academic pursuit and rigour is no longer required. The critical pursuit of knowledge will always be required. However, the self-appointed, self-regulated and frequently self-satisfying academic process definitely needs to be made more publicly available.

    So, please do continue to share your thoughts, your research, your ideas, your conclusions, your doubts and your feelings (we’re all human after all).

    I only wish the means to do so was more readily available when I was studying.

    Cole

  20. #21 jebyrnes
    July 11, 2009

    Ciao Alex,

    Periodically, I read an article in the literature and think “OH! I’m totally pissed about this! To the blogmobile!” and then I stop and breathe. Before heading over to researchblogging.org to get register my post, I breathe. It is then that I remember that, hey, I’m still a postdoc, and anything I write on the internet is a matter of public record. How will it look if I apply for a job at the institution of one of the authors? Will my opinions be taken less seriously if I am a font of vitriol (even if it is couched in careful scientific lingo)?

    So, I find myself self-censoring harsh critiques. Heck, I even have a rant I fired off about a recent horrid piece of science journalism about ecology in Salon sitting in my “drafts” folder. And I’m really not sure if it’s a good idea to publish it for professional reasons.

    Instead, research I blog about are things I find neat and interesting. I discuss papers that open up some new vista, or I just thing are darned cool.

    I am still uncertain if this self-censorship in the interest of my career is a good idea or not. On the one hand, it probably has saved me from looking like an ass multiple times, and instead it alters my public persona to be a promoter of good science. On the other hand, is it ethically dubious?

    But then again, the cream rises – by staying positive, and publishing about things that I think are great, perhaps it gives them more weight in your average google search. And in this age of information glut, perhaps that is the best weapon we have for advancing good science.

    I don’t know – it’s an interesting question.

    -Jarrett

  21. #22 homebuggarden
    July 13, 2009

    Hi Jarrett,

    I’m glad to see this thread has legs and, although I’ve probably already said more than enough here, I’ll risk rudeness by making another comment. Your post seems to have two or three ideas about making comments about scientific papers on blogs that I often think about. So here goes:

    The first is about using blogs to spout off when angry. In general, I think this is a bad idea – just as bad as it would be to do so with the object of your ire in person. Unless you are going after scientific fraud, I don’t see any value in ad hominem attacks – which seems to be the basis of most spouting-off posts. Quite a lot of these are not thoughtful at all – mostly thinly veiled political diatribes swinging from a scientific branch while throwing excrement at the opposing band.

    On the other hand, I do read certain blogs because the authors enjoy a rant, but the rants are informative and usually complain more about the subject than the person. It is a fine line though.

    The second point, and most important for anyone early in their career, is will you bugger up your chances by commenting unfavourably on a paper? Well, yes, you run that risk. Even if you are 100% correct and moderate in tone, that doesn’t mean the object of your complaint will respond to you as a helpful member of his tribe. We aren’t that much different from chimpanzees, even when we are wearing lab coats and objective facades. And, of course, if we are wrong, then we will feel like a fool (as well as possibly having made an enemy for no good reason).

    The third point, about the impact of self-censorship on science, is rarely made, but perhaps the most important of all. If we don’t call attention to flaws we see in hypotheses, then are we undermining the science? I think that question answers itself – yes we are, but we should consider the two points above before strutting out our complaint. Now if I could only follow my own advice.

  22. #23 Bug Girl
    July 18, 2009

    Well, pretty much anything I would have said has already been mentioned here…so I’ll just say I think you do a great job, and that eventually the rest of the academic world will catch up with the online community :)

  23. #24 Vera-Bierig
    July 29, 2009

    Sometimes it’s really that simple, isn’t it? I feel a little stupid for not thinking of this myself/earlier, though.

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