One of the more interesting “problems” in Science 2.0 is the lack of commenting on online articles. In particular some journals now allow one to post comments about papers published in the journal. As this friendfeed conversation asks:
Why people do not comment online articles? What is wrong with the online commenting system[s]? I think this is one of the central issues in Science 2.0.
Or as Carl Zimmer commented on comments appearing at PLOS One a few years back:
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.
If you read the discussion on friendfeed you’ll see some good reasons given for lack of comments about papers which allow online commenting. Two of the main reasons given for failure of online commenting systems are:
- Community: One needs a community before commenting works. The main reasons for this seem to me to be that one doesn’t want to “waste your time commenting” and in a community you are rewarded for your comments. Without a community your comments are just more sound and fury, to quote MacBeth. Community allows for easier dialogue which, after all, is the whole point, I think.
- Anonymity: Here the issue is that comment systems where one has to register and not be anonymous may hinder people using the commenting system. Do you really want to trash that paper by the super important person who might be on your next grant review? Do you really want to ask that dumb question you have about the paper and look the fool? Again, because there are no rewards for commenting, there is, right now, more risk in commenting than in just keeping quiet. This sort of criticism, it seems to me, is less accepted by science 2.0ers, perhaps because they are selected to already be over the barrier of being non-anonymous.
Now both of these are, in my mind, good reasons for commenting not being as vibrant as one might expect coming out of a community with the high ideals that scientists are supposed to be striving for. But one point that I never see raised in discussions of commenting about online papers is what actual percentage of papers actually merit commenting. In my more pessimistic days I would argue that many (most) papers are correct but boring (I dare not look at my own publication list in making this statement.) And what exactly do you comment about for papers that are correct but boring. “This paper solves a problem that many consider low hanging fruit. It seems to be correct, but doesn’t advance the field.” Repeat that for every such paper?
Something like nearly half of papers in the ISI citation database are only never cited at all. Numbers from within the domain of Physical Review are better, but still 30 percent of the publications receive one or fewer citations and 80 percent of the publications receive less than five citations. This is, of course, the result of the dread publish or perish model in academia (I like to call in the publish and perish model…you may get tenure but is it really worth selling your scientific soul?)
What does all this mean for online comment systems? I’m not sure. I do think, however, that there is something wrong with a model of academia in which one can only go long, in finance speak, on publications by citing them. There is no way, outside of the reviewing process, of saying “this paper is worthless.” (A contrary point is that perhaps the “fluff” is needed for the “meat”: that for science to work properly a large amount of useless stuff is necessary.) We all, of course, want to be cordial and professional, but the fact that so many papers receive so few citation indicates to me that there is a breakdown in the publication model we currently use. What would be really interesting would be to find studies of peoples “real” opinions about papers in their field. I searched the intertubes a bit for any papers on this topic but couldn’t locate any. Does anyone know of any such study?
Of course this is different than the issue of commenting on papers online. Is there some setup which facilitates commenting on papers? I don’t know. However, as Michael Nielsen points out at the end of the friendfeed discussion, there is a lot on topic substantive commenting about science going on…it’s just not found on any of the publishers websites, but instead is more likely found on blogs (not this one, of course!) I suspect part of the reason for this is that blogs more readily are identified with communities, and the problems of anonymity are lessened by a fair minded moderator. So maybe the model of commenting on papers at a publishers website is just never destined to take off. Does this mean that some form of commenting won’t become more important as a function of time? I suspect the answer to this is “no”, but have yet to see a model which is truly successful (blogs, for all their worth, don’t quite feel social network-y enough to really facilitate good dialogue: their choice of topics is dictated by the blogger, the commenters don’t really have a way to follow up with colleagues about their discussions, etc.)