Should Scientists Blog?

[This post was originally published at webeasties.wordpress.com]

Considering the forum, you can probably guess my answer, but it seems the editors at Nature agree… sort of:

Institutions need to recognize and to encourage such outreach explicitly — not just as a matter of routine, but specifically highlighting and promoting it at times of relevant public debate or when the interests and voices of scientists need to be promoted. Web 2.0 doesn’t yet have what it takes to add significant value to open academic discourse, but it can surely make a difference to the public accessibility of science.

Right now, before research (at least in biology) get’s published, it must go through a process of pier review, in which editors of the journal axe some papers, then experts in the field review it and respond, and then there’s a back-and forth between the reviewers (called referees), the editors and the authors about whether or not it’s good enough for publication in that journal. Nature explains its own process pretty succinctly:

Nature receives approximately 10,000 papers every year and our editors reject about 60% of them without review. (Since the journal’s launch in 1869,Nature’s editors have been the only arbiters of what it publishes.) The papers that survive beyond that initial threshold of editorial interest are submitted to our traditional process of assessment, in which two or more referees chosen by the editors are asked to comment anonymously and confidentially. Editors then consider the comments and proceed with rejection, encouragement or acceptance. In the end we publish about 7% of our submissions.

Physicists have a parallel, more open-source system, in which researchers will submit first-drafts of papers onto a semi-public forum (http://arXiv.org), and receive comments from other people in the field (submitting here also establishes primacy – demonstrating that you got the results first). It seems to work well for them, but here, Nature is arguing that other fields of research aren’t quite ready for Web 2.0-style interactions. However, they think web 2.0 and the likes of blogs might still be useful for outreach to the public.

This stance seems disingenuous, however, for a publication that locks the vast majority of it’s material behind a pay-wall. Scientific journals publish research paid for (by and large) buy public money, the authors of scientific papers pay for the privilege of publishing in those journals, and the papers are peer-reviewed by outside experts at no cost to the journal, yet very few journals open the resulting publications to the general public until they absolutely have to (with the notable exception of PLoS). When I want to link to new research, on this blog, my only options are to link to the abstract (the summary at the beginning of every paper) or to a news article about the paper.

In this editorial, they also lament the fact that scientists don’t comment on papers on the Nature website:

[…]as can be seen from the lack of commenting on papers in Nature and other journals that encourage it, researchers see little to be gained from open discourse before or after publication.

There’s plenty of open discourse with other scientists, it’s just not public – when my lab published a paper last month, my boss got a bunch of e-mails from scientists interested in particular aspects of the research, potential collaborations, and other comments. I bet if the general public could read primary research papers, they would comment, and the authors or other scientists would be all too happy to jump in with clarifications or corrections. But in order to get a truly open discussion, maybe Nature should open up its articles, and practice what it preaches.