Speak up and matter

2 minute read

Current Biology is running a short editorial by Geoffrey North, wishy-washing its way through a non-opinion about the value of blogging in science (“Social Media Likes and Dislikes”) North:social:2013. North gives a brief synopsis of the arsenic-eating bacteria fiasco (“An arsenical profile”, “Alien biology hype”), which he admits was a victory for the importance of blogging and the open science approach.

But he can’t help worrying about all those people exercising their free speech in science:

But there is also, I think, a danger here, which lies in the very speed of response, and the way that blogs are essentially vanity publications which lack the constraints of more conventional publishing they are not reviewed, and do not even have to pass the critical eye of any editor. In principle, anyone can write a blog and criticize anything they do not have to have any specific expertise. And the criticism can be picked up, advertised and amplified, for example by Twitter, by those who feel a post supports their agenda.
Such criticism can of course be harmful at the least there tends to be a no smoke without fire effect. And once a scientific reputation has been tainted, it can be hard to restore confidence.

I have little patience for the risk-averse culture of academics.

The bottom line is: People need to decide if they want to be heard, or if they want to be validated. I have long been an associate editor at PLoS ONE, and once I edited a paper that received a lot of critical commentary. That journal has a policy of open comment threads on papers, so I told disgruntled scientists to please write comments. The comments appear right with the article when anybody reads it, they appear immediately without any delay, and they can form a coherent exchange of views with authors of the article and other skeptical readers.

Some of the scientists didn’t want to submit comments, they wanted to have formal letters brought through the editorial review process. “Why?” I wrote, when you could have your comments up immediately and read by anyone who is reading the research in the first place? If you want to make an impact, I wrote, you should put your ideas up there right now.

They replied, “How would you feel if someone published something wrong about Neandertals? Wouldn’t you want to publish a formal reply?”

I wrote: “In that case, I would probably get a blog.”

What is the difference between being heard and being validated? It’s whether you are contributing to the solution or to the hindsight.