Blogs as a medium for scientific discussion.

By way of follow up to my last post, and as a means of keeping things positive and forward-looking, here are some recommendations that come to mind regarding how the credibility of blogs as a medium for scientific commentary and discussion could be advanced. I hope this doesn’t come across as preachy. My intention is simply to share what I think would make me as a scientist more inclined to take blogs seriously as a venue for communicating in (versus about) science.

1) Stick to the science.

When discussing anti-evolutionism or culture or politics, obviously this would not apply. However, in commentaries that are intended to be about the merits of a scientific study, the focus should be on the science. Anti-evolutionism is a real concern, but it does not drive how science is conducted.

2) Avoid unnecessary rhetoric, polemics, or emotionally charged language.

We have all read papers that have raised our blood pressure. But if one wants his or her arguments to be taken seriously, then cooler heads must prevail. Throw the paper across the room if you must, but when you write out your critique, keep it scholarly.

3) Make it clear to non-scientists that this is a discussion, not peer review.

Blog comments, though potentially very effective in disseminating and evaluating scientific information, are not peer review. We do not want to give the wrong impression that what happens on blogs is on the same level of how most scientific papers are evaluated.

4) Eschew arguments from authority.

Arguments from authority are not acceptable in science. If you reject them when anti-evolutionists use them, avoid them in your own posts.

5) Other bloggers: don’t pass judgment without all the information.

The blogosphere is useful as a dissemination tool in large part because of its interconnected nature, with a large percentage of posts being links to other posts. When linking to another post, bloggers should avoid making strong statements about the paper or the commentary until the details are available. If you haven’t read the paper, or if the blogger to whom you are providing a link has not spelled out his or her arguments in detail, then scientifically you have no basis for drawing any conclusions either way about the article.

6) Commenters: avoid jumping on a bandwagon.

Everyone’s comments can be important, regardless of expertise. However, if you have not read or understood the paper in question, you may want to avoid calling for it to be retracted or speculating about the failure of peer review.

7) Contact the authors if appropriate.

There is no rule that says bloggers must not contact the authors of scientific papers. Most scientists are happy to discuss their work; they are generally very busy, however, so it is best to ask specific questions. If you are going to be critical, please bear in mind that in peer review, in print, or at meetings, authors typically have the opportunity to reply and the debate is not one-sided.

8) Provide references.

Scientific papers must reference pretty much everything they state that is not original to the authors. Blogs do not need to be this rigorous in referencing, but it does help to show that you have read something else besides other blogs. (And science writers: please tell us the title of the paper you are discussing; don’t just say “in an upcoming issue of X”!).

9) Choose the right blog*.

If a blog has a reputation for aggressive or even offensive comments, then it may not be appropriate as a place to start a serious discussion about scientific papers. At least, scientists are unlikely to participate if there is a high probability that they will come under personal attack or will be treated with disrespect.

I make these suggestions not to be critical, but because I remain optimistic about the potential of blogs to be employed in high level scientific discourse. As the medium matures, I hope that more scientists will take part, and thereby open more lines of communication to non-scientists. If anyone has additional recommendations or ideas of their own, please share them, be you scientist or non.

* This is an updated entry added in light of my recent experience on a specific blog.

6 thoughts on “Blogs as a medium for scientific discussion.

  1. Bravo. Well said. Although its worth emphasizing the caveats to rule #1. Many of us are using this medium for both discussing both scientiifc and social issues (and, of course, their intersections!). For me, I probably wouldn’t blog if it was only about science all the time (not that there is anything wrong with that..)

  2. It’s so to say: “All work, no play, makes Tommy a dull boy!”

    I believe that mixing in some social into the science is perfectly acceptable.

  3. Oh indeed, most definitely. I mean this guideline strictly in terms of discussing scientific papers and their merits.

  4. (And science writers: please tell us the title of the paper you are discussing; don’t just say “in an upcoming issue of X”!).

    Amen! There’s nothing worse than reading a second/third-hand account of some interesting research, and being unable to find the original.

    A DOI would be just perfect.


  5. I think that #7 (contact the authors) is a great point to make. Many scientists would like to know that their research is being discussed online and would be happy to contribute to the discussion. Although I’m no longer at the bench, I would have loved to know that someone actually read and thought about the research I published!

    I would also emphasize your point that most scientists are very busy, so requests that require less time will probably be more successful.

    This was a great post, thank you for providing a comprehensive and thoughtful guideline for the community.

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