What is "the normal way to debate and discuss scientific findings" anyway?

Oh you crazy bloggers. How dare you actually.....discuss....a scientific finding?

We would actually encourage you to write a comment to NEJM. NEJM is well known for its devotion for scientific debates on recently published papers. That would be a normal way to debate and discuss scientific findings. We would also have a possibility to answer on an "equal ground".


Thus spake two authors of a study recently published in the NEJM on myocardial infarction and the daylight savings timeswitch.
Our good blogfriend Isis the Scientist took up the paper for a bit of analysis. You should read her post but really, the picture is worth a thousand words.

Figure 2: Janszky and Ljung interpret their data.
Now as Isis pointed out in a followup response to the authors, this paper has been getting quite a bit of play in the mass media. I've seen it pop up on a blog or two as well. Are the authors patrolling all media and issuing rebuttals? (serious question actually, are they complaining elsewhere?)
As I commented at Isis' blog, I've only had the occasional complaint from scientists after reading my coverage or discussion of their work. Although not exactly the same as Isis' distressed correspondents, there has been a slight tone that somehow expressing a critique of a scientific finding or paper on a blog is unfair or beyond the pale.
What?
That is ridiculous. Do these authors imagine that many fellow scientists are not saying the exact same thing about their work at journal club, at scientific meetings and in email exchanges with each other? Trust me folks, they are. That's the deal. By design. Part of the strength of science is that we do indeed bash around criticisms of published work, chew over the data and interpretations and sometimes, gasp, construct studies to test the validity of the finding. It is a GoodThing when papers are being discussed by interested parties, no matter what the format for that discussion happens to be.
On the whole though, I'd rather such discussions be available to the original authors and the scientific community at large rather than being muttered around the water cooler. Exchanges of letters to the editor critiquing a paper and defending it have their place but this is not the only way to go about post-publication critique.
Now with respect to "equal ground" the authors are not thinking straight at all. I don't want to speak for Isis' pageviews but it strikes me that you have to be damn near PZ Myers' level of readership before you would start to even be close to the same category as the top 50 or so experts in a given scientific field. So some random colleague commenting to the local press or interviewed by the GlamorMagz' "news" side is going to be much less "even ground" for a discussion than is a blog which does not even focus entirely on a given subfield. I guess bloggers should be flattered that authors find them so important and influential but really we're not. Yet.

26 responses so far

  • a says:

    *cross-posted at Dr. Isis' place*
    You should be able to criticize their results, but you shouldn't be surprised if they don't like the jokes. Saying that harsher criticism happens at conferences doesn't make much difference (people might call someone's work idiotic, but that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do). Criticism should be rigourous but not disrespectful if you want the best response. Dr. Isis implied in her comments that their interpretation was not even serious, so of course they will be defensive.
    All this is not to say that mixing joking and criticism isn't a good thing to do on a blog, just don't pretend that it's all about hard facts and they just don't get the new science communication on web 2.0 because there's some snark in part of their response. She set the tone in the original post.
    Finally, as to whether a blog provides equal footing, I would say that clearly it doesn't. Dr. Isis has much more control over where the discussion heads. Look at her second post for example. Rather than discussing the science, she started a discussion (which I admittedly find totally interesting) about how and where science should be discussed.

  • travc says:

    If a blog decides to poke fun at something I publish, I'd like a friendly email 'heads-up' and invite to comment. A blog or wiki is much preferable to any of the other 'forums' mentioned IMO. Much more opportunity to be fair... though subject to the whims of the owner, who could be a complete jerk or idiot. But if the owner is a jerk or idiot, who cares what they write or how open they are to rebuttals... they won't have much credibility (at least for very long).

  • acmegirl says:

    travc - do you call up and invite the author to every journal club in which you (or others) rip a paper to shreds? So that they can have a chance to join the conversation?

  • Exactly, acmegirl! The modern scientist should be keeping an active web and blog search for their name anyway.
    The NEJM model does indeed have its place but for god's sake, even the most controversial paper only gets space for 3 or 4 critical letters and 1 response by the authors anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks later. The true beauty of the blog format is that you can indeed get those watercooler and journal club discussions out into the open and with far greater immediacy; yes, there is snark and "unprofessional" tone in a blog post but those are the real discussions going on out there about your laboratory's work.
    Then again, our work is not exactly high-profile and we have yet to be called out and ripped to shreads on a blog post - perhaps I'd feel differently then, but I'm sure it happens with the people discussing our work in our very small field.

  • Of course it is completely fair game to discuss an article on a blog- the authors don't seem to have a firm grip on reality in this instance. It is impossible to control 'free scientific speech' so to say.
    From my perspective, however, it is difficult to give full credibility to a scientific opinion published pseudononymously alongside 'shoes of the week' and stories of glittery vaginas. I love Isis, but as one of her readers, I go to her blog more for the fun and games than the scientific content. For pseudononymous bloggers, it is often hard for us to have our cake and eat it too.
    I think the authors should keep this in mind before they get worked up into a tizzy about a critique on a blog.

  • Jimmy says:

    acmegirl--the difference is, is your journal club open to the public? Do your water-cooler conversations potentially involve hundreds or thousands of people? Not to mention that there's no permanent record of those meetings. There is a real difference between a quasi-private discussion and a public, archived blog discussion, and we do have to think about what kind of rules or etiquette should apply.
    Which isn't to imply that I think there was anything wrong with Isis' post, or that I disagree substantially with DM. The "equal ground" thing isn't an issue to me, and bloggers obviously aren't obligated to contact the paper authors--though in a high-profile blog, I think directly inviting the authors in could make for a very interesting discussion. But you really can't say that the two discussion formats are equivalent, and I think it's a useful thing to talk about how blog discussion of a paper impacts the rest of the discussion.

  • As a factual matter, what happened at Dr. Isis's blog is *exactly* the best most wonderful outcome one could hope for: A blogger posted a thoughtful and well-argued critical analysis of a paper, and the authors came by and defended their paper. It would have been perfect if the authors exhibited a little more self-control of their intrinsic whiny-ass titty-baby inclinations, but otherwise isn't this exactly the best one could hope for in blogging about actual real science??

  • Oh, Candid Engineer, I'm hurt that my discussion of shoes and glittery vaginas makes you take me less seriously as a scientist. I see nothing wrong with being unabashedly female and still being a brilliant scientist.

  • becca says:

    Dearest Dr. Isis,
    Serious scientists can have vaginas, but they must be serious vaginas, of the non-glittery variety. Otherwise, the scientists will be required to attend remedial epidemiology classes, where their vaginas will be sobered up, and their feet contained in sensible brown loafers.
    This is necessary so that Serious Scientists can explain to their children what they do at work.
    The interents. Science. Blogging. Vaginas. What do they all have in common? They are all SERIOUS BUSINESS!

  • acmegirl says:

    Jimmy - I don't think it actually matters if the public is invited or not. Discussions are overheard, repeated, generally propagated throughout the community. And precisely because there is no permanent record, the story is free to morph as it is passed along. As Abel said, lifting this stuff out of the category of gossip and bringing it out in the open is a good thing. And why get worked up over etiquette? Please remember that those authors were upset about a picture of a teddy bear on the toilet, and how to explain it to their children. Come on. Really?

  • janszimre says:

    Hi Drugmonkey,
    I am the first author of the debated paper (Imre Janszky).
    How thoughtful of you to repeat the Teddy bear picture. Could you
    please circulate it even more? That would increase the chances that it
    will be seen by even more friends, relatives etc. I just wonder how
    you would react when your family members see your name in this
    context...
    Please read again our original answer. We wrote quite clearly that a
    comment letter would be "a" and not the "only" normal way. A blog can
    be normal, too. Her original post simply does not qualify to be
    normal. It was a mixture of mocking, jokes and some scientificaly
    sound arguments. It was impossible to disentangle her real opinion as
    well her background and level of knowledge. For example was this
    question totally a joke or she really does not understand
    epidemiology: ""And, of course, my
    first thought is, what about all the other times we are sleep deprived
    by, you know,
    one hour. Is waking up in the middle of the night to feed Baby Isis
    potentially going to cause Dr. Isis to meet her maker early?" ". Only
    one thing was very clear for us: she had a very firm negative opinion.
    It seems we made a terrible mistake - in your eyes - to invite her for
    a debate in the journal where she cannot use mocking, jokes etc. but
    stickt to real arguments. But, again, no one has to "defend" the
    blogsphere against us. It was just a sincere invitation.
    For further details see my final comment to Dr. Isis.
    Best regards,
    Imre

  • Lab Lemming says:

    "As a factual matter, what happened at Dr. Isis's blog is *exactly* the best most wonderful outcome one could hope for"
    It would be slightly more ideal if the researchers posted their defense on their own blog, and simply linked. That way, everyone would be on even footing.

  • A blog can
    be normal, too. Her original post simply does not qualify to be
    normal. It was a mixture of mocking, jokes and some scientificaly
    sound arguments. It was impossible to disentangle her real opinion as
    well her background and level of knowledge.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!! Dude, you're a humorless whiny-ass titty-baby!

  • JC says:

    The more the authors with their panties in a wad over a teddy bear picture here and on Isis, the more insecure and whacked they seem. By "defending" their findings with the "woe is me, please don't let my kiddies or colleagues see the teddy bear interpretation", they look less and less credible and more and more whiny.
    The author's original comment to Isis included a suggestion that she take a class (cough cough, seriously) and then stated not to treat him like a politician in her reply (puh-leeze). It seems the only way the authors can discuss their science is in the confines (safety blankie) of a formally-peer-reviewed arena with an equal-to-the-task colleague cut from the same mold as them. I guess our opinions don't count outside the journal format and certainly shouldn't be available to anyone (of lesser mind?)....What a load of crap. Like the teddy bear on the can!

  • Arlenna says:

    I dunno... I am inclined to feel like they are perfectly entitled to feeling miffed that somebody analogized their work to taking a dump. And I think they've got balls for coming back and saying something about it under their own real names.
    Lively, spirited, un-deadly-serious discussion of published science is awesome, and the internets are a perfect place for it. But when you dish it out with poop jokes, you kind of have to be ready to take some right back--which Isis seemed to be ready to do as far as I could tell.
    Snark begets snark, and this kind of comes back to my feelings about pseudonymity and taking responsibility for what one says. The responsibility doesn't lie in always only saying things you would say with your own face to someone's face, but it at least has to come from an integrity of tit for tat and taking what gets thrown back at you when you toss the snark ball. Ain't nothing wrong with playing snark-bat, it's entertaining and can be a cheekily insightful way to dissect things--but when someone you snark-batted turns around and says "WTF person! Snark right back at you!" it's not really fair to throw up your hands and claim "Unfair, unfair! You're not allowed to snark at ME!" (which, BTW, didn't seem to be what Isis did, she seemed to be ready to take the water balloon to the chest and come back up swinging)

  • Ain't nothing wrong with playing snark-bat, it's entertaining and can be a cheekily insightful way to dissect things--but when someone you snark-batted turns around and says "WTF person! Snark right back at you!"

    But that's not what they did. They didn't join the fun and snark back. They whined back, like whiny-ass titty-babies.

  • Arlenna says:

    But uh-huhhh, yes they did! They said something like 'You might want to take a class in epidemiology Ms. Whoever-you-are." Then there was a bunch more back-and-forth in the comments for Isis' subsequent post about it, where both parties snarked considerably. Sarcasticity was had by all, and it sure looked like a typical internet snark-batting session to me.
    I still think the authors have just as much right to be offended at Isis calling their work poop as she does to call it poop on her personal blog. The thing about internet arguments and drama is that there is no way to enforce or even define "etiquette" and it's hypocritical for any side to call the right of way on any behavior. It's all in how one is perceived by whoever's reading it: I didn't see their responses as whiny babies, I thought they had cojones for coming out as themselves and not anonymous commenters, saying "Yo dudette, 1. we said what we said for a reason and 2. maybe you didn't understand what we were saying."
    Whiny babies would have called Dr. Isis' mom and told her "Mrs. Mom-Isis, Isis is being MEAN to us, wahaahhhhh." These guys went right up to her door and told her that to her own face.

  • Paleonut says:

    Wow, lots of this sort of thing going around this week. A similar blog-post-and-reply took place in paleontology. In that case, the authorial whining is uncontaminated by snark.

  • A similar blog-post-and-reply took place in paleontology. In that case, the authorial whining is uncontaminated by snark.

    HAHAHAHAHAH! More whiny-ass titty-baby authors!

  • Lab Lemming says:

    One point regarding authorial reply to anonymous bloggers is that it is difficult for an author to pitch his reply to an appropriate level if he has no idea what the background of his critiquer is.

  • One point regarding authorial reply to anonymous bloggers is that it is difficult for an author to pitch his reply to an appropriate level if he has no idea what the background of his critiquer is.
    See, Lab Lemming, I have to call "bullshit" on that statement. It is not that difficult to craft a response to someone who is interested in science, even when they are pseudonymous -- you craft the best answer you can and be prepared to offer additional clarification if necessary. I have had some pretty brilliant conversations about topics I am not an expert in within the blogosphere and think it has the potential to be a very important medium both for the public and for scientists within academia.
    The reality is, in the last several days that statement has been used to mean, "am I having a conversation with one of my well-accomplished colleagues or some meaningless member of the proletariat?" The answer is, it doesn't matter whether Dr. Isis is a full professor with so many RO1s that she blows her nose with dolla dolla billz y'all, or an undergraduate masquerading in sheep's clothes. Pseudonymous blogging has an interesting way of equalizing the discussing parties.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Hell, NIH grant review is semi-anonymous. We all get whacked with snarky comments there. Big deal. Once you publish, your shit is in the public domain. If its good enough for Jon Stewart its good enough for Dr. Isis. Kudos on the teddy bear visual.
    I also find myself in Comrade PhysioProf's camp: I vote, Whiny-ass Titty Baby for the authors.
    Dr. F

  • I am going to argue that Googling yourself and finding that you've been called a whiny-ass titty baby is way worse than finding the bear picture. Dr. Isis comes out looking like a princess in comparison.
    I love you, PP, for always turning it up to 11.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    In case anybody missed it, coturnix has a critique posted (and of course he's an 'out' blogger so perhaps he can be taken more seriously by certain parties).
    http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2008/11/spring_forward_fall_back_shoul.php
    janszimre, I congratulate you on coming to the blogs to discuss your paper, even if the focus at the moment is on the more distracting stuff. I have to point out that my appreciation of your paper is actually enhanced by what Bora had to say and probably not lessened appreciably by what Isis had to say, even though I tend to agree with her more substantive points. From the mainstream coverage (basically at the abstract level or less) I wasn't motivated to actually read your paper, thinking there wasn't enough there. The blog coverage got me really concentrating on the paper. This should be a GoodThing for authors and they should trust that just because one person expresses a particular view, his or her readers may find themselves with an entirely different perspective

  • Bettawrekonize says:

    "Although not exactly the same as Isis' distressed correspondents, there has been a slight tone that somehow expressing a critique of a scientific finding or paper on a blog is unfair or beyond the pale.
    ...
    It is a GoodThing when papers are being discussed by interested parties, no matter what the format for that discussion happens to be."
    I agree completely. Academic freedom and open inquiry are a good thing.

  • Yagotta B. Kidding says:

    A blogger posted a thoughtful and well-argued critical analysis of a paper, and the authors came by and defended their paper.

    Bullshit, PP. They didn't defend their paper at all, they just whinged and did a lame-ass job of defending their own lilly whites.
    A defense of their paper would have been more along the lines of, "I'll see your Shea and raise you a White Sage and two Gingers [1]." Instead they whinged about how they didn't want their tender offspring to see a toilet.
    For me, I'd be a lot more worried about having offspring that are cruising the Interwebs and who still don't know about porcelain fixtures. No matter what, once they follow their paper back to Isis' blog they're going to be learning about glitter and how will our tender authors deal with that?
    [1] Sue me -- I don't know the field but I'm olfactory.

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