An editorial in Nature tells its readership that It's good to blog. And more specifically:
More researchers should engage with the blogosphere, including authors of papers in press.
This is a very strange little editorial. It isn't really what it seems to be about. Or it is about more than it seems. Something like that.
Let us start with the bloggy part.
Indeed, researchers would do well to blog more than they do. The experience of journals such as Cell and PLoS ONE, which allow people to comment on papers online, suggests that researchers are very reluctant to engage in such forums. But the blogosphere tends to be less inhibited, and technical discussions there seem likely to increase.
Moreover, there are societal debates that have much to gain from the uncensored voices of researchers. A good blogging website consumes much of the spare time of the one or several fully committed scientists that write and moderate it. But it can make a difference to the quality and integrity of public discussion.
Sounds pretty good. Nice little bit of endorsement from one of the science world's two premier general-science magazines. All y'all bloggers who are on the science paths will want to keep a copy of this editorial in your little file (along with such items as this, this, this and this) to brandish to the Chair or Dean or tenure committee once your blogging habits are discovered.
The observation that discussions at official journal sites are likely to be less vigorous and useful in comparisons to more informal forums, such as blogs, is to be congratulated. Too true. We cannot rely on publishers who create discussion mechanisms because they are inevitably leery of the free-flowing anonymous-comment powered, occasionally offensive or profane discussions that abound on blogs. So they try to control and civilize the discussion. This never goes well.
The bit about blogging did not appear to be the main point of this editorial, however, although it is a bit hard to tell what they are about. The main deal seems to be reassuring their potential authors about Nature policy on discussion of scientific work prior to publication.
Likewise, we ask that authors refrain from actively promoting their work to the media and public ahead of its publication. This embargo policy rests on the principle that scientists' and the public's best interests are served by press coverage of work that has been peer reviewed, and is available for others to see for themselves.
Whoops, wait right there. I think my bullshit detector is in alarm.
Sorry. I'm back. I just don't buy the idea that embargo strategies exist to benefit anyone other than the publishing media outlet, in this case scientific journals. Sure, the ovine mainstream popular press habits make it necessary to fake up a scientific paper into a "news event" to generate widespread coverage. In other words it helps to pretend that a paper's meaning has a sell-by date. That it is....immediate. It appears that this is indeed necessary to persuade a random local paper to pick up the AP or Reuters story on the next new cure for Alzheimer's, cancer or diabetes. Problem is that this process is bad for science and bad for scientists. It creates the impression of overweening optimism that scientists have FoundTheCure!!! only to be inevitably followed by an impression of "failure" when a magic bullet does not immediately emerge. This reality makes us sound like the little boy who cried wolf even when it is not the scientists, but rather the journalists, who are doing the crying.
I am not a big fan of the embargo process.
Anyway, back to the Nature editorial.
At the same time, however, our cardinal rule has always been to promote scientific communication. We have therefore never sought to prevent scientists from presenting their work at conferences, or from depositing first drafts of submitted papers on preprint servers. So if Nature journalists or those from any other publication should hear results presented at a meeting, or find them on a preprint server, the findings are fair game for coverage -- even if that coverage is ahead of the paper's publication. This is not considered a breaking of Nature's embargo. Nor is it a violation if scientists respond to journalists' queries in ensuring that the facts are correct -- so long as they don't actively promote media coverage.
And as we've noted recently other journals are rushing to reassure about preprint server deposition of manuscripts. (Including deposition in Nature Precedings, of which I just learned. Apparently we bioscience types have one too!)
But Nature is playing a very strange game in this. A familiar game, but a distasteful one. On the one hand they editorialize about how they are all about the open science communication, welcome pre-discussion of work and heart blogging.
--excuse me, let me just turn that alarm off again--
On the other hand they are a prime bloody mover in supporting the culture of paranoid secrecy!! They are the ones who generate the belief (and let's face it this one is a reality based belief) in the minds of scientists that they cannot let out a whiff of what they are about until the paper is submitted to a GlamourMag like Nature. They are the ones that perpetuate the lie that the first report of a phenomenon is all-important. Is it any wonder that scientists think that any pre-discussion, pre-print server depositing or even abstract-publishing of their work may negatively affect their chances of getting their paper accepted in Nature?
So my dear friends on the editorial staff of Nature, if you are really serious about this and expect to have any noticeable effect on rapid communication and online discussion, we need more. We need to hear what steps you are going to take to invalidate the quite-legitimate fears of investigators that deposition of a manuscript in a pre-print server will not negatively affect their chances of acceptance.
And before you start in on your usual defense, let's just nip this in the bud. Don't. Blame. Your. Reviewers. Yes, perhaps they are the ones who give you the opinion that something is not worth of your journal because it is not new and fresh enough. Stop. Making. Decisions. On. This. Basis. And tell them you don't want to hear that crap anymore, that it is no longer a criterion of interest to you. Tell them that what you are interested in are the best, most rigorously supported, preferably replicable demonstrations of real effects*.
If you can make this a reality then I guarantee you will see a rapid uptick in the use of your preprint archive, Nature Precedings.
The Nature Opinion forum is chatting about this.
Additional from Daniel MacArthur, Bora, Endless Possibilities v2.0 and Eva Amsen.
UPDATE: The plot thickens, Nature Methods has an editorial on blogging.
*Man, I crack myself up.