Go 'wan, you know you want to. Blog that is. (UPDATED)

Feb 26 2009 Published by under Blogging, Careerism, Open Access, Science Publication

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.

27 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    Why is this so tough for you to figure out, DM? Nature is a ginormous publishing enterprise that exists because it makes money. It makes money because it has convinced the world that we all really really really need to know about what is in between the covers of Nature, and on the Nature website, and associated with anything else Nature-branded. It has all sorts of policies in place to ensure that it's wares remain valuable -- low acceptance rate, tendency to hype, embargo, contacts with press, etc.
    But but but somewhere in this giant blorb of international commercial enterprise are people. Little weeny teeny meaningless but idealistic people like you and me. Some of them quite like surfing the net. People who like screwing around on the net tend to get responsibility for net-related stuff. So Nature has a bunch of idealistic net-surfers posting crap about how blogging is great and how they wish more scientists had nothing better to do than post crap on the internet to keep everybody entertained So what if some of this babble sort of contradicts other something someone else at Nature wrote? Nature a many-headed beast.
    I am not looking for inconsistencies between you and any other ScienceBlogger, or Seed magazine. I am not even scouring your old posts to see if you ever committed the ultimate sin of changing your opinion on anything. That would be ridiculous, right? Your sweaty rash over Nature Network blatherings is just as ridiculous.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Hey Dave you did notice that the regular ol' editorial staff (you know, the ones rejecting your papers) are the ones writing and endorsing the editorials, right?

  • Dave says:

    Yea, Cashmoney. I actually am personally acquainted with a couple of them. And, for the record, they tend to quite like my papers.
    But Nature is not all editors. Or even any single type of editor.

  • Cashmoney says:

    I dunno, I didn't get my print copy yet but that editorial looks like a pretty prominent one in the flagship journal. You tellin' me some wet-behind-the-ears n00b editor for one of the down-market "Nature" rags just kinda slipped that one past the evil NPG corporate shill adults?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sorry HIlary just noticed your comment in the spam trap. yes indeed, such evidence is the best argument (I am assuming that you point to papers that were eventually published in Nature, I didn't actually check). In future editorials on this topic, Nature should totally include stats on the number of papers that appeared in pre-print repositories that were accepted / rejected when submitted for consideration for publication.

  • Dave says:

    You tellin' me some wet-behind-the-ears n00b editor for one of the down-market "Nature" rags just kinda slipped that one past the evil NPG corporate shill adults?

    Maxine Clark is hardly wet behind the ears. And I don't think she slipped one by anybody. But she is an internet fiend.
    I wasn't saying anything about the editorial except that it's an editorial, and opining that DM's response seemed a bit of a frothy whirl unbecoming to such a normally thoughtful gent.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    DM's response seemed a bit of a frothy whirl unbecoming to such a normally thoughtful gent.
    Hey, I think Dave just made a funneee. Good one D00d!!
    (and yeah, Maxine's the Tucker Carlson to my Jon Stewart on this issue)

  • Dave says:

    I was actually entirely serious.
    I will, however, assume that you are being funny, and are not just mentally retarded.

  • Eskimo says:

    If you think the embargo system is silly, do you want journalists calling you at random unpredictable times, rather than getting a burst of attention when you have a paper in a high-profile journal?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    If you think the embargo system is silly, do you want journalists calling you at random unpredictable times, rather than getting a burst of attention when you have a paper in a high-profile journal?
    Yes. Next question?

  • neurolover says:

    I like the embargo system because it inhibits journalists from writing articles for the NY times science section based on half-assed conference presentations.

  • qaz says:

    I like the embargo system because it inhibits journalists from writing articles for the NY times science section based on half-assed conference presentations.

    As compared to half-assed Science papers?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It is not immediately obvious how the embargo system affects this one bit neurolover. Newspapers are free to write articles based on conference presentations and they do all the time, you should see the stuff that comes out during the SfN meeting. Often enough newspapers write gee-whiz articles based only on the press releases issued by an investigator's university. The only thing the embargo does is to notify journalists in advance of a paper which is scheduled to be officially print published some time in the (nearish) future. Those journalists who choose to write about it can take their sweet time but then they all hit the wires at more or less the same time, creating an impression of a 'buzz'. I think this is okay for the widespread-PR angle but creates an improper impression of how science progresses which is bad, bad, bad.

  • Noah Gray says:

    In future editorials on this topic, Nature should totally include stats on the number of papers that appeared in pre-print repositories that were accepted / rejected when submitted for consideration for publication.
    Isn't that easy? On the physics side, lots of papers that were both rejected and accepted were previously in preprint servers. On the biology side, very few papers that have been accepted/rejected were previously submitted to preprint servers. It depends on the subject matter. The lab. The individual scientist. Whether the biologist even knew they had a preprint server, etc. As you can imagine, the samples would be extremely biased in that sampling, rendering the numbers meaningless.
    Regardless of these isues, what relevant or useful information would this statistic provide anyway?

  • Lab Lemming says:

    I have to say, I've had very few nitty-gritty technical discussions on my blog. For the real nuts-and-bolts stuff- e.g. reference material selection for unusual analyses, tweaks to novel analytical protocols, etc., me and my former lab buddies all use facebook.
    My blog only generates comments for the silly stuff.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Noah, if we are going to shift the culture of one area of science to be more open (as apparently is the case with physics) we are going to have to shift attitudes. The idea of providing statistics is to help shift those attitudes.
    If, as I assert, scientists operate under the presumption that deposition of manuscripts in pre-print servers is detrimental to their potential future acceptance in a GlamourMag journal, evidence on this question is highly pertinent.
    Even isolated anecdotes will help. Partial or comprehensive data better yet. I understand that the dataset is limited but available info is better than none.
    The links HIlary listed at #1 are good anecdotes. You click on one and it tells you where the published manuscript ended up (only one of these is the flagship, I note).
    the more examples of these there are, the more they are widely known, the more you will have people braving it out and risking a preprint deposition...

  • This raises another important issue:
    How will journals handle situations where a manuscript is pre-published in a Web venue by one group, and then another group submits a manuscript for publication that draws essentially the same conclusions? Will the attempt to figure out whether it is a credible case of contemporaneous--but independent--discovery? If they do make such an inquiry, and decide that it was a case of this other group learning about the discovery from the pre-published work and then rushing off to duplicate it in their own lab, what will they do?
    How does the physics community deal with this in the case of pre-published work?

  • whimple says:

    How will journals handle situations where a manuscript is pre-published in a Web venue by one group, and then another group submits a manuscript for publication that draws essentially the same conclusions?
    Why should the journal care? It doesn't matter to them who authored the first officially published report, as long as they get to publish it. The biology community, which DOES care, solves this problem by not submitting their work to preprint servers. Preprint servers work in physics because the preprint IS the publication for most practical purposes and the formal publication is more of a victory lap than anything else.
    When the parasites (for profit journals) try to solicit advice on how to do an even better job sucking the juice out of the system, is it any wonder the host organisms (scientists) tell them to get lost?

  • Preprint servers work in physics because the preprint IS the publication for most practical purposes and the formal publication is more of a victory lap than anything else.

    So what prevents physicists from watching the pre-preint server for something that looks good, and then rushing off, duplicating it, and submitting it to a high-end physics journal? Is it the journal editorial process? Is it the fear of moral censure by peers? What?
    And are you saying that physicists cite to manuscripts that are only on the pre-print server, and not yet published, in other research manuscripts, grant applications, and published review articles?

  • whimple says:

    This part: "then rushing off, duplicating it"

  • Nat says:

    Meaning that it's too hard in physics to turn those expts around quickly, either because of apparatus issues (big expensive, hard to build)?
    Then, this would mean that theory never gets published to preprint servers, since that would be easy to rush off an duplicate. That true?

  • Dave says:

    Presuppose: Totally awesome results in a very competitive field.
    Do you...
    1) Publish a half-assed paper ASAP to make sure you get credit?
    2) Swallow the excitement, put your shoulder to the grindstone, and work on getting everything done -- at risk of getting scooped?
    3) Dump it onto a preprint server for feedback and to clinch credit, with plans for GlamourMag once you've tied up the loose ends?
    Number 3 doesn't sound too bad -- as long as the preprint server has enough visibility that credit will indeed be established. Reviewers have to be able to say 'Nice paper, but it's basically a copy of So-and-so's work that appeared on the Preprint Server two years ago.' For this to happen, we biologists need an easy-to-use, universally-recognized, reliable, and thoroughly searchable preprint server. I think Nature Publishing Group. was hoping Nature Precedings would become that. I don't know why it hasn't really caught on. To be honest, I've never really used it.

  • DSKS says:

    I think, when we get right down to it, The Old Ways are not long for this web2.0. The conventional peer-review system was necessary prior to the interweb simply because it was the most convenient system for providing feedback and the all important stamp of approval for published work. Now, if an online publisher wanted to, nothing is stopping them from hosting non-peer reviewed manuscripts on a temporary basis, and allowing the subfield and/or entire scientific community to jump in and determine the merit and legitimacy of the work. If a paper gets ripped a thousand new arseholes for being rubbish, it gets dropped. If it pleases the patricians, it gets the thumbs up, bumped to the peer-reviewed pile, and listed on pubmed.
    I reckon it won't be that long before manuscripts are uploaded directly (hell, the buggers make the authors do most of the formatting now anyway), with an associated rating and critique/comment section reminiscent of Amazon.com. We won't be worrying about IF anymore, and Johnny-No-Stars will have a new meaning at scientific meetings.

  • qaz says:

    Nat #23 - There's a LOT of theory on the preprint servers. For some fields, the preprint server is the only thing that matters (like in String Theory). I'm not sure if there's an official mechanism, but people in many fields of physics definitely do seem to treat an ArXive paper as a definitive publication.
    I wonder if the problem is that biology is more enamored of GlamourMags than physics? Or that it's easier to rush out and duplicate, but harder to recognize that it's been rushed out and duplicated, in biology?
    Also, I always thought SFN seemed to work like Dave #24's condition 3 - dump it into an abstract for feedback and to clinch credit. Since SFN abstracts are citeable, they seem to serve this purpose rather well.

  • Nat says:

    @qaz: Ah, so this means that the physics community has solved this problem, I suppose by denying any real credit to a person who took a preprint idea and tried to turn it around to a peer reviewed journal article.
    For the biology community, this hasn't been worked out, and I'd wager that most biologists now would give greater credit to a peer reviewed journal article over a preprint. This might create an incentive to "raid" the preprint servers for ideas that you could experimentally turn around quickly, and submit to for peer review. Because we don't have a test case of this situation where it's been decided who gets the "real" credit, I'd say most biologists are wary of putting their stuff on preprint servers.
    For me, the SfN abstracts fail in this regard, because their contents are so limited so as to make evaluating the experimental results impossible (also, it doesn't help that they are not indexed in Web of Science). This may reflect the different currencies allotted to theory versus experiment in biology compared to physics. In biology, ideas are somewhat cheap, but successfully exploring those ideas with experiments is expensive in time, effort, skill. That leads us to give the lion's share of credit to the person who best demonstrated something, rather than the person who initially may have had the idea.

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