I have occasionally mentioned that I really like the way that Nature Publishing Group (NPG) have promoted the online discussion of scientific research articles. After all, the publication of an article is merely the starting point and the authors' interpretations of their data are only part of a larger set. Science proceeds best when we collaborate with our data, our ideas, our interpretations and our conclusions. Internet technologies can assist with this process. Indeed, these technologies already are assisting and have been doing so for some time. How many times in the last month have you used email to discuss a figure or a paper with a colleague? A ubiquitous phenomenon, is it not? Yeah, well when I started graduate school there was no email*.
I have also, I confess, waxed slightly critical of the execution of online paper discussion. Although I mostly bash NPG because they leave so much tasty chum lying in the water, I am generally critical; PLoS hasn't really managed to do much better than the NPG titles when it comes to consistent online discussion.
Science blogs are slightly better at generating robust discussion of an article which in some cases feels a little more like journal club. This latter is a touchstone target for this behavior, IMNSHO. Science blogs suffer, however, from a lack of focus and a lack of comprehensive coverage. Researchblogging.org is a focal portal to select the journal article discussions out from the cacophony of a typical blog but again, it tends to suffer from coverage issues. The audience is presumed to be a general audience by most science bloggers and therefore they tend to select topics of general interest.
This brings me to a new internet creation: The Third Reviewer
The first thing you will notice is the list of journals which publish scientific articles in the neurosciences in the tabs at the top. The site grabs a Table of Contents feed and lists each article as a commentable link/entry. The comprehensive coverage problem is solved.
The site allows anonymous commenting. This is huge. It solves what I think is the major problem with the approach of publishing houses to this topic. Like it or not, people are less likely to openly comment on papers in a way that could come back to nail them. Yes, even if they are totally and completely polite, their criticism is on the up and up and 80% of the field agrees with it.
The snooty nosed types allege that anonymous commenting will make such an effort descend into meaningless drivel, ad hominem attacks and nastiness. Those of us who actually discuss papers in online venues that permit anonymous commenting allege that such risks are vastly overblown and that a light hand of moderation, plus social tone-setting, takes care of any problems that might arise.
The Third Reviewer will test these competing hypotheses. And you know I'm excited about that!
*yes, it had been developed but it was not in widespread academic use at that point.
N.b. Tragically, the owners of the movie Downfall have gone after many of the YouTube mashups, including the one from which "The Third Reviewer" derives. Has anyone seen it pop up on another host?