Blogging is wonderful for science. More scientists should blog and tweet.

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Lenny Teytelman Feb 02, 2016

Last night, I came across an interview in Current Biology with the scientist Jingmai O’Connor. It had a rather controversial paragraph:

[Question] What’s your view on social media and science? For example, the role of science blogs in critiquing published papers?

[Answer] Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog. I understand that blogs can be useful in affording the general public insights into current science, but it often seems those who criticize or spend large amounts of time blogging are also those who don’t generate much publications themselves. If there were any valid criticisms to be made, the correct venue for these comments would be in a similar, peer-reviewed and citable published form. The internet is unchecked and the public often forgets that. They forget or are unaware that a published paper passed rigorous review by experts, which carries more validity than the opinion of some disgruntled scientist or amateur on the internet. Thus, I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.

My summary in a tweet was:

Tweeting it has led to an expected level of criticism (it's people who tweet and blog responding to an insult). But there is apparently a personal back story to this, which Zen Faulkes tried to discover. Jon Tennant has invited me to explicitly ciritique the above.

I only have 15 minutes before a day of calls and meetings, so I am only going to respond to that particular paragraph.

1. Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog.

That's the "those who can do and those who can't teach" line. As offensive to teachers as it is to bloggers.

2. I understand that blogs can be useful in affording the general public insights into current science, but it often seems those who criticize or spend large amounts of time blogging are also those who don’t generate much publications themselves.

Oh, how often I have heard this one. Good example is the review Jonathan Eisen got on a grant application and described: Grant review: Eisen may not be able to help much due to time spent on blog; Eisen's response - blog about it. The above statement from Professor O'Connor has zero evidence. Zero. Sweeping and insulting generalization, just as #1. [see note1]

3. If there were any valid criticisms to be made, the correct venue for these comments would be in a similar, peer-reviewed and citable published form.

Actually, I have also heard this quite frequently. I couldn't disagree more with it. In fact, as I've written here before, I think scientists have a moral obligation to speak up and engage in post-publication peer review and discussion, outside of the journals.

4. The internet is unchecked and the public often forgets that. They forget or are unaware that a published paper passed rigorous review by experts, which carries more validity than the opinion of some disgruntled scientist or amateur on the internet.

Professor O’Connor forgets that not all pre-publication review is rigorous, that even the rigorous could never possibly ensure that what is published is correct, and that we have endless examples where post-publication discussion on Twitter/social media, PubPeer, blogs, PubMed Commons, and journals' comments is often invaluable in correcting flaws in publications.


5. Thus, I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.

I find that what is truly damaging to science is the false assumption that publication or peer review equals truth.

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Note1: I absolutely agree that blogging and tweeting 100% of your time, in a way that precludes doing research and writing up the results would be detrimental. As my constraining of the response blog post to 15 minutes shows, it's good to have limits to social media activity. See a careful discussion with Jonathan Eisen of social media in science and its impacts on the careers: To tweet or not to tweet?

Note2: I understand that professor O'Connor has been the subject of either personal attacks, attacks on her research, or extremely harsh criticism. I do not know the details. I have been the subject of online vitriol. I know many women who have been viciously attacked on social media. In no way is that acceptable. But assuming youtube-style vitriol, I would have answered the above question as follows:

[Question] What’s your view on social media and science? For example, the role of science blogs in critiquing published papers?

[My Answer] Blogging and post-publication peer review are very useful in affording the general public insights into current science, and it is essential for the progress of science and for scientific discourse. With over a million papers published in biomedicine alone each year, pre-publication peer review simply cannot keep up and ensure that only the truth is published. In fact, pre-publication peer review has never done that. At the same time, we should strive to discuss and debate in a civil and constructive way, rather than with vitriol and personal attacks, so common in the internet world. I would also urge scientists to read Jonathan Eisen's excellent advice on how to balance research, career, and online activity. 

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