Monday, December 06, 2010

The Value of Blogs

Many people have questioned the significance of blogs and bloggers. Some think that science blogs have no useful purpose and that they are undermining the peer review process of publication in scientific journals. Science journalists resent the fact that amateur writers can throw up something on a blog and claim that it's contributing to science education.

Over the years I've come to appreciate that science blogs do at least one thing that's new—they provide instant commentary on science news and that helps to serve as authoritative fact-checking. Science blogs monitor science journalism in the same way that political blogs monitor FOX news and the New York Times.

This role has been illustrated in spades over the past few days as we monitor the response to the NASA hype over bacteria that grow in the presence of arsenic. The weaknesses of the Science paper are now well-known thanks to many science bloggers. In the past, this kind of analysis would have had to wait for the publication of an appropriate critique in a scientific journal and that was very unlikely to happen for a number of very good reasons. Thus, in the past shoddy, over-hyped work got a free pass and science journalists who fell for the hype never even realized that they had been duped.

Read David Dobbs on Wired for a thoughtful analysis of the episode and the lesson we need to learn [Is That Arsenic-Loving Bug — Formerly an Alien — a Dog?]. It's interesting that even Nature News got sucked into promoting the hype. This shows that even journalists at the premier science journals are not very skeptical.


13 comments :

  1. I was thinking the same thing after reading Rosie Redfield's piece. That this is the kind of post-publication peer review that is essential.

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  2. I like that blogs are democratizing the dissemination of analysis/opinion. Professional journalists have been complaining about blogs for a while, probably because people writing as a hobby are undermining their status as the gatekeepers of public broadcasting of information. There are a lot of poorly written blogs out there, it's true, but the beauty of the medium is being able to read only those whose commentary you respect (even if this sometimes leads to folks only reading blogs whose opinions reflect their own - but that's no different than any other medium).

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  3. Before sending a paper of to a journal, we would toss the ideas around in the coffee room. That sometimes yielded useful feedback.

    When we saw an important paper appear in the journals, we would discuss that in the coffee room, too.

    The blogs are just a bigger coffee room.

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  4. nwrickert says,

    The blogs are just a bigger coffee room.

    No, it's not that simple.

    In the past we would discuss the science in the coffee room or in a journal club. Similar meetings would go on all over the world in those labs that had a direct interest in the work. That's as far as it would go unless there was some further discussions at scientific meetings.

    The result was that the experts in the field generally knew which papers to believe and which ones to ignore. The bad papers just sat there in the literature and there was no way for the non-experts to evaluate them. Similarly, the science journalists who may have written about the work had no way of knowing that coffee groups had discounted the paper.

    Now that's all out in the open and even if we're not an expert in microbiology, or evolution, or whatever, we soon learn that there are published articles that are not worth the paper they're written on. Conversely, we soon learn that there are some articles that really are breakthroughs.

    That's a big change. The journals should be worried and so should science writers. Those writers who fell for the NASA press conference, for example, now look pretty silly. Their credibility is being undermined by science bloggers and they don't know what to do about it other than try to impugn the quality of blogs.

    Some of them will still claim that they are much better writers than the typical scientist but they forget that the top three criteria of good science journalism are: accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. Writing style comes further down on the list.

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  5. Larry says: The journals should be worried and so should science writers.

    I agree with most of your comment. But I think the journals and science writers would be in trouble, even without the blogs.

    Science has always been a culture of freely sharing results. And the journals were important in disseminating those results. But now the journals are seen as more of a problem, particularly when you run into a pay wall when trying to access a report. The internet has changed everything with respect to publishing, and many of the journals have failed to adapt.

    For the science journalists, it's a related problem. The traditional newspapers are failing, because the internet has changed everything with respect to publishing.

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  6. The arsenic-eaters is only the most recent example of how science blogs have helped me. I know some biology but not enough for red flags to have popped up just on reading the news articles about it. And I've had much the same experience with economics news and blogs.

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  7. I would not say Nature News bought into the hype, it did make the point that it has not been shown that Arsenic is directly incorporated into the DNA of the bacteria. Of course, it did not offer as detailed a critique as, say, Rosie Redfield's, but it was skeptical; after all, it is a News article

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  8. Vineeth says,

    I would not say Nature News bought into the hype, ...

    I disagree. The whole sorry affair shows us that if you call a major news conference to promote your work you will get coverage in the popular press and even in respectable science journals, irrespective of whether the science is good or bad.

    In order to retain some of it's rapidly declining respectability, Nature should have done one of two things: (a) ignore the paper, (b) do some serious investigative reporting to uncover the truth.

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  9. An interesting touch is that the original authors, having gone the press conference route to hype the paper's publication, now say

    "We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time," declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey.

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  10. Larry,
    Blogs serve many very important functions.

    One is that serious researchers and other academics such as yourself can use the blog mode of communication to keep critical non-trivial concepts relevant to their professional concerns in the public eye. You, for instance, always keep a place at the evolutionary theory table for random genetic drift while a great many other evolutionary theorists seem to ignore it completely. Personally, I'd like to see a treatment of the subject that parallels Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene." I think it is both highly important and highly misunderstood.

    A second important role played by blogs is that of being naive and unafraid to ask the "stupid" question. Professionals are often remiss at asking the outlier questions in professional fora that might leave them perceived as having misunderstood something. The blog allows a more casual means for the professional to explore areas they would not put in papers for peer reviewed publication including the "stupid" question, while they also allow an amateur to float a relevant question and give it sufficient hang time that it can be picked up by someone knowledgeable in a position to address it.

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  11. That's a big change. The journals should be worried and so should science writers.

    Yes, for sure. I am very much looking forward to the future where traditional journals and pre-publication peer review are obsolete. Already there is a decent amount of original research self-published by all kinds of people on Internet - and some of it is of much higher quality than the average peer reviewed stuff.

    OT but highly amusing:

    http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/17/2/152.abstract

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  12. Nature should have done one of two things: (a) ignore the paper, (b) do some serious investigative reporting to uncover the truth.

    LOL. Next you will demand that Nature editors actually read and understand the papers they publish. What are you, a revolutionary of some sort?

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  13. Over the years I've come to appreciate that science blogs do at least one thing that's new—they provide instant commentary on science news and that helps to serve as authoritative fact-checking.

    True, but there are downsides to the rise of science blogs. Take, for example, the Climate Audit blog. This provides commentary on climate research from a denialist perspective and has played a significant role in attacking and undermining climate science research. It's probably the most influential science blog out there.

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