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Friday, October 15, 2010

Science Blogs vs Scientific Literature

Royce Murray is a highly respected scientist. He doesn't like science blogs, a point he makes in an editorial published in Analytical Chemsitry [Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor].

David Kroll discusses Murray's ignorance of scienc blogs in an article on Terra Sigellata [“The current phenomenon of ‘bloggers’ should be of serious concern to scientists”]. I urge you to read Kroll's article to see why Royce Murray is so wrong about blogs.

I'd like to make another point. Murray begins his editorial with ...
If you are a science scholar, you hope that all scientific articles that you read are grounded in fact. There is a lot of background information to guide you, including statistical data on what professional journals are read widely, with papers therein that produce citations by other subsequent papers and in general, influence the direction of forthcoming new science. As scholars publishing in professional journals, we are schooled in the importance of factual reliability and impact of articles we read in science journals. In terms of impact, we know of various collective valuations of journals through metrics like the so-called “Impact Factor”. By extension, editors and reviewers reinforce the meaningfulness of Impact Factors by explicit attention to the reliability of submitted articles; if the Scientific Method has not been adequately followed, then there should be a downwardly adjusted evaluation of impact. The picture of scientifically grounded innovations feeding progress in science is well established. I firmly believe that this system has served science well and that the scientific literature has provided generally reliable information and vast benefits to society over the centuries to the present and will continue doing so into the future.
I don't disagree with the final conclusion; namely that publication in scientific journals has served science well over the past 150 years. However, I do disagree with the general tone of this paragraph because it fails to recognize the poor quality of many papers that are published in the scientific literature. The focus on "impact factor" is especially disappointing since it caters to "me-too" science and not true innovation and risk-taking.

Royce Murray's criticism of science blogs would be a lot more credible if he were more honest about the limitations of the scientific literature. The lack of credibility in the scientific literature is often responsible for bad journalism and leads to an incorrect view of science among the general public. How many times have you seen an article in the popular press that's based on a bad scientific paper? How many times do we have to read about new cures for cancer before we admit that the scientific literature isn't all it's cracked up to be? And let's not even talk about fields like evolutionary psychology.

Fact is, the peer-reviewed scientific literature hasn't been very successful at weeding out bad science. It's about time we recognized this and tried to find a way to fix it. One of the advantages of blogs is that they frequently highlight the bad papers that make it into the scientific literature—they also point to the good papers.

Before blogs, there was no good way for the scientific community to critique the scientific literature. Some scientists think that papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature should be immune from such criticism from the outside. They think that the only criticism should come from within the scientific literature. In other words, if you don't like a paper you have to publish another paper refuting the science.

One of the strange things about this attitude is that those very same scientists are very happy about issuing press releases and very happy to have their work praised in the popular press.


  1. Larry, I would like to second every word :-)

    Royce obviously doesn't know much about blogs. He asks "what is the feedback loop of truth and quality for the consumers of blog-info, other than statistics on how many people read the blogger’s posts?"

    "Other then"? Number of readers *is* the important feedback, followed by their comments. That's not a difficult concept to understand and the fact that he doesn't highlights the fact that he opine on a subject he has no clue about.

    And the fact that he decided to publish his note in the format that precludes feedback (instead of, god forbid, Nature blogs even), shows that he personally is not interested in it to begin with.

  2. Both critiquing and explaining papers; these are things I've come to expect from science blogs. I've seen it here, John Hawks does this with papers of interest to me at least once every couple weeks.

  3. I generally agree, but this statement doesn't seem correct:

    "Before blogs, there was no good way for the scientific community to critique the scientific literature."

    Weekly Journal Clubs are often attended by entire branches within an institute and attendees range from senior scientists to post-bachs. Why don't these count as critiques of the literature by experts in the field?

  4. It ought to be well known that most scientific papers are wrong.see here
    Anders Eg

  5. Re Anders Ehrnberg

    Wolfgang Pauli once opined that all too many scientific papers are not even wrong.