Bloggers and blogging in Nature Geoscience

Given some of the other shenanigans that were percolating through the geoblogosphere yesterday, I was understandably a little bit cautious when I noticed a couple of familiar names popping up in the contents list for Nature Geoscience that arrived in my inbox yesterday. It seems that both Kim and Julia decided to convey their thoughts (originally posted here and here) on a report on gender imbalances in the US geosciences community, which the journal published a couple of months ago, straight to the source. Bravo!
To compound the strange coincidences, in this issue there’s also discussion of the pros and cons of blogging, the pros being provided by Gavin Schmidt of RealClimate, and the cons by Myles Allen, an Oxford climatologist associated with Climateprediction.net (for those not in the know, basically SETI@home with climate models).
In his piece, Gavin has an interesting take on one of the ways that science blogs can contribute to science communication:

Much of the information in any field of science is tacit… Scientists generally absorb this background knowledge through a kind of osmosis in graduate school. They continue to pick it up at coffee and over dinner at conferences and workshops as they discuss the latest results…

…this kind of informal second-stage peer review is vital to the need to quickly process the vast
amount of information being produced. Scientists from all fields rely on it heavily to make a first cut between the studies that are worth reading in more detail and those that aren’t. Scientists writing in blogs can make this context available to anyone who is interested.

Meanwhile, I found Myles Allen’s comments a little bit odd (Update: he also comments below). He basically argues that science bloggers who post their opinions regarding a paper they’ve read are committing some sort of heinous crime against science communication, concluding:

criticism of peer-reviewed results belongs in the peer-reviewed literature. Direct communication over the Internet, far from creating a level playing field, just ploughs it up and makes the game impossible.

His motivation for this seems to be an incident a while back where the RealClimate people criticized a paper coming out of the Climateprediction.net project (about how certain combinations of model parameters produced very high climate sensitivities), and those criticisms were later part of a BBC programme on the over-hyping of climate change. Although if you look up the relevent posts on RealClimate (which really should have been linked to in the piece itself), it seems to me that they’re criticising the press coverage – the fact that you can get models with high sensitivity to increases in CO2 suddenly morphed into claims that the actual Earth also had a high sensitivity – rather than the paper itself. This being the case, Allen’s glowing tribute to the wonders of science coverage in the modern media jars even more. It’s certainly true that there are some excellent science reporters out there, who take the trouble actually read and understand the research itself, and interview the scientists involved to make sure they get it right; but they’re a distinct minority in a flock dominated by the “take a breathless press release and make it even more breathless” brigade.
As for Allen’s conclusion, whilst I fully concur that scientific debates should principally be conducted, and be resolved, within the peer-reviewed literature, I totally disagree that you should shield the public from that process, which is what Allen seems to be arguing. The general public’s poor understanding of how science actually operates is a gaping hole exploited by pseudoscientists and unscrupulous lobby groups of all stripes. The more real scientific debates – climate sensitivity, mantle plumes – that the public get to witness, the more obvious it will be how phony the climate change and evolution ‘debates’ really are.
Still, perhaps next time I get asked a tough question at a conference, I can just reply, “I’m sorry, your question is not peer reviewed.”

Categories: general science, public science

Comments (11)

  1. Kim says:

    It was really, really weird to see an argument against blogging in the same issue with two letters that were derived from blog posts. (In fact, the editor e-mailed me and asked if I would write a letter. And, for the record, those letters are not peer reviewed… and I had to sign away copyright to Nature. Was that conversation better on the static pages of a journal, or in a place where it’s possible to respond and discuss?)
    As for discussion of the peer-reviewed literature taking place only in peer-reviewed literature: what does Allen think happens in graduate seminars? Or, for that matter, in undergraduate courses? And does he expect everyone at a scientific conference to wear duct tape over their mouths in the hallways and bars?

  2. Silver Fox says:

    I’m wondering – but it seems to me that any comments taking place within the peer-reviewed literature, would really amount to the peer-review process itself, which involves about three people or so, and is not made public.
    He’s probably referring to letters to the editor in journals and magazines – but some (many?) journals don’t have that kind of forum. Comments made online are much more viable (vital, vigorous) than letters to an editor, and they go somewhere, can be responded to, and are not selected or edited by editors (usually).

  3. Maria says:

    My vote for “what Allen actually meant” goes to something more along the lines of keeping criticism within the scientific community until it has been thoroughly vetted by the community (usually by peer review when it’s published as a comment). At least, I think that’s the most charitable interpretation of his argument.
    I bet Allen would get along well with the pro-framing side of the recent kerfuffle. It all seems to boil down to wanting the scientific community to present a unified front to the layfolk, vs. wanting to fuzz up that boundary.

  4. Myles Allen says:

    As you might imagine, I don’t follow blogs, but having accepted Nature Geosciences’ invitation to provide a provocative comment, I figured keeping an eye on this one should be part of the assignment. Of course I expect people to criticize papers in graduate seminars and, indeed, in conferences and so on, precisely as the eminent scientist I mentioned in my article was doing over coffee. But the idea we should post our personal views on the internet and leave them there to be picked up and twisted who-knows-how, without subjecting them to any form of review before doing so, is a new one, and not good for science. I don’t have a problem with blogging per se, if bloggers were to comply with the old-fashioned courtesy of checking with the authors that they have understood a paper correctly before criticizing it in public. In this particular case, Gavin and Stefan simply didn’t understand one aspect of our experimental design, a simple e-mail would have set them straight, and much confusion and bad press would have been avoided. If RealClimate were to adopt a simple policy of fact-checking comments on papers with the papers’ authors before posting them, and if necessary posting a response from the authors together with their post, it would certainly be a vast improvement. The argument that the authors can always respond on the blog is a bogus one, because very few scientists have the time to monitor blogs for critical posts, and I am told that posting on a week-old (or even day-old) thread is generally a waste of time.

  5. Maria says:

    I think the value of posting on old threads depends on the blog. I know some people who will write a new post to call attention to a particularly salient comment or criticism that appears on an older thread, especially if it comes from an author of the original study. I’ve also seen old threads revived when new comments appear in the “recent comments” part of someone’s sidebar.
    It’s more likely to happen at smaller blogs than at places like RealClimate, where the bloggers can’t necessarily keep up with all the comments they get and you’re #523 of 540, though. There, you really are reliant on the goodwill of the authors to provide a spotlight for your reply.

  6. Chris Rowan says:

    Maria – the overlap with the framing palava did occur to me, too…
    Myles – thanks for commenting.
    if bloggers were to comply with the old-fashioned courtesy of checking with the authors that they have understood a paper correctly before criticizing it in public.
    The thing is, though, that many of the best science bloggers are (unlike most science journalists) themselves scientists, who are perfectly qualified to read the paper and form their own assessment of its significance. Thus, this is not really ‘reporting’ in the traditional sense – Gavin was commenting on the research in his capacity as a climatologist. It’s a blurry line, though; I’m going to have to give this some more thought…

  7. Silver Fox says:

    With regard to reviewing literature on blogs and checking with authors prior to a review for their views, comments, or explanations – I think Myles Allen has a point. I think also that the world is moving at a faster pace in some (many?) ways than it did 10 years ago (and more). There are plusses and minuses in that, and new dynamics that will have to be worked out or adapted to somehow.

  8. Andrew says:

    Just noting that the Nature discussion is shielded from the public, being only available to subscribers. Two hundred dollars a year is a formidable barrier, and informed conversation outside that paywall is valuable despite its shortcomings. It’s especially valuable in providing an alternative to traditional journalism, in which editors assume what we want to know and then constrain reporters’ stories to less than the minimum space needed for clarity, let alone insight.

  9. getnutri says:

    Scientists who regularly write trash without checking facts will be found out and criticized and eventually lose readership.

  10. Kim says:

    To getnutri:

    Scientists who regularly write trash without checking facts will be found out and criticized and eventually lose readership.

    Will they? Among scientists within their discipline, yes, but among journalists, or among the broader public?
    (As an example what about climate denial websites? One might expect that they would lose credibility, but I have seen mainstream media essentially repeating their points. And it isn’t just Fox News: for instance, there is this BBC article with the headline “Global warming ‘dips this year’”. The data is about La Nina and its effects on global temperatures, but then the article takes a line straight from the script of a denial website: “This would mean global temperatures have not risen since 1998, prompting some to question climate change theory.” I would say that at least one reporter has been listening to climate skeptics, and not going to AGU or EGU.

  11. Ron Schott says:

    Kim:

    I would say that at least one reporter has been listening to climate skeptics, and not going to AGU or EGU.

    When someone gets something wrong those who know better should make an effort to help them see the error of their ways. When someone – reporter or scientist – consistently gets things wrong I unsubscribe from them. When they consistently have intelligent things to say I follow them more closely. Credibility must be continually earned.