23 June 2010

Vendetta

A new website for neuroscience called The Third Reviewer has been generating some comment in the blogosphere (DrugMonkey’s and Dr. O’s blogs, among others).

One of the things that bugs me it is that commenting is anonymous. My position: Anonymity doesn’t improve things (see here and here). The ostensible reason it is the way it is because people “fear reprisals.”



Has science become that much like the mob?

Are we as a group that thin-skinned, petty and vindictive that we’re going to put out a hit someone’s grant or whack another scientist’s pub because they didn’t think we used the right statistical test?

And if the answer is yes, we should start asking ourselves why that bad behaviour is tolerated, and how we can get rid of it.

Besides, anyone who believes they can safely remain anonymous on the web is fooling themselves. Own every word you speak.

Personally, I doubt I’ll be commenting on papers on The Third Reviewer website, for much the same reason John Stewart doesn’t use Twitter: He has a TV show. I have a blog. If I have something substantive to say, I’ll say it here.

I wish the guys behind the site luck, because I think they’ll need it. The history of researchers commenting on published papers is... not encouraging. Many papers on, say, PLoS ONE don’t even a star rating, which is also anonymous, but much easier than writing a specific comment.

6 comments:

scicurious said...

Sci's gotta disagree on this one. I mean, it's not like we're the mob, but I know a lot of grad students and post-docs who have questions and points to make on papers, and are too afraid to get out there any say them, because the big wigs WILL smack you down and make you look very stupid if you're wrong (not to mention other grad students and post-docs who will smack you down to make themselves look better). Of course we all have to build up a thick skin to those sort of things, but in the meantime it'd be nice to start getting conversations going.

In addition, a lot of people, when they have to identify themselves in a comment (like on PLoS) are going to spend literally WEEKS putting together the comment, complete with the context of the literature, a certain amount of praise, the literature supporting their point, a bibliography, etc, etc. While this isn't bad, it's a TON of effort to take for a simple question or point, and i think Third Reviewer is good in that it allows people to just up and ask a question, like you would at a conference.

Zen said...

I get that the fear of reprisal isn't baseless. I'd rather work to make that kind of in-fighting and back-biting unacceptable and not tolerated by the community.

If "the little guy" can use an anonymous site to criticize "big wigs," the big wigs are as likely to use the site and wield it like a club to fight back.

Nat Blair said...

I get that the fear of reprisal isn't baseless. I'd rather work to make that kind of in-fighting and back-biting unacceptable and not tolerated by the community.

I like that sentiment too, and it's worth working towards. The problem though is that these methods of reprisal are seldom done out in the open, and thus the perpetrators can escape sanctions by the group.

If "the little guy" can use an anonymous site to criticize "big wigs," the big wigs are as likely to use the site and wield it like a club to fight back.

But if their critics are anonymous, who the hell are they gonna fight back against? Isn't that the point?

The other good thing about anonymous comments is that the strength of the critique must stand on its own, as there's no authority that flows from the name of the author. In fact, I'd argue that all comments be forced to be anonymous.

Zen said...

Nat: What I had in mind was that "big wigs" could be posting on these anonymous forums, actively defending and promoting their work in a general way, not in a directed "I'm gonna get you sucka!" kind of way.

Plus, no forum can force anonymity. I can just type into my message, "Zen here. I think this..." So a "big wig" can use their reputation to try to exert more influence.

Anonymity also facilitates people to promote research where they have a conflict of interest (it's by themselves, a friend, a company they have stock in, whatever).

Also, I think this post by Seth Godin on "The right to be heard" is relevant. Especially point 8.

It boggles my mind that so many academic researchers want more layers of anonymity, when the rest of the world is pushing for more transparency.

drugmonkey said...

it boggles my mind the way you confuse the prescriptive for how you want the world to work with the reality of making positive change within the way the world actually IS.

You recognize that current online commenting is dismal. What is *your* solution? More of the same failure mode advanced by NPG and PLoS? Blogs have been around long enough to show they aren't the solution either? What third way would you propose?

Zen said...

Drugmonkey: Fair cop. I don't know yet.

I started to write a longer response, but think I'll need a separate post for it.