What’s your view on social media and science? For example, the role of science blogs in critiquing published papers? 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.
This quote is from an interview with Jingmai O’Connor, a paleontologist currently in China.
Let’s break down the problems here.
“Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog.” There are many researchers who do both, productively.
“I understand that blogs can be useful in affording the general public insights into current science...” It’s nice that we bloggers got tossed a bone (no pun intended). But science blogs do not just help the general public; there are many technical comments on papers that help provide needed context for other scientists, whose own research is tangential to published research: close enough to see the relevance, but without the deep expertise needed to pick out specific problems.
“(I)t often seems those who criticize or spend large amounts of time blogging are also those who don’t generate much publications themselves.” O’Connor is hypothesizing that there is an inverse correlation between blogging and primary literature. This an interesting empirical question. It’s true that time spent blogging is time that cannot be spent writing primary peer-reviewed journal articles, so prima facie, there might be truth to this. But as far as I know, there is no actual peer-reviewed literature on this. Will update this post if I find any.
“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 venue a claim is published in does not determine the validity of the claims. She is correct that certain journals are averse to citing non-peer reviewed material, and that putting material in the literature helps to assure the long-term findability of the critique. But these matters are not central to the main issue: is the criticism valid? Then it does not matter where it was published.
“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.” Some things on the Internet are unchecked. Some things on the Internet are rigoruously checked. It should also be noted that some journals that call themselves peer reviewed provide checks that are, at best, cursory (see here and here, for instance). Even “top” journals have published papers that made pro scientists ask, “How did this get published?” Has Dr. O’Connor not heard of arsenic life or STAP cells?
“I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.” I’ve written a whole article (Faulkes 2014) about why I find that criticism in social media generally valuable. To name just two: it is rapid, and provides a way to bypass powerful gatekeepers with vested interests.
I have no idea what damaging effects of social media on culture she is referring to. It’s off topic, in any case.
Not surprisingly, as soon as someone on social media found this, this quote began spreading like wildfire. But there is apparently a backstory that is not spreading as fast. Jon Tennant wrote:
In this situation, she’s actually right. There's a core of semi-pro bloggers who attack her work/never formally publish anything.
I went digging. And I was surprised, because my first impressions are that Dr. O’Connor is not a stereotypical stick in the mud, conservative older scientist that is sort of the stereotype for critiques of blogging and social media. Honestly, she seems... kind of... awesome.
I went through the first ten pages of Google results, and found tons of positive stuff about her, including tons of stuff on blogs. She’s had lots of high profile papers. She’s done some science outreach. She strikes me as smart, outspoken, and a little unconventional. Jingmai O’Connor seems like exactly the sort of person I’d use a counter-example to the “scientists are old white dudes” stereotype.
I did a Google search for her name plus “blog.” Went through multiple pages and still found nothing negative about her, or controversies around her work. Tried her name plus “controversy.” Still nothing.
Maybe the blogging criticism is behind the Great Firewall of China.
Even when intentionally looking for the backstory that might have motivated her comment, I can’t find it. Whoever the bloggers are who have criticized her, they didn’t appear to make a big dent in her online reputation to an outsider like me. Which makes me all the more puzzled why she would paint all bloggers with such a broad brush.
It’s unfortunate. I hope that the criticism of her ill-advised comments don’t cement her “The Internet is bad” opinions. If she had a blog, I would be reading it.
Additional: Lengthened the blog post with a line by line fisking of the quote.
Faulkes Z. 2014. The vacuum shouts back: post-publication peer-review on social media. Neuron 82(2): 258-260. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2014.03.032
O’Connor J. 2016. Jingmai O’Connor. Current Biology 26(1): R11–R12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.11.046
Jingmai O’Connor home page
Interview with Dr. O’Connor
A teacher can never tell where his influence stops
Fashionista: Jurassic Jingmai
Jingmai Kathleen O'Connor: Badass archeologist (sic)
Society for Vertebrate Paleontology 2014
Blogging is wonderful for science. More scientists should blog and tweet.
Chill out about Jingmai O’Connor’s criticism of bloggers