Friday 18 January 2013

Do scientists make the most of web comments?

Social networking and commenting or reviewing on websites are part of the run-of-the-mill for most of today's web users. Who would book a hotel without checking TripAdvisor for instance? Even finding a plumber is made easier with sites like Mybuilder!

There are many other "social-networking" sites we use in our day to day lives and some attempt has been made to emulate these in our working lives. I am sure many readers of this blog use LinkedIn, Twitter, FaceBook and other sites. And it is almost impossible to buy something on-line without having access to comments and reviews from other users. However I am surprised how few comments are left by scientists on scientific websites.

One of the things I most like about blogging is the relatively large amount of direct feedback on the work I am doing. Readers leave comments on posts I have written and I meet readers at meetings who are generally complementary. But when I read journal articles online I don’t see the same level of commenting as I do on the blogs I read. Is there something stopping us from commenting? If there is can we do something to enrich the community? Does anybody care? Please leave a comment if you do!

Technical reasons for a lack of commenting: An immediate problem is that comments appear to be stuck where they get left, so unless people visit that particular page they'll never see your critical but enlightening comment so why bother.

For NGS users a fantastic resource is SEQanswers but it is more targeted to questions and answers on specific issues rather than general discussions. Sites such as Mendeley are trying to build more features that make use of their large user community to make our lives easier. At a recent user forum we discussed the possible consolidation of tags based on all users tagging. The suggestion was to allow Mendeley to analyse tag usage in the community and the suggest tags for you to use, possibly even auto-tagging documents as they are imported. They are already trying to disambiguate tags and allowing users to control the tag vocabulary we use.

A relatively new site is PubPeer which is aiming to consolidate comments from various sources. Some journals are trying to do something similar. Nature Genetics has a metrics page for publications, which show how many citations, tweets, page views, news and blog mentions an article has received. The counts are not comprehensive as mentions don’t always link directly to the articles in a format that can be assessed, they need to include a DOI.

A DOI, or Digital Object Identifier, is assigned to the majority of scientific articles by the publisher. CrossRef is the organisation that hands the unique identifiers out and linking with these should allow blog consolidators to scrape content, so I'll try to use DOIs rather than linking to a journal or PubMed in future. However I am not entirely clear how the people behind the consolidation decide where to scrape from.

However I don't think the technical reasons are all that is stopping us, and there are so many opportunities to comment on published work that we could make more use of. If bloggers, news organisations and the like can use DOIs then perhaps PubPeer, Mendeley and other efforts can consolidate the dispersed discussions and provide us with somewhere to focus our efforts. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink!" so the onus must be on us to comment in the first place.

Social reasons for a lack of commenting: Are we scientists worried that our unedited comments on scientific literature might be taken negatively? We are free to discuss ideas in journal clubs and ask questions after presentations but why don't we use the resources available to us more widely?

If there is a peer pressure, real or imagined that is making it less likely for people to leave comments then we should start an active discussion to promote commenting. I think the outcome will be a richer resource of peer reviewed primary literature alongside news-articles, reviews, comments and blogs all potentially in one place.

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