Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is it unethical to blog about peer-reviewed research?

Chris Rowan has already posted about the commentary in Nature Geoscience from Myles Allen, which includes this argument for comment-and-reply within journals, rather than discussion in the blogosphere:

We just need to remember the basic courtesies that our doctoral supervisors took for granted: criticism of peer-reviewed results belongs in the peer-reviewed literature.

Allen responded to Chris's post, and raised some interesting points about problems with blogging.

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.

A little background to Allen's criticism, for people who don't have access to Nature Geoscience: he was a co-author of a paper discussed on RealClimate, and the discussion misinterpreted their work. Over a year later, the story came back again, and

two journalists picked up the story and, led on by what they had found in the blogosphere, accused us of distorting our results for the sake of publicity.

That sounds like an unpleasant experience.

Blogging is an odd activity. Like much conversation on the internet, it feels like talking to oneself. And the writer alone controls what is said: there is no other editor or reviewer. But the conversations are open to the entire world, and are accessible long after the conversations are past.

So what kind of responsibility do we have to get things right?

It's a tough question. You know, I teach about some of the papers that I blog about. And I teach undergraduates, which means that my explanations of methods and background are The Last Word about them. And I'm not perfect, not by any means. I've taught probably 150 students about fracture mechanics - and I'm a specialist in ductilely squashed rocks; everything I know about cracks comes from papers (and smashing things with a rock hammer). I probably miss important points in about half the things that I teach. Yet I don't e-mail the authors of papers, unless they are people I know, or unless an undergrad research student wants to work with their results. I'm not sure they would want me to e-mail them.

Should blogging be different from teaching undergraduates? If so, why? Because blogs can be read by anyone? (Hi, Mom!) Because there aren't many blogs about, say, structural geology, so I have a greater responsibility to act as a reliable authority? Because blog posts can be recalled more easily than comments made in a lecture to sleep-deprived undergrads?

Until this discussion, I had figured that published work was fair game for discussion in any forum, as long as the work was appropriately cited. It's ok to adapt methods, it's ok to use ideas to explain your own work, and it's ok to criticize - in class, in a discussion and reply, in another paper... or in a blog.

I'm not sure that the peer-review system ensures that published work is interpreted correctly (or as the authors would like). Reviews of new papers focus on the new work: are the methods appropriate? Do the conclusions follow from the results? A reviewer has the opportunity to correct an author, but most of the cited authors aren't reviewers. (Thank goodness. The review process requires a lot of unthanked volunteer work as it is.)

That's not Allen's point, though. Allen is talking, I believe, about the comments-and-replies. I don't know what goes on in that editorial process. Are there reviewers, besides the journal editor? And if there aren't, is a comment essentially reviewed by the original authors who are given the opportunity to respond? (This does make the process more fair to the original authors, who probably don't google their own names daily, looking for blog posts about their work.)

Do bloggers have a similar responsibility, to contact authors and let them comment?

And what happens when news reports and press releases have misleading headlines that are not supported by the journal articles? Are those appropriate blogging fodder?


Ron Schott said...

In answer to the titular question: No! It most certainly is not.

The essence of the debate comes down to the personal credibility of the commentator as it relates to the facts and opinions that are the subject of the discussion in question. If the commentary is on the mark, the medium in which it is delivered is of little relevance.

Blogging, if anything, is more ethical to the extent that it is generally more accessible.

The ability to think critically about what we read, see, or hear - regardless of the medium - is the real issue here.

[I think this would be a fertile topic for discussion on the inaugural PodClast.]

RBH said...

Until this discussion, I had figured that published work was fair game for discussion in any forum, as long as the work was appropriately cited.

It is fair game. Unequivocally and without question.

Do bloggers have a similar responsibility, to contact authors and let them comment?

My vote on that is a firm "yes" if the blog is critical of the paper. If it's not critical, notification seems optional to me.

Science blogs are an enormous resource, one that amazingly extends and expands the kind of stuff we used to do in grad seminars and in the bar at conferences. They're more public, obviously, and that imposes a certain amount of obligation on the blogger to try not to screw things up too badly, but in my opinion they are a large net positive. I'm an old geezer and I'm getting to read stuff in multiple disciplines every night that would never have been even accessible to me 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

Bob said...

A critical problem here is that the blogs and comments are freely available on the web but most of the peer-reviewed articles are not. Those of us without access cannot check the sources.

Kim said...

I don't have access to most peer-reviewed articles, actually. I subscribe to Science and have a ten-article "block of docs" available from GSA, and my institution gets Nature (but not Nature Geosciences) in paper copy... and that's it. I've got access to pdfs of old editions of the Journal of Metamorphic Geology through a bulk journal feed to my library, and I need to renew my AGU membership so I can read those journals. But Elsevier (including the Journal of Structural Geology)? Interlibrary Loan is my friend.

(I'm not going to participate in the podcast. I don't have access to a space where I can speak without either keeping someone awake or being interrupted by the four-year-old.)

How critical does a blog post need to be in order to require notifying the authors? (For instance, I'm thinking of blogging about the recent GSA Today article that continues the Jelly Sandwich discussion. There have been three papers with different takes on the issue. They can't all be right, which makes the discussion that much more interesting. If I wanted to blog about possible ways to reconcile the research, would I need to mention the post to the researchers?)

Suvrat Kher said...

I don't have access to peer reviewed journals but I have benefited a lot from reading blogs about research. Writing a quality criticism or response does mean fact checking as Myles Allen has stressed. But I do feel that bloggers who consistently misrepresent science will be found out and criticized. The open nature of the blogosphere helps in policing the quality of science writing.