If one comments on the merits or an aspect of a manuscript in a public forum, but nobody ever reads it, does your opinion exist? That is the question I asked myself today after seeing that Neuron has added a feature to its website designed to provide the readers of selected papers the opportunity to comment on the findings. They say that this was in response to community feedback. I don’t doubt that such feedback exists, as I have heard similar things in my travels, but at this point in scientific publishing (at least in neuroscience), it seems that the idea may still be well ahead of its time.
Neuron’s forum is not the first for this sort of thing, as PLoS and PLoS ONE have had such an entity from their respective beginnings. Now, admittedly, I have not done a careful analysis of how many articles can actually boast even one comment made by the public, but I have made it a habit to always click on that little link imploring me to read comments made by my colleagues whenever I navigate over to a paper that has such a feature. I have seen very few postings, and those that I have seen (on PLoS ONE in my case), were actually posted by the authors themselves.
I am enthusiastic about the idea of a place for the community to provide feedback on publications, as such forums give a voice to anyone willing to speak their mind. This is unlike the website Faculty of 1000, in which only selected scientists are invited and required to provide opinions about the work of their colleagues.
But it seems that either too few are confident enough to make any statements (good or bad) on the record regarding a paper, in case their opinion ends up being short-sighted, or too few care enough to spend the time required to construct a succinct, insightful comment that is unlikely to yield them any benefits. And, to return to my question at the beginning, for those few that dare to comment, is anybody reading these opinions?
Neuron is taking the right approach and has commissioned top scientists to “get the ball rolling” and make comments on the featured manuscripts, but after that initial windfall subsides, we will see how many more postings are made. Let’s just give it some more time to sink in. With everyone beginning to use the web more and more for almost everything, I’m sure that this initial drought of forum comments will give way to a more robust dialogue, making public opinion forums a fundamental part of scientific research participation.