In the last couple of years, after the recent explosion in the number of resources where scientific discussions can take place rapidly and without boundaries (i.e., using the internet), one could easily have predicted that we were on the cusp of a revolution; the way in which scientists communicated with each other regarding data was about to change forever. Although poster session chatter at your favorite scientific meeting was never going to be replaced, now researchers could interact, trade ideas and get feedback from anyone, anywhere, at any time. Sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like neuroscientists are taking advantage of these cool new offerings. I could extrapolate to biology in general, but for more simplicity (and other obvious reasons), let’s stick to what we know best.
I have been thinking about these issues for a long time, ever since I commented on the introduction of Nature Precedings last June (which was my first post on this blog, for those of you keeping score). I was skeptical about the speed with which scientists would give up their unpublished data, and at 57 neuroscience papers currently in the archive, this was even a bit slower than I expected (but other subject areas are doing quite well, with Bioinformatics boasting 110 submissions, for example). Shortly thereafter, I discussed commenting forums in general, and felt again that although adoption may be slow, that this medium would eventually become fundamental to the scientific process and discussion. In my opinion, we have a long way to go before we reach that lofty prediction.
My hand was forced by two excellent and recent commentaries (here and here) that provide many of the theories for why scientists do not widely use these new technologies. I would like to focus mainly on the concept of commenting on papers and data, the style embraced by PLoS, PLoS ONE, Neuron, Nature Precedings, and more recently, in the neuroscience journal club started at Nature Network.
So why are neuroscientists not taking advantage of this seemingly golden opportunity to communicate with one another? Granted, some papers are comment magnets (e.g. this or this, but consider the subject matter and/or implications). But most of the time, papers sit with a “Comments” link beside them that links to nothing. What about telling the author your alternative hypothesis? How about suggesting a future experiment? Why not simply ask a very innocuous question about which buffer worked best for the biochemistry experiments? I can’t put actual numbers on it without some painstakingly-boring grunt work, but I spent quite a bit of time clicking on paper “Comments” links at all of these sites that offer such a luxury, and found very few random hits where any comments had been made. I’ve attended enough journal clubs to know that somebody always has an opinion about most papers, so where are those people now? This should be their critical dream-come-true!
For those few publications that did receive comments, it was even rarer for the authors to respond. I took the liberty of commenting on some papers at Precedings within the categories of environmental sciences or evolution, and on only 1 occasion out of 5 did I receive a response. So why do these authors even post their papers if they are not interested in feedback? It is an obvious question for pre-prints, but even for published work, researchers put their efforts out in the public domain to be scrutinized. The authors should then be obliged to answer such scrutiny if and when it does arise. Can you imagine the oddity of a speaker staring out into space without responding during a question-answer session at a meeting? Well, the cyber-equivalent was going on at most places that I looked.
As Anna Kushnir and David Crotty pointed out in their blog commentaries (see above links), one of the main reasons for a lack of initiating comments is the fear of placing one’s name with a criticism. That criticism may be wrong, too abrasive, not well-written, and now it is associated with the submitting party for all of cyber-eternity (or at least until server failure). At a meeting, after asking a really stupid question, we have plausible deniability. Unless somebody was taping the session, there is no hard evidence revealing our misguided thoughts (saying to our friends: “Well, the speaker didn’t understand my question and blah, blah, blah…”). Not the case with these forums. But even that can be circumvented. Although anonymous comments are not really allowed in these forums, what’s to stop people from simply making up a name and providing a Gmail account address like “firstname.lastname@example.org” to establish legitimacy for the servers (or moderators, for that matter) accepting the comments? Although I disagree with anonymous commenting, I understand that some prefer this incognito approach. But despite the ability to use this cover of darkness, we still haven’t seen a massive adoption of commenting practices!! So perhaps the age-old beast, lack of time, again wins out and should take most of the credit. Although probably true, I find this to be a lame and sad excuse.
During graduate school, we are taught that we learn the most when we present our data to the community, whether it is at a conference or even at lab meeting. We can learn just as much, if not more, from participating in online forums to discuss data, hypotheses, and interpretations. I still firmly believe that commenting forums will indeed become fundamental to practicing and publishing neuroscience in the future, and not just a fad, as it currently looks. So I say to you, readers of Action Potential, let’s not miss out on an excellent chance to be early-adopters, with neuroscientists taking the lead on internet-based dialogue and collaborative thought amongst the biological science disciplines. With so many branches of neuroscience having deep roots in physics, computational methodology, programming and bioinformatics (all fields that are seemingly well-stitched into the fabric of Web 2.0 technology), it is an opportunity that would be shameful to miss.