Why there is not much online discussion of neuroscience research

Noah Gray, an editor at Nature Neuroscience, asks at Action Potential blog why neuroscientists are passing on the seemingly golden opportunity to communicate with one another online, for example on published articles at a journal website, or in an online journal club. Many have expressed opinions about reasons for this reticence: Noah links to some articles in his well-argued post, and you can read other thoughts (and find links to some of the same articles) at Nature Network (for example at Gobbledygook and at Flags and Lollipops).

Here, I’d like to highlight a response by “Michael” in the comment thread to Noah’s Action Potential post, as I believe this summary covers many, if not all, of the reasons why scientists in a discipline tend not to post comments on, and discuss, scientific research papers online. “Michael” writes:

I think there are a number of reasons as to why “Web 2.0” has not played much of a role in discussing neuroscience research. In no particular order:

1) Inefficiency: If I want to know why somebody used buffer x for their biochemistry experiments, or why they didn’t do control experiment xyz I email the authors, or use the phone if I know them. Why post it in the comment section of their paper, and wait for 5 weeks until they bother to check? And why does everybody else need to know about it?

2) Lack of dialogue: Commenting forums are poor venues for true dialogue. If you analyse the comment sections for the more popular entries, either here or elsewhere (for example the New York Times) there rarely is a true back-and-forth of ideas. All too often it’s 50 comments trying to be as witty as possible, with few people attempting to follow and respond to what others have written. There are rare cases where a small number of like-minded people post thoughtful comments at just the right rate to allow for a meaningful discussion. Without some type of moderation, it will remain the exception. The dynamics of a true group discussion, be it at a Journal Club or at your poster, are often taken for granted, but can’t be easily replicated online.

3) Who is commenting: It’s fine to have a democracy of opinions: in science, I don’t care so much about it. The people I want to hear/read often choose not to comment, whereas others who have nothing to say keep posting.

4) The Fear Factor: This one is obvious, and is why scientists have lab meetings or face-to-face Journal Clubs. It’s also why attempts to discuss papers online haven’t quite lived up to expectation. Ideally, we want to be honest in our opinion of a paper, but we are also human and don’t want to suffer the consequences of bruising the ego of a potential reviewer or search committee member. Staying anonymous is not the solution, since that makes it difficult for everybody else to properly evaluate the comment. After all, it does matter who is doing the criticizing.

5) Speed: Even the liveliest online discussion of a paper will drag on over hours or days. If a paper grabs my attention I will discuss at a lab meeting or Journal Club and over the course of one hour we will have thoroughly dissected it. Our attention span only lasts so long. Again, the online dynamics of who logs in at what time don’t allow for a true discourse that leads to some sort of resolution.


  1. Report this comment

    Hans Ricke said:

    Some points are good. Remembering what happened on Psyche-D of now ASSC before it was closed down, I think though there would be many ways to improve and thus take advantage of web 2.0

    What matters is a good forum software. The one used on Psyche was awful. The one on is not much better. A much better software is used on Richard Dawkins website.

    Some of the downsides mentioned here, although correct, can be avoided by distributing posting rights and having good moderators.

    Good software and good moderation should cope with points 1 and 2, some of 3 as well.

    The fear factor as difficult to address.

    5 is interesting, because those who already have meetings and a club will not need an online forum that much. But what of those of us who do not? Moreover, what makes web 2.0 so powerful is that it breaks the barriers of continents!

    So my suggestion to the editors here is: keep encouraging the public debates and enhance them. Neurosciences as well as cognitive sciences are still thriving and a world wide science should have advantages over the old-fashioned snail ways.

Comments are closed.