I have been prompted to write this post following a number of unrelated events two of which are:
(1) Comments on Raphael’s blog “Stripy nanoparticles revisited” post.
The comment, by Someone has to say it, states that one is either a scientist or a blogger. I would note that of all the comments, this is the only one that is not civil and borders on Trolling. However, if we take this comment at face value, then we have a simple statement to consider: “Blogging is not science?”
(2) Continued comments on Science Fraud.
A veritable litany here. Not always civil, but the blogger doubtless has a lot of Trolls to put up with. Just to take one recent example, commenter “John” (and here) makes in essence a similar point to “Someone has to say it” and, moreover, argues that the fact that Science Fraud is entirely anonymous detracts from the validity of its postings.
In both instances, other commenters (for example, “Blotwatcher” on Science Fraud; Simon Higgins and Mathias Brust (and here) on Rapha-z-lab) rise to the defence of the blogs on the grounds that openess and debate are the only way for science to operate. By highlighting important questions and stimulating discussion, the blogs are doing science a great service. Regarding the anonymity prevalent on Science Fraud, the defence is that anonymity is essential to avoid retribution.
A key point is that discussion is integral to science – the Agora in Athens is often cited as a prime example of a public place where such discussions could take place. Two of the best current examples I have experience of are the Fibroblast Growth Factors and the Proteoglycans Gordon Research Conferences, which follow the Gordon ethos of presenting unpublished data and open discussion to the letter.
Preventing discussion destroys science and the 20th Century’s political disasters provide ample proof of this point.
So one might re-phrase the question: “Does blogging contribute or pollute discussion?”
My view is that blogging contributes and in a most valuable way. Even at the end of my favourite GRCs, after five days when it is time to go home, many important points have not been discussed – too little time. Through blogging, we can discuss questions in great depth with no time limit or limit on participation (it costs money to attend a conference). The last is a very important point, as in principle it allows the application of a collective of knowledge equal to that of humanity’s to a question. Anonymity is appropriate, since it allows the timid or fearful to air their views. Trolling is easily spotted and can be ignored, unless it takes up too much bandwidth/space. If the discussion is not of interest, then move on. If it is of interest, contribute. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being in a minority of one in a discussion, though remember, against evidence, there is no defence. Our collective aim, surely is that “truth will out”.
An undercurrent here is that blogging and the internet provide a new medium through which people can carry on a discussion. My view is that this is transforming the way we do science. Discussions involve far more people spanning the globe and errors are spotted and corrected more swiftly. Witness ASBMB’s appointment of a manager for publication ethics, which was recently highlighted on Retraction Watch.
Blogging may not be universally welcome, maybe because it is new and has faults. However, we should not forget that other past innovations that we now take for granted, such as peer-reviewed journals, also have recognised flaws. So warts and all, blogging is a most welcome addition to the tools we have at our disposal for discussion.