Research paper 2.0 – Part 2 – Readers’ comments
In my previous post, I have talked about how I find it simply outrageous that serious scientific journals still treat the so called “supplementary information” as some kind of data dump, where no proper formatting is required and where noblesse does not oblige. This made me think about what other features of the current state of scientific publishing are lagging behind the available technology.
One of the distinguishing features of Web 2.0 is its interactive character. Back in the early days of Internet the websites were static and only rarely updated. Nowadays, however, the Web bustles with activity, with blogs, e-zines, discussion fora, and wikis changing their content on a daily, even hourly basis. It is the public that shapes the Web, not some chosen few. So why not adopt some of that democratic approach in scientific publishing?
Well, of course, we have the PLOS journals, where you can actually leave a response to any of the papers, but the system suffers from imperfections, which results in its rather limited usage.
Firstly, There is a huge (by Web standards) lag between submission of a comment and its publication on the website. If you look here, you will see that a very scholarly comment was not published until 6 days after submission, and here the lag was over a month (sic!). This pretty much precludes any kind of real discussion between the commenter, the authors, and the editors, which is really the whole point of readers’ responses. It also IMHO is one of the main reasons why people so rarely make use of this wonderful (in theory) tool. Doubtless, there ought to be some kind of response moderation, but save for very particular cases of abuse and spamming, the responses should be published almost immediately after submission, and, if need be, removed or edited later.
Secondly, the readers’ responses are not well incorporated into the body of the article. When start reading the article, you don’t even know if there are any responses or not, and you have to waste your time clicking on the “Read other responses” link only to find out (most of the time) that there are none. Likewise, there is no easy way to navigate back from the responses section to the part of the article that is being commented upon.
Thirdly, there are no means to reply to previous responses, rather than to the article itself. This is not a big deal, since for example most blogs’ comments sections are also flat in their structure, but allowing such “responses to responses” would definitely make reading the discussion much easier.
Last, but not least, there is no way to log in. I am not saying that login should be mandatory, but it should be an option, especially for the authors of the paper and the editors, who should have a sort of privileged place in the discussion and should be protected from “identity theft”.
All that said, I think that PLOS’ attempt to create an on-line journal club is laudable. With a few tweaks it could really become a very useful feature of the Research Paper 2.0. Everyone, including the readers, the authors, the editors, and the reviewers, will benefit from facilitating an open discussion of scientific discoveries. I just hope that other GlamourMag editors will swallow their pride and follow in PLOS’ footsteps and that they will all work hard to bring readers’ comment fora up to speed with today’s Web 2.0 standards.