writes Prof. Christopher Shaw, currently under fire by blogger ‘Orac’ at Respectful Insolence. (See comment at August 15, 11:50 pm.)

Leaving aside the backstory, which is a separate issue that I don’t wish to debate here, why should science not be reviewed on blogs?

We’ve heard this one before – the NASA ‘arsenic life’ story being one well-known example.

Dr. Shaw wrote:

I’m not trying to duck any serious discussion, but, honestly, a blog is not the place for scientific reviews.

The key bit of my reply there was (see Footnotes for full copy) :

Heard that one before, I’m afraid, and for me it doesn’t ring true.

I’m a scientist. A blog is just a means of communication – just like email. That it’s open doesn’t make what is said “wrong”.

At the time of the ‘arsenic life’ fuss, I wrote:

I agree in the end it will be the formal articles that discuss that issue that will stand for the record, but you can’t realistically ask that scientists and science bloggers not explore the issues in public forums.

There is nothing new going on in scientists writing on blogs, compared to writing on bionet (or its ilk). There might be something new in journalists [or the general public] tapping into this writing, perhaps-?

(Text in square brackets added to original.)

Perhaps this message needs to be repeated every now and then – ?

To be fair to Dr. Shaw the example he choses introduces a new element:

One reason for this is simple: if I provide this blog with the complete ms (still in preparation), then it is not publishable in a main stream journal as it would be considered prior publication.

This, too, has parallels of sorts with the arsenic life story – the results, in ‘lite’ form, are being heard  by the public prior to formal publication and review, in this case via a coroner’s inquest and media reporting of that inquest. The inquest provides a different setting than usual, but it seems to me that in describing the results in a forum open to reporting by the media the underlying work must also be open to criticism just as it would be expected to be in other settings.

As a parallel thought, currently there have been many discussions about biologists submitting papers to arXiv – a preprint server mainly used by the physics and mathematics research community. Most biology journals, at this point in time, consider prior publication elsewhere to deny publication in a journal as Dr. Shaw says. Some biologists are using arXiv, however, and there is a push by some for it to be more widely accepted.

What are your opinions on reviewing science on blogs? Mine is clear, but feel free to differ (but offer reasons if you could).

Should science to be presented to the public settings like these should also be concurrently presented at some public source such as arXiv if it is not already in a journal?


1. While writing this, I spotted this comment by ‘rablib’ at the foot of an Atlantic article on the same general issue:

You’ve overlooked the fact that the world wide web (www.), hyper-text transfer protocol (http) and hyper-text markup language (html) were all invented and written at CERN with the goal of allowing scientists in varied locations  and using varied computing platforms to collaborate on research.  Science is not coming late to the party — it is the original host.

2. My full reply to Dr. Shaw at Respectful Insolence is copied below:

“a blog is not the place for scientific reviews”

Heard that one before, I’m afraid, and for me it doesn’t ring true.

I’m a scientist. A blog is just a means of communication – just like email. That it’s open doesn’t make what is said “wrong”.

You might like to look at your UBC colleague Prof. Rosie Redfield’s blog by way of example:http://rrresearch.fieldofscience.com/ (I’d encourage you to try talking to her.)

Personally, I would encourage you to continue. By limiting yourself to email I feel you’ll be making yourself part of the problem rather it’s solution.

A problem (for us in New Zealand too) is that media reports have tied your and Lee’s testimonies to the vaccine (something you claim you didn’t do) – not necessarily through explicit statements but (also) implied through headlines or simply not explicitly saying otherwise, etc., as is often the case with the media.

People have been trying to get an accurate picture by what means they can. If you limit yourself to email, people can only return to trying to get an accurate picture by what means they can – and the situation you are objecting to. In the meantime there will be no reasonable way to present an accurate picture to people.

(One frustration I have expressed elsewhere is the lack of transcripts of the inquiry, which would have been very helpful to clarify—or correct as the case may be—media reports.)

You write that you don’t want to talk because a manuscript is “still in preparation” – forgive me for asking, and I realise there are deeper issues this being involved in an inquest, but do you think it appropriate to present work that has yet to be tested by peers, as such, at an inquest? As a (tentative) parallel, would you consider what is known as “publication by press release” sound? (There someone talks to media ahead of the paper being available for critical examination.)

A issue to all this is once an idea is placed into the general public’s mind they can be very hard to remove and can cause considerable problems.

Other articles at Code for life:

NZ Skeptics Conference 2012 

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion 

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

2013 Public Communicators of Science and Technology Symposium 

Of use of the active voice by scientists