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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 14, 2006

Take Your Shots

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Posted by Derek

It's taken a while, but a traditional science publisher is starting to make the leap to blog-style comments for scientific papers. Nature has begun offering authors the option of having their paper commented upon by the teeming masses of researchers while it's still in the review phase. (Tyler Cowen speculated on the pluses and minuses of this idea earlier this year). (Update: and does again here in response to an article on this very experiment).

Nature's been talking about peer review and its evolution for a while now - see this section and this blog at their site. They seem to have decided that debate is all very well, but that we're not going to know how well these ideas work until we put them into practice, thus their peer review trial site.

So, how's it working? Looking it over, I can see (as of today) ten current papers that are available for comments, posted roughly since the beginning of this month. None have attracted any comments at all, which is a situation that many bloggers will be all too familiar with. The site, though powered by Movable Type, doesn't seem to have date-driven archive pages as such, although it does have categories. Looking at the "Recent Comments" sidebar, though, will take you back to the last paper that attracted some, which was posted on August 29th. The navigation links at the top of its page will then take you back, paper by paper.

Digging through the stack in this manner, the only papers with substantial comments are found here, here, here, here, and especially here. That takes us back to early July, and the first papers seem to have appeared about a month before. The great majority of papers have attracted no comments at all - I wonder what sort of traffic the site is getting?

It's interesting to compare the behavior patterns there with those at a regular blog. There are a few "nice paper!" one-liners, which out here in the rest of the world are the sign of spam, but which appear to be sincere (if not very useful) communications on the Nature site. The comments are moderated, and I'd like to know just how many they've had to excise. I ask because there are still some off-topic oddities that make it through, like this, where a Chinese researcher makes a rambling complaint of harassment by his government. And there's a planetary science paper here, two of whose five comments are clearly by loons, which must please the original authors no end.

Where real comments appear, they're often done in the style of a peer reviewer, starting with the obligatory "The authors present interesting data on the. . ." type of sentence, and going on in rather stilted fashion. It seems clear that very few of the commentors have much exposure to the regular blog world, or if they do, they're taking great pains to not allow any of that experience to leak over into the exalted world of Nature.

I wish them luck with the experiment. What I'd like to see is an idea that's been proposed before, but never implemented in chemistry: comments on papers after they've published. Think of how interesting Organic Letters would be with comments after each paper in the table of contents - heck, I'd go all out and put a hit counter on each paper, so you could see what's getting attention and what isn't. Does the ACS have the nerve?

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Betsy on September 14, 2006 10:51 PM writes...

I was on the site the other day and couldn't believe there weren't any comments on the papers currently on the site. You'd think after all the talk about making peer review public there would be more interest. Why do you think that is? Maybe a combination of the following:

1. People hardly have time to review the papers they have been asked to, much less ones just lingering out there online.

2. They're not aware that papers of interest to them are on the site at all. Maybe they checked the site once, saw nothing of interest, and never went back.

3. People are blog-aphobic. When I talk to less savvy folks about blogs, I get a blank stare. A lot of people just don't get it. Since the format of this is so "blog-like", could this be the biggest hurdle to getting people to participate?

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2. Paul on September 15, 2006 12:02 AM writes...

Hmmm...taking a quick look through the Nature site, I really don't see anything I'm qualified to referee. To be honest, I don't find many of the papers that interesting.

It'd be great if ACS set up a comment blog, but I doubt they have the guts. When negative comments start to roll in on a paper published by a "big wig," phone calls would be made and comments deleted or threads locked. You (or someone) should reserve "" and get the project started. I'll donate some money to cover bandwidth.

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3. Egon on September 15, 2006 1:49 AM writes...

Hi Derek, please have a look too at, a blog aggregator which summarizes hot papers and stories. It has categories and Chemistry is amongst those. The author of this opensource website software recently started at Nature.

The commenting on articles works like this: give your comment in a blog item, and just point to the article, either directly to the webpage for the paper, or via the DOI using And this works for *any* journal.

Also check out which is a version I'm working on just for chemistry, with an older postgenomic version. And I am working on extending this for chemicals too, so that we'll have a 'hot molecules' in addition to 'hot papers'.

Your blog is aggregated at both sites for quite some time already.

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4. ZAL on September 15, 2006 1:54 AM writes...

As a synthetic organic chemist, I also found just like Paul that there are no papers there that I am qualified to comment on.
Maybe the lack of comments is just due to the fact that it`s hard to make one`s habitudes change in only few months. We should just give the experiment some more time. By the way, I don`t think that many of my colleagues (especially graduate students and young post-docs) are really informed about this initiative. Some more publicity would be useful!
On the "after publication comment": I often find myself thinking that some papers published in JACS or ACIEE are not that good...I would love to comment on it!

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5. Alethea on September 15, 2006 4:33 AM writes...

I agree with you - comments after publication are more interesting, as they can add context later as other things come out. But doesn't Faculty of 1000 offer this sort of service? I certainly don't feel like reviewing anything more than I have already. I don't find other people's manuscripts - or my own, for that matter - titillating blog topics. We'll see if Nature keeps it up, but that's why it's in beta testing after all.

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6. Roland Krause on September 15, 2006 4:47 AM writes...

There is no critical mass to start comments on these diverse issues. For any given topic, there are only a handful of labs able to judge the work to begin with and if you want to comment, you better make damn sure what you're saying. But take a look at the pages of BMJ or NEJM, the discussion (not just comments) are quite vigorous. I would think that there is a much larger number of clinicians working on the issues discussed there.

In my eyes, the research community is better served by open peer review such as done by Biology Direct.

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7. Jordi on September 15, 2006 7:12 AM writes...

This is my first post in this blog. I fully agree with Betsy's point 3, scientists are a bit blog-aphobic. Some cultural positions have to change in order to get them to participate. And regarding the issue of commenting already published articles I find more interesting to comment on manuscrits or results to be published. It sounds utopic but that would be the real sense of sharing knowledge.

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8. JSinger on September 15, 2006 8:44 AM writes...

1) As with most things "open-source", there are far more people who think somebody else should do something than than those who are willing to do it themselves. (This is generally phrased as "We should...".)

2) I'm hardly blogophobic, but I'd have to do a bit of research before figuring out how to subscribe to their RSS feeds. Anyway, that's still too broad a stream. They should allow reviewers to create keyword searches and receive more specific updates.

3) And this is only one journal! Does anyone have the time to hang out in every biomed journal site looking for papers to review?

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9. Bob on September 15, 2006 1:25 PM writes...

Someone has made a start at making a "black list" here (see under "For Advanced Researchers")

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10. Eva on September 15, 2006 3:19 PM writes...

Somewhat self-promotional, but meant to point out that I've been thinking about the topic of blogs in science: I just wrote an article about science blogging, and one of the Nature blogs (though not the peer review blog) is included in it as well. (Index of issue, and it's in the review section:

Personally I think that a lot of scientists are not aware of blogs at all, and just don't know about "commenting". Even if they knew they could, they might not be inclined to just go to a blog and type a response. However, the fact that Nature is using blogs all over the place should at least make non-blogging scientists aware of the blogging phenomenon, and (very slowly) get them used to the fact that they CAN leave comments.

Also, if someone really had an issue with an article, and felt like they wanted to make a public comment rather than go through the process of e-mailing authors and editors, just the fact that there IS a place that they go and leave their comments should make people feel more included in the whole publishing process.

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11. Hilary on September 16, 2006 6:50 AM writes...

You might like to know that the British Medical Journal has accepted comments for a very long time, though it calls them "rapid responses". Initially they were moderated only for defamation or other legal issues, but after a huge amount of pseudoscience from quack alternative health practitioners, the editors have tightened the moderation a lot. Plus the fact that full-text access is no longer freely available online tends to restrict who can see and comment.

I think the print edition BMJ's letters page now entirely comprises submissions made via the online rapid responses feature.

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12. highlyreactive on September 16, 2006 6:12 PM writes...

Some young researchers do have the cajones to put their papers up on their blog and let people have at them before publishing. See:

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13. wlm on September 24, 2006 10:27 PM writes...

PLoS ONE ( is set to introduce a multidisciplinary journal with open peer review later this year.

I second Roland's observation that medical journals seem to attract more participation from their readership. I'm not sure why that's so, though.

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