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May 7, 2012
You're A Peer, Too, You Know
Over at The Curious Wavefunction, there's a great post looking back at the infamous "negative rate constant" affair (Breslow, Menger, Haim). If you're not familiar with that one, give it a look. I remember this one while it was going on, and in retrospect, you have to imagine what it would have been like if there had been a chemical blog world at the time. It's an extraordinary chapter in chemical (and chemical literature) history.
To that end, there's this opinion piece from yesterday's New York Times. Author Jack Hitt is talking about the tail of comments that now follows any notable article, in any field:
Almost any article worth reading these days generates some version of this long tail of commentary. Depending on whether they are moderated, these comments can range from blistering flameouts to smart factual corrections to full-on challenges to the very heart of an article’s argument. . .
. . .the comments section of any engaging article is almost as necessary a read as the piece itself — if you want to know how insider experts received the article and how those outsiders processed the news (and maybe to enjoy some nasty snark from the trolls).
Should this part of every contemporary article be curated and edited, almost like the piece itself? Should it have a name? Should it be formally linked to the original article or summarized at the top? By now, readers understand that the definitive “copy” of any article is no longer the one on paper but the online copy, precisely because it’s the version that’s been read and mauled and annotated by readers. (If a book isn’t read until it’s written in — as I was always told — then maybe an article is not published until it’s been commented upon.) Writers know this already. The print edition of any article is little more than a trophy version, the equivalent of a diploma or certificate of merit — suitable for framing, not much else.
I think this is exactly what science is about, and exactly what it needs. People should be able to read the latest results, add their opinions and criticisms to them, and those comments in turn should also be available for everyone to see. There's going to be noise in there, but I'll take some noise as the price that gets paid for figuring things out more quickly and more completely than we ever could before. As far as I'm concerned, the "peer" in "peer review" means "Everyone who can read and understand the paper".
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