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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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May 7, 2012

You're A Peer, Too, You Know

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Posted by Derek

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".

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. mad on May 7, 2012 11:49 AM writes...

Yes, it would have been fascinating to see the responses to Einstein’s 1905 papers if there was and equivalent at the time!

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2. Anon on May 7, 2012 12:22 PM writes...

I agree that this an extremely valuable source and believe they are worth as much as the article itself...In fact, I believe they are so valuable that those writing them will become reluctant without their fair compensation. In an environment this competitive (in both academia and industry) where is the motivation to contribute to likely competitors. Competing results(publications), ideas(business management/direction), job market (your making another applicant stronger and you relatively weaker). When beating someone a couple weeks to publication or months to market, every edge helps. I don't believe the job market is strong enough to support such an unadulterated and thankless collaboration.

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3. Chris on May 7, 2012 12:43 PM writes...

I think it would be an excellent extension to published work. I'd prefer not to have anonymous comments however.

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4. HelicalZz on May 7, 2012 1:24 PM writes...

Comments on an article should be viewed as part of the article -- provided they are not made anonymously.


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5. nekekami on May 7, 2012 1:50 PM writes...

The problem is that anonymity is sometimes useful, to avoid ostracism and other institutional acts of revenge when someone voices a dissenting but valid criticism for example.

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6. anon on May 7, 2012 1:52 PM writes...

Anonymous comments are generally left by spineless blowhards.

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7. Brandon on May 7, 2012 2:11 PM writes...

Perhaps quasi-anonymity is the the way to go then. Those wishing to comment anonymously just need to provide identifying information to the editors, who would then approve and mask the comment.

Kind of like here. I don't know who the anon writing comment #6 is, but unless he's taken the trouble to hide his real IP Derek could track him down.

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8. Aspirin on May 7, 2012 2:25 PM writes...

That's an intriguing article, and I can think of at least one blog (yours) where the comments add almost as much value as the high-quality posts. By the way, could you post a link to that Curious Wavefunction piece you cited?

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9. milkshake on May 7, 2012 2:42 PM writes...

the comment moderation is the tricky part, how you distinguish it from censorship and politics. Up and down-voting by readers or karma rating of commenters does not really work (as Slashdot and Reddit experience shows).

Registration of commenters with a reference to their LinkedIn profile page might keep the noise down and perhaps each registered user can get one anonymous comment allowance per year.

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10. NoDrugsNoJobs on May 7, 2012 4:08 PM writes...

Definitely would love to see it and definitely would leave it anonymous - BS comments and spam are easy to filter through. Damn, I think it would be great actually!

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11. anonner on May 7, 2012 6:54 PM writes...

'Everyone who can read and understand the paper'--mmm, ok as long as the "can" in "can read" is understood to be "can afford and has access to".

Blogs like this are important, but as has been noted in comments on this blog before, the peer-reviewed literature needs to have comments attached, or collected in other sites searchably tied to the original article. In other words, it would be nice if ten or twenty years down the road, controversial articles weren't swallowed whole simply because the dissenting commentary had a shorter lifetime than the drek, or the links got lost over time.

Peer review also desperately needs a more public trail of attempts to reproduce the results. This would likely be even messier than comments--most reproducers will be short of knowledge of specifics, and some will also be deficient in training (grad students or undergrads) and equipment. Admittedly some false negatives would result, but making the process of reproduction public is an important missing part of scientific inquiry. IMO. It also ameliorates some of the shortcomings of the rest of the peer review process. Far better than someone saying "this is plausible and seems useful" is someone saying "I can confirm that this behavior is real--I've seen it myself--and here's what it took for me to reproduce it."

Anonymous comments do present some issues (I say, anonymously). "In the Pipeline" has always seemed to walk a pretty good line to me. Sure, the crazies come out talking about penny stocks and homeopathy, but they are on topic for particular posts. And the spam is handled nicely. I don't know how much work that level of moderation requires.

In my opinion, concern for the professional reputation of participants (as in the case Curious Wavefunction presents) should take a distinct back seat to concern for the scientific process. Especially for participants who are established and "important." But I have a high tolerance for contention and debate in pursuit of understanding.

It's worth noting--especially in the context of the NYT article--that public forums do not converge to truth, necessarily or even often. They converge to the beliefs of the most energetic participants, or with moderation, to that subset of beliefs allowed and encouraged by the moderator.

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12. Aristarchus on May 7, 2012 11:47 PM writes...

A "long tail of commentary" already exists. It's the Discussion sections of all the following papers published in the field. Compared to an online comments section, a Discussion (typically) has a much higher signal to noise ratio, and is (again, typically, though not always) based more on data than on opinion. Fully traceable by citations, but alas, not as immediately gratifying as the off-the-cuff comments you can occasionally enjoy online.

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13. Morten G on May 8, 2012 5:29 AM writes...

Just the ability to add the occasional "We were not able to replicate this experiment" (or result) might be very useful and would add something that it usually takes the literature very long to do - if it ever comes around to it.

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14. Maverick on May 8, 2012 7:25 AM writes...

It would be very important to have anonymous comments on these articles. If nothing else, the author's response to negative comments would be, well, negative. For example, the author might start attacking the commenter's work. At the least it would be messy, and it could inhibit progress.

To ameliorate some of the problems of anonymity, perhaps a modification of Brendon's idea would work. A unique, password-protected, tag would be required for each commenter. The initial comments would be crowd-moderated based on quality (constructive, scientifically accurate, etc.) before it is published (the comment would not include any user information, including the tag, when being judged). If the comments are consistently approved (judged by a computer algorithm) then the user moves out of moderation, and comments could be published directly. This would protect users and go a long way towards ensuring quality.

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15. Rick Wobbe on May 8, 2012 9:26 AM writes...

Given how often "popular" gets conflated with "correct", I'm skeptical about the benefits to science of giving equal value to all sources of commentary, be they "insiders", educated "outsiders" or the general lay population. However, I desperately want to believe that there would be net social benefit to opening up the sausage-making process of scientific inquiry and debate to engagement by the general public. Politicians, corporations and the media too often exploit the public's misperceptions about science to get away with making gross misrepresentations of research for political or financial gain. Sometimes, daylight is indeed the best disinfectant.

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16. Phil on May 8, 2012 11:41 AM writes...

I don't think anything needs to be changed - compare the comments section on this site to any online newspaper. This blog only gets troll comments once in a while; on a newspaper article just about every other comment is someone trying to stir things up.

Chemistry blogs need anonymous commenting because of the strong culture of silence that led to the negative rate constant situation. When I was in grad school, I remember hearing whispers about all kinds of things that would have been serious ethical breaches if true, but the departmental culture was to sweep anything embarrassing under the rug and never discuss such things in public. From what I've read on blogs the last several years, it appears that this is the culture of academic chemistry in general, and wasn't confined to my department.

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17. Tongue-Tied on May 8, 2012 11:58 AM writes...

The (Menger-Haim)-(Breslow-Schowen) dust-up was diverted from a reasonable discussion by those who felt a conscientious editor was not doing his job and the complainants would not let go. The papers by Breslow reveal a number of issues that should be reconsidered. The matter of "negative rate constant" was a trivial point that was simply poor science. If you measure two products from one reactant, where formation of "A" is promoted by catalyst "C" and "B" is not, if you track yield of B as a function of C you get a negative slope, which appears to be a negative rate constant but is an artifact of doing the wrong measurement. It is not worth writing a paper on this subject. That is what was going on - and it would be easy to correct. Haim and Menger did not attempt to provide a proper explanation. In Nature they published excerpts from their JACS referee reports without permission and made it look like the referees were siding with the journal - but it is easy to imagine the reports were actually more informative. This was unfortunate - choosing to say what is wrong instead of attempting to find the correct answer. Menger and Haim's attacks made Breslow into a person who would be defended when instead he should have been challenged. It must be that no proper correction was submitted and we are left with diatribes. The current case has nothing to do with this issue,

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18. cookingwithsolvents on May 9, 2012 9:23 PM writes...

IMO "solved" the signal/noise in comments problem as well as one can solve it (analytically rather than exactly?):

Pseudonymity (i.e. registered users), nesting comments for a few levels, and a "thumbs up/down" system with 'funny, interesting, insightful, etc." as keywords to vote about.

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19. Lavonia Kidwell on June 21, 2013 4:13 AM writes...

I am a keen letter writer, and would really like to know if there is anyway of creating a letter writing community by way of this. Creative letter writers writing to creative letter writers the globe over. I'll reply to all those who wish to write and not just receive. 51 Lavender Sweep, London SW11 1DY. England

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