Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Comments and Responses in the Literature

Recently, I highlighted the roles of mailing lists, social networking, and blogs in scientific discourse and discussion. Because I am so thoroughly grounded in the Internet age, I completely forgot to mention that old stand-by of scientific discourse, the Comment-And-Reply. Fortunately, the blogosphere has taken care of the issue for me!

First, refer to this simultaneously amusing and disturbing account of physicist Rick Trebino's experience trying to get a comment published on a paper bashing his work [PDF and the addendum PDF]. The issue at play concerns the sheer difficulty in correcting the literature when and if necessary. We're only seeing one side of the story here, but given the blatant idiocy of the anonymous journal's actions I am inclined to believe in the story's truth. Then, check out follow-up and commentary at Dynamics of Cats, Adventures in Ethics and Science, and Blog Around the Clock. Bora at BAC in particular highlights the roles that commenting functions at journals like PLoS ONE may play in streamlining scientific debate. Because these commenting functions are (hopefully) forever linked to the article itself, they may eventually supplant the blog and mailing list in this regard.

After saying all that, I should note that I had a very good experience recently with writing a comment on a recently published paper in Naturwissenschaften (not open access, sorry. . .). The journal was quite speedy in review and publication - the original article was published on March 10, our comment submitted on April 2, accepted with review on April 7, and published by May 7 (easier, of course, for a monthly publication with advance on-line publication). The authors of the paper upon which we were commenting were collegial in their published response, even though they disagreed with our critique. Never have I felt more keenly that "this is how science should work!"


Mike Taylor said...

This hurts. Really hurts.

I have experience, as a member of the honourable et al., of a comment being rejected from the journal on frivolous grounds -- although nothing on the scale outlined here. The whole process stinks, and the combination of my own experience with that of the Rick Trebino has settled the matter in my mind: I simply won't participate in this stupid game. If I want to respond to an incorrect publication, I'll do it by writing an original rebuttal and sending it to different journal.

Or just blogging it, of course.

Luke said...

Since the question came up in this post of what the truth of the matter is, you can evaluate yourself if understand optics:

The journal in question is Optics Letters. Trebino's comment is Xu, L.; Kane, D. J.; Trebino, R. Opt. Lett. 2009, 34, 2602; doi:10.1364/OL.34.002602: