More than a Blog?

Mainstream scientists and mainstream journals are still trying to figure out what blogging is all about. They aren't alone. Science journalists are also puzzled. Even the bloggers are confused.

The latest contribution from the mainstream has just been published in the journal EMBO Reports: More than a blog. It discusses, among other things, the effect blogging had on the Wolfe-Simon et al. (2010) paper claiming that a strain of bacteria could incorporate arsenic into its DNA in place of phosphorus.

The author of the EMBO Reports article is Howard Wolinsky, an American journalist. I want to address one part of his article. Wolinsky writes,
This incident, like a handful before it and probably more to come, has raised the profile of science blogging and the freedom that the Internet offers to express an opinion and reach a broad audience. Yet it also raises questions about the validity of unfettered opinion and personal bias, and the ability to publish online with little editorial oversight and few checks and balances.
It's true that there's no editorial oversight on science blogs. It's not quite true that there are no checks and balances since most science bloggers read and comment on each other's posts and bad science bloggers are easily exposed (e.g. creationist sites).

But that's not what I want to comment about. Wolinsky's implies that the world of traditional science communication is free of personal bias and regulated by checks and balances. That's not true. The incident he's referring to is the "arsenic affair" and it a good idea to keep in mind what happened last December.

First, most of the fuss arose over the press release where the lead author made claims that were not in the Science paper and were not supported by evidence. Up until the advent of science blogging there were no serious checks and balances on press releases save for the occasional journalist who sometimes expressed a bit of skepticism. Science blogs are actually serving as checks and balances on press releases and irresponsible science journalism. That needs to be stated more often.

Second, it's simply not true that papers published in the scientific literature undergo rigorous editorial/peer review that is subject to checks and balances. It's simply not true that papers in the scientific literature are free of "unfettered opinion and personal bias." We've all known about this for decades. Science bloggers are now bringing that knowledge to the general public and (among other things) exposing bad papers to the critical analysis they should have received before being accepted for publication. There's general agreement that the Wolfe-Simon et al. (2010) paper was not subjected to rigorous peer review before it was published online. Thanks to the bloggers, publication of the print version of the paper was delayed for months and when it appeared it was accompanied by several letters of criticism. That never would have happened without science bloggers.

Science bloggers are providing the checks and balances that have gone missing in the so-called "peer-reviewed" scientific literature. The bloggers are becoming the "peers" that review the papers when the system breaks down.

While it is true that science bloggers may have an agenda and aren't subjected to rigorous peer review before publication, this should not be treated as a new phenomenon that's peculiar to blogs. If you're going to raise these issues in an article about blogging then you should also raise them with respect to the traditional scientific literature.

Third, science journalists are partly responsible for the increased role that science bloggers are playing in exposing bad science. Traditionally it was supposed to be science journalists who acted as a check on bad science and bad press releases. Recent incidents have shown us that we can no longer count on science journalists to act as skeptical reviewers. The "arsenic affair" is a good example (Carl Zimmer is a notable exception).

Today it's more likely that science journalists will follow the lead of science bloggers rather than do the required homework on their own. Many science journalists just publish paraphrased versions of press releases leaving it up to the science bloggers to expose the flaws in the press releases, and in the published paper.

[HatTip: Jarry Coyne: An EMBO report on science blogging]
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