by Andre on 20 May 2007
For those who aren’t familiar with it already, PLoS ONE is an exciting development in scientific publishing that not only allows the entire (internet connected) world to freely access newly published scientific papers online, it also allows readers to annotate and comment on those papers. It is interesting not only because it provides the possibility of accelerating communication between scientists about their work, but also because it allows much broader access to a type of scientific communication that has historically been limited to small groups of professionals.
There are currently two main ways for scientists to discuss their results: papers published in journals and presentations at conferences. Both avenues allow for feedback. In the case of a journal article, this takes the form of letters to the editor that will eventually appear in a later issue, usually with a response from the article’s authors. This may be faster than publishing an article with better or contradictory results, but it still takes several weeks. At conferences, feedback is instantaneous and allows for several people to take part, but there is usually no record of the discussion so it doesn’t get far beyond the walls of the conference center. PLoS ONE’s discussion feature combines the advantages of both approaches: it’s fast, anyone can take part, and there’s a record of the discussion for others to read, think about, and contribute to.
So what’s the problem? As Carl Zimmer points out, there just hasn’t been that much discussion so far. He contrasts the relative quiet at PLoS ONE with the controversy over a recent article on the evolution of the flagellum that generated informed discussion amongst several bloggers and their commenters in a matter of days. Zimmer speculates that there is a lack of discussion at PLoS ONE
because scientists as a group are only just becoming comfortable in the blogging environment. [...] It’s one thing to air your complaints in a small room at the annual meeting of the International Society of Helminthologists. It’s another to post them in a place where all of your colleagues—and anyone else with an Internet connection—can read them.
That may be partly true, but I think it’s simpler than that. Most papers don’t generate letters to the editor and most conference talks end with simple questions for clarification or requests for a bit more speculation about a possible application or future direction. For that reason, it’s not surprising that most papers at PLoS ONE (like most papers in any journal) aren’t the subject of heated debates and this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that PLoS ONE is not working.
I think one of the most important functions of these discussions will be for that small fraction of papers that turn out to be very wrong or very right. In other words, expect significant discussion if someone finds a technical mistake that was missed by the referees that jeopardizes a paper’s conclusions or if a lab can’t reproduce another lab’s findings. Alternatively, expect discussion if PLoS ONE publishes a seminal paper that opens up a new field that other labs start pursuing.
But all that’s not to say that more discussion isn’t desirable. One way that PLoS ONE has embraced to improve the amount and quality of the discussion is to solicit comments from journal clubs. When they receive such comments, a link is posted on the right side of the main page to the paper and comments. Another possibility, one that I imagine would be most effective, is for authors to solicit comments directly from colleagues in their fields that they think would be interested. This already happens by e-mail so why not just make the discussion public so that everyone can benefit?
In gaugeing the success of PLoS ONE think of online discussions more like citations. Sparking a lot of discussion (or getting a lot of citations), especially in the first couple of months of a paper’s appearance, is an achievement. Most papers get only a few (or less!) citations in their first year so don’t be surprised if the online discussion amounts to nothing more than “that’s a neat paper” in most cases. This concept has a lot of potential so even if it’s not as active as it could be, give PLoS ONE a chance.