In which I kick my own ass

Over the next few months, I’m going to be involved in writing a series of opinion pieces about scientific publishing; the articles will appear in the relatively new open access journal Disease Models & Mechanisms. I’ll be working with my friend Vivian Siegel, currently Editor-in-Chief of DMM. Vivian has a much longer resume than mine (she was the first graduate student of Peter Walter, who was also my thesis advisor; since then, she’s been editor of both Cell and PLoS Biology), and I’m excited for the opportunity to exchange ideas with her.

The first piece, Drinking from the firehose of scientific publishing, came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s partly a lamentation about the somewhat anachronistic strategies academic scientists employ in attempting to keep up with the scholarly literature, and partly a brainstorming session about how we might use emerging technologies to meet that challenge more effectively.

I’m mentioning it here for two reasons: because I think some subset of the readers might be interested in what we have to say, but perhaps more importantly because of the entertainment value of one of the arguments we make: namely, that blogs are an inherently unsatisfying way to filter the literature within a field:

A lioness doesn’t bother eating individual blades of grass – she lets the antelopes do that drudgery, and then she eats the antelopes. It is similarly tempting to assign the post-filtering task to hordes of enthusiastic volunteers – intrepid, pajama-clad souls, armed only with keyboards and search engines, who would wade through the jungle of the literature and return to us only the choicest prizes. But this is a fantasy. For bloggers to provide an efficient and efficacious post-filter service, they would have to meet an imposing list of qualifications: sufficiently well-trained to make wise judgments about the papers most worthy of attention; sufficiently idle to have nothing better to do than read papers all day; free of idiosyncrasy or agenda that might bias their choices; and willing to work continuously for free. (In other words, there won’t be ‘hordes’.) Add to that the need for competition between bloggers – comparative prestige being the coin of that murky realm – and soon we’ll find ourselves combing through myriad blogs in order to make sure we’re reading the best one. And then we’ll write a column about the need to post-filter the blogosphere.

Obviously I wouldn’t blog if I thought it were totally pointless, but I have come to believe that even the most well-intentioned scientific bloggers are probably not going to be able to revolutionize their colleagues’ relationship with the literature. In part, as we say in the excerpted passage, this is because it’s unlikely that a single individual will rarely have both the relevant expertise and the required amount of free time. But are also other reasons, the most important one being that “one size does not fit all”, e.g., any given blogger’s survey of the recent literature involves judgment calls about what is interesting and important, which may or may not correspond with the judgments that would be made by any given individual reader.

I’m interested to know what you all think about the piece, and in general about the role blogging might/does/should play in the relationship between scientists and the scientific literature.


One comment

Comments are closed.