There’s an amusing dust-up going on in one of the discussion threads in the Nature Network discussion forums. The thread is entitled Scientists who blog.

The founder of the thread began with the somewhat inflammatory assertion that successful scientists have better things to do, provoking the predictable reactions. Unfortunately, as forum users (including several science bloggers, e.g., Heather Etchevers, Antony Williams, and Bob O’Hara) weighed in with their opinions, the forum moderator started removing comments at a truly astonishing pace — e.g. see this page — making the thread basically impossible to follow, since many later comments are responses to earlier comments that are no longer visible.

Several users (including myself) complained about the hyperactive moderation, prompting the moderator herself to reply and justify the removals. One of the troubling things about the justifications is that they present a rapidly moving target: from the idea that the removed posts were offensive, to the idea that they violated the site’s terms of use but that there were other fora available on the Nature Network site where different standards of moderation might apply. Meanwhile, the moderator asserted, “All the comments that are relevant to the question remain,” a statement now impossible to verify (and which, for the record, I flatly don’t believe; I also don’t see how all of these statements can be simultaneously true).

I have a bee in my bonnet about this case for several reasons:

  1. All too often, people confuse disagreement with offense. Different points of view may be difficult to hear, but that’s the cost of doing business in a free forum. Similarly, people confuse “being offended” with the genuinely, objectively offensive (for an eloquent paragraph on this distinction, see this comment from the thread); while we might wish to regulate the latter, it’s in the interest of free exchange to avoid interfering with the former. Since I find it hard to believe that the removed comments involved racial epithets, hate speech or exhortations to violence, I’m forced to conclude that the moderator overreacted.
  2. Implicit in the moderator’s removal of comments is the idea that a legitimate exchange of scholarly views is necessarily not “offensive”. This is absurd: to the exact extent that a subject is important, it’s likely to stir powerful emotions, which as I point out above can often be confused for “offensiveness.”

  3. It’s inconsistent: The moderator herself suggested that different standards for moderation might exist on different discussion threads moderated by different people. There should be a huge presumption against removing a user’s comment; if the moderator herself could acknowledge that a different standard might reasonably apply elsewhere on the same site, this is itself sufficient grounds to avoid taking a step as drastic as deletion.

  4. Scientists are grownups. We can police ourselves, and we don’t need a forum moderator to stand in loco parentis as though were were children on the playground. There are certainly ways for reader-driven moderation to allow the thin-skinned avoid offensive comments without removing them entirely from the view of those who want to dig deeper — see e.g. the user-driven moderation and open posting policy on Slashdot, where every comment permanently “exists” but in a way that allows a given user to choose their own level of risk of exposure to offensive content (or irrelevancies, or idiocies).

This is important largely because Nature Network wants to become a (if not the) major forum for public discussions on a wide variety of scientifically significant topics. Yes, it’s “just” a forum, but it’s also part of the larger revolution in the use ofWeb 2.0-based methods to increase the volume, accessibility, and quality of scientific exchange. The tone set here will cast a long shadow over the way we handle similar situations in the future.

Moderating the exchange of ideas between scientists, especially on the grounds of “offensiveness”, is potentially toxic to free exchange. It is our hope that someday public fora other user-driven content will nurture and democratize scientifici exchanges between the greatest minds on Earth. Do we really want to place the future of scientific communication in the hands of forum moderators?