Bloggers as “failing scientists”; forum moderators in loco parentis

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?

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11 comments

  1. It’s the downside to having a large corporation trying to be an open science community, I think. The BBC, for example, moderated so much it was costing them more to have user generated content than to have paid journalists.

    I don’t know what Nature’s original impetus was – likely it was the best intent of community – but non-corporate sites knew it wouldn’t be long before a corporate presence would put the brakes on legitimate open dialogue.

  2. WHen I look at a site and see that much moderation I envisage lots of spamming, swearing, cursing and ugly judgmental bias. I don’t believe that is the nature of what was removed and it is very disruptive to the flow. I’ve had some pretty harsh judgments thrown at ChemSPider over the past two years and have not had the opportunity or even wanted to moderate out…opinions are that..opinions. Let’s hear them…warts and all. If you provide a forum expect some uncomfortable discussions sometime…c’est la vie.

  3. I have been trying to engage people to work out an idea which to the best of my knowledge is sufficiently original to be worth releasing around: LIFE AS A CARBON SEMICONDUCTOR, C being the first element in its column followed by silicon, germanium, tin and lead, all of which curiously have semiconductor properties, (there are many more long explanations). No way that I can have access to some discussion, impossible publishing my raw idea for comments of others.

  4. I have been trying to release an idea which to the best of my knowledge is sufficiently original to be worth releasing around. LIFE AS A CARBON SEMICONDUCTOR, C being the first element in its column followed by silicon, germanium, tin and lead, all of which curiously have semiconductor properties. No way that I can have access to any form of release, even in blogs.

  5. I am very useless with computers, I do not even have one and I use public facilities. I understand very little from computers and I am old enough for the technology. I can only send easy emails and post something simple like this text. Thanks for the suggestion.

  6. The subject about biology in the above comment is too long and complex for developing in this site. However as another example of scientific silencing I can paste here a question which I have been trying to clarify since 1994 and most notably since 2005. I get no answers, only silence or different excuses for getting rid of the inconvenient matter, this after questioning around in specialized resources in the full world. Anyone knowing a little about biology judge by yourself.

    DIETARY NUCLEOTIDES AND NUCLEIC ACIDS AND CANCER
    The majority of tissues produce nucleotides and nucleic acids as they need them thus they do not require those of alimentary origin. Therefore those substances which exist in most of the cells that constitute the foodstuffs we eat are nearly all degraded and eliminated through digestion. But it seems that a small part of them is assimilated and used by quickly dividing tissues such as mucosae and the immune system.
    In tumours and leukemia the cells divide and proliferate very quickly. But it is not easy to find extensive and precise information about the degree of utilization, if any, of nucleotides and nucleic acids of dietary origin by the very different tumours and their metastases. And
    this looks like an essential point because if there should be any use of these compounds it would have to be prevented in order to complement conventional anticancer treatments.

    A search in public medical databases shows very scarce information. Yet this subject must be or should be thoroughly and deeply studied and thus a lot of detailed information should readily appear.

    On the other hand, in cancer research laboratory animals are frequently used, for the most part rodents, whose highly purified diets do not contain nucleotides and nucleic acids. If someone is investigating the anticancer potential of a substance or the cancer-promoting potential of some of the many chemicals frequently used, in an animal who is not eating nucleotides, it does not seem logical and good practice to extrapolate and compare the results to those of humans who eat plenty of them in every meal. Unless the first point had been very deeply
    investigated and the results found negative, that is, no evidence of the
    use by tumours of dietary DNA. Again detailed information does not
    appear easily.

    Taking into account how important these issues might be for people the lack of information casts doubts. So I request to have a complete and quick answer to the questions raised here in order to be sure that nothing in this text should concern cancer patients because the points have been well and carefully studied. And if there are no good answers I request from whoever might be concerned to immediately raise awareness wherever necessary so that the issues are immediately studied witout any undue delays.

    (actually it is recognized by cancer experts that tumours are probably using dietary DNA but this does not interest anyone in the official institutions. As for the question about laboratory animals total silence)

  7. Mercedes —

    I’m sorry to hear that you have difficulty with computers, but: You should be aware that you’re leaving comments on a blog post that is totally unrelated to the subject of your comment. The original article is about a controversy about science bloggers — it has nothing to do with cancer or your theory.

    The upshot of this: It’s unlikely that others who might be interested in your ideas will find them here. Also, as the publisher of the blog, I’d rather not have unrelated discussions going on in the comments of my own posts.

    Seriously: If you can use a public computer, you can have a blog of your own — check out wordpress.com or blogger.com to get started. If you have difficulty with it, then learn — it’s easier than getting information from public databases, which it sounds like you’re able to do.

    But please, don’t consider other people’s blog comments as a suitable forum for discussing unrelated ideas. It’s not going to do you any good (because very few people will find your comments), and it’s annoying to the blog operators.

    Best wishes for the future.

  8. I am sorry to have used you time and your blog for something unrelated to your interests and I very much apologize. I have personal difficulties obstructing my use of computer facilities, although that is not your concern.
    As for the texts y posted they are some sort of useless discharge of frustration. Cancer is a damned word and informations about it like the one I posted in your blog are not allowed in cancer resources, do not find a place in any literature available to the public. As for the professionals they keep silent over and over despite much insisting for years. What can one do then?
    It is hard to see dear persons, perhaps yourself, suffering while you realize that there are areas of research which are being neglected while they might help to consolidate successful treatments and prevent relapses. And that noone seems to be willing to explore them. This is why I wrote these entries but I will not disturb you again. Best wishes for you all.

  9. Apology accepted.

    For what it’s worth — and lest any reader get the wrong idea from the comments above — this subject has definitely not been ignored by cancer researchers as a group.

    The role of DNA precursors in cancer has already been well-studied. Cancer cells do need more DNA precursors than other cells, since they’re dividing relatively rapidly.

    Cells can make their own DNA precursors — A/T/C/G/U are not essential dietary nutrients — so simple dietary withdrawal of these compounds wouldn’t be expected to have any effect.

    Still, the core fact (that cancer cells have a differentially high need for DNA bases) led to the idea of targeting DNA metabolism to treat tumors. Therapies work in one of two ways:
    1. Prodrugs (like BrdU): cancer cells would take up the drug, incorporate them into DNA, and experience hopefully lethal consequences.
    2. Prevent synthesis of the precursors within cells.

    Many such drugs were in development in the 70s and 80s; the problem was that they didn’t work very well and had major side effects — mostly that they ablated high-turnover tissues like gut and lymphoid lineages.

    Some of these drugs are still in use for cancer chemotherapy. e.g. see here for a discussion of active research on increasing the oral bioavailability of nucleotide precursors. A number of them also got a second life as anti-HIV drugs.

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