Blog posts, papers, and the brave new digital world: your thoughts are welcome

June 8, 2009

A new perspective, or the same old thing?

A new perspective, or the same old thing?

Brachiosaurus and friends from here (hat tip to Ville Sinkkonen).

In an e-mail with explicit permission to quote, our colleague Casey Holliday sent the following thoughts about our new paper and the subsequent ten days of related blogging:

I don’t know guys. I like your blogs, and your papers are fine. And I liked this paper. And I’m a fan.  But it looks to me that you blogged about far more data, in- or not in support of your paper than you actually presented in your paper. So,…wtf? The posts on Dinomorph far exceeded your (or any) published rebuke. Your explanation (and honorable erred parts) of the semicircular canal data also exceeded that actual published part too, with extra photos, description etc. (is that error going to be OA published too?) Also additional pix of necks (e.g., Nigersaurus), and not only from sauropods that would have
potentially bettered the original pub. So what’s fair? Why weren’t
these data also included in the publication? Maybe it’s not my business and was taken up in review…I don’t know. Frankly, none of this blog stuff really counts in the peer-reviewed world of “real” publications. Its not like this blogging and comments all count as Supplementary Data either. But also, I’m obviously here commenting on it, so also crossing into the fray…But who really cares about all this discussion? Its no different than the DML or any other noise in the internet world (or is it). Similar to what Paul Barrett was posting on Tet Zoo…what counts? Why take up arguments here, when they should (maybe?likely?) be taken up more formally and privately.

If you’re going to air all this additional data and unreviewed
opinion, then I think this discussion is important.

I think this phenomenon of the sauropod neck paper is really
interesting. We have 3 scientists that published a paper, and then, thanks to their current blogosphere cred, basically unleashed a hype not seen in this way previously that I can remember. Maybe that’s the interesting part? and kudos. But interestingly…we’re seeing this intersection of traditional publication (OA or not), blogosphere description, and perhaps, almost certainly, excellent self-promotion.

I’m still a fan. I think this paper is generally solid. But I’m
particularly interested in this phenomenon and hope this is a fair
place to raise it.

The comment field is open, and we SV-POW!sketeers are going to refrain from commenting for a couple of days to let the conversation develop unfettered.

We are genuinely curious to know what you think.

25 Responses to “Blog posts, papers, and the brave new digital world: your thoughts are welcome”

  1. In the last year this blog has contained, amongst other things, extended critiques of the Sereno et al. Aerosteon paper and Dinomorph, as well as lots of unpublished (in the sense of not being published in peer-reviewed journals) data. Much of the information contained within the critiques, in particular, is interesting. But can these critiques be considered by other scientists during their own work? Can they be cited? No. This blog is not peer-reviewed, it cannot be cited in a conventional journal or book article, it has no guaranteed archive that I am aware of, and it can be modified by the authors at any point. Critiques, comments and discussion that could be published and form part of scientific debate are therefore stuck in a kind of no-man’s land. Moreover, it potentially puts other workers in a difficult position – this blog can’t be cited, so how can they fairly acknowledge any ideas/data presented here?

    On a second point, I agree with Casey about the press coverage of your recent paper. I’m not going to comment on the scientific merits of the paper, because it’s well outside my area. However, I do think the level of hype has been extraordinary. I’ve nothing against a little self-promotion, but it seems to me that in this case the hype exceeds the importance of the paper to understanding sauropod/dinosaur biology and broader topics in palaeontology.

    I’m not out to knock you – I enjoy reading your blog – but the points that Casey makes are worth thinking about.

  2. Bill Parker Says:

    This is also something I’ve struggled mightily with as well. How much data and comment do you put out on a blog? Recently Jeff Martz detailed our entire stratigraphic revision of the Chinle in Petrified Forest National Park on his blog. Does this stake a claim or open us up for a scoop? We do not know yet and hopefully we will not need to find out as a final paper is pretty much complete. I’m also interested to hear comments from people such as Rich and Casey who do provide valid concerns. I think that it is tougher with blogs that focus on specific subjects (e.g., Triassic, sauropod vertebrae) to not discuss unpublished items in detail.

    It can be especially frustrating to be privy to lots of unpublished data (as happens in any specialization which you share ideas with colleagues)and try to keep from shaping or refining your hypotheses with these data in your mind when writing papers.

    Still, I would argue that there is a way to cite these data if you must. The old “written communication” citation, which is how it was done (and still done) in the old days of letter writing. Ideas are still ideas no matter how they are shared, and the originators still need to be recognized. Maybe we need a new type of citation in this age of the blogosphere. Is this really different than anything done in the past, other than its more immediate and widespread availability?

  3. BJ Nicholls Says:

    I’m a volunteer preparator at a local museum. I’m able to follow this blog posts and discussions well enough to find the information interesting despite my very limited understanding of the topics.

    Papers aren’t accessible to people like me. They’re hard to find and/or expensive and they’re nearly always written for a specialized audience familiar with a very specific technical language. The old school style of paper writing eschews anything but minimalist use of illustrations. With the advent of pdf publishing, the economic constraints that created that dry style no longer apply, but there’s still considerable inertia driven by the conservative culture of science publishing.

    I find the writing here entertaining, challenging, and interesting. The illustrations help considerably in making the language accessible. Science blogs can expand interest and understanding beyond the handful of people actually working in a discipline. Is there no value to presenting concepts in a more conversational and accessible form in blog posts as a means of airing and refining content that may later become a formal paper?

  4. Brian Beatty Says:

    Like some of the faculty here have been pointing out with our video-taped lectures, “no one will pay for information anymore, so if you do not put it out there for the world, you will lose your voice”. I think that though many journals that still charge an arm and a leg for access to papers are slowly getting it, many will find that it only harms the world of science and its relevance to society (that funds much of our work) to not make it all open access. This has been stated many times in Andy Farke’s blog ( but relates to the present discussion.
    I agree with Bill Parker that ideas should be credited no matter the format, and BJ Nicholls makes an excellent point of the need for publicly accessible science. In my opinion, the best venue for such a thing are peer-reviewed, open access journals. That’s why I got involved with PalArch back in 2003, and though we have had some hard lessons to learn, I think it has been worth it.
    But there has to be a place for blog discussions like these. Yes, Casey makes a very good point that journals are a good venue for formal interaction of these ideas and conflicting opinions of how to interpret it, but I suspect that the reason they are not used more is because publishing in this manner is way too slow, and certainly not the pace any of us are used to anymore. Some older journals used to publish a paper with an addendum of the comments and criticisms of reviewers afterward. This publishing format, though antiquated for our pace today, provides a window into the different ways of interpreting the same data that we rarely get today unless reviewing the papers ourselves. Maybe that is what these blogs could become, especially as more and more scientists get involved with them.
    With the exception of Butch Dooley’s blog about his work at the VMNH (, very few people report much about their own work, mostly condensing the popular news of research by others. Rather than think of the news of the sauropod necks as self-promotion, I would rather look at it as something I hope more active scientists will endeavor to do, which is create an open forum in which they discuss their work with everyone. I cannot dream of an easy way to cite it (other than Zotero), but I hope that if more people did this sort of thing, this could become the way science is communicated to the public, rather than just a Discovery Channel show about two theropods fighting and roaring in an unrealistic fashion. It will look less like self-promotion when everyone is sharing their work online.

  5. lockwooddewitt Says:

    The topics discussed here are generally over my head; the fine details of vertebrate paleontology are not something I know or understand. But I generally skim over the intros of posts to get a sense of what’s being discussed, and I love the photos. My simple contribution here is to make explicit that what’s happening in this post is that you folks are defining, or creating, what science is. We science people tend to “get” that the findings of science are tentative. Oftentimes we forget that the processes that constitute “doing science” also change through time. There are a lot of issues here that I’m not really qualified to comment on, but I just wanted to note that I was struck with a little bit of wonderment when I realized the real import of this post and its comments.

  6. Nathan Myers Says:

    As a total outsider, maybe I properly have no say in the discussion.

    Still, I have frequently read laments of the loss to science of what is always called the “amateur naturalist”. Clearly there are people who like it better this way, and really would prefer to keep the untenured rabble out of their corner. The artificial scarcity of titled seats, far outnumbered by graduates, must contribute to this attitude.

    If there is no way to cite a blog posting in a published paper, surely that indicates something wrong with the process of publication. The present system of publication wasn’t handed down from a mountaintop, it was invented, and has since evolved under particular conditions. In many ways it is suited to the needs of naturalists, and in many other ways it is barely tolerable, but constrained by external circumstances. Students who grew up tolerating those infelicities are used to them, but that is no argument for keeping them. Now those external circumstances have all but passed away, and there can be no acceptable reason for the process not to adapt.

    No one could be better equipped to understand adaptation, and the need for it, than naturalists.

    Probably blog posts cited should be printed out and filed, against the possibility that the original posting may disappear or be altered, and the citation itself should refer to an archival cite (e.g. the wayback machine) in addition to the original posting.

    Peer review obviously filters out an enormous amount of foolishness, but it lets through an appalling amount of detailed error (recent e.g. Sereno’s air sacs, Chatterjee’s A. magnificens power output), and, worse, filters out much that is valuable but conflicts with established, but ill-supported or just false, doctrine.

    It’s up to naturalists to invent the apparatus and processes they need to continue carrying out their collective investigation. It would be far more foolish than I think naturalists naturally are to fail to take advantage of modern equipment and methods that were unavailable to their predecessors.

  7. Jura Says:

    The implications raised in this post remind me of the relatively recent arguments over blogs, and (particularly) bloggers as news outlets/journalists. It’s the double edged sword of our information based culture. “Web 2.0” has given everyone a voice, and the speed at which information can be doled out, and taken in, has increased exponentially.

    Yet, much like the blogger/journalist issue, the question of fact checking, and (in this case) citing becomes a real problem. The very speed and democracy conferred by our new internet culture, has made it harder to cross reference stories (which is much slower), and find authorities through all the noise.

    In this sense, blogging has an air of public speech to it. Perhaps, then, it would be appropriate to cite blogs in the same manner as personal communications (in this case, it would probably shorten to: pub comm). It allows one to give credit where it is due, without having to deal with trying to find a static location where one can go find it.

    Alternatively one may be able to find that static location. As Nathan Myers alluded to, the internet archive is specifically designed to give “snapshots” in time for web pages. As of right now, SV POW is archived back to October of 2007. As storage capacity continues to both get larger, and cheaper, it remains likely that the Archive will remain a part of the internet indefinitely.

    So then, we may continue to cite blogs in the same way that web pages have traditionally been cited in the past (with the full URL and date of last access). We just need to teach people to go to the archive to find these citations, rather than to type the actual URLs in.

  8. Andy Says:

    Just a few brief comments, as I will likely have a more complete post on this next week at my own blog (it very nicely ties in with some related, but not completely overlapping, thoughts I’ve had for an upcoming post!).

    1) As proposed by several commenters above, “personal communication” seems to be the best stop-gap citation method for the typical citation style favored in paleo. Assuming the Internet Archive is around to stay, I think this is even better in some aspects (and more accurately reflects the source). A problem with this, as noticed by Casey, is that blogs are, by nature, not peer-reviewed. As brought up by several commenters, individual postings can be changed. Now this is fine if the folks know what they’re talking about, but we get into problems if we have to cite every single person blogging about paleo (and the number is only going to increase!).

    2) The presentation of data additional to the paper, as noted by Casey in his original email, is a potential problem. But, I’m not sure how I feel about the pros and cons of this issue. So pros. . .it’s a chance for speedy and hopefully meaningful discourse. You can do things with a blog (illustrations, comments, etc.) that you can’t necessarily do with your typical journal. Cons. . .it’s easy to say something you might later regret, or something that might be taken completely the wrong way. Readers may interpret off-hand, informal remarks as Gospel Truth. Also, there still is that thorny issue of “if it’s important, why wasn’t it in the paper?”

    3) But at the same time, I really, really like that blogs have opened up the scientific process and 1) given the interested folks more direct access to the authors; and 2) given the authors a better chance to explain and publicize their work without the filter of a science writer. This is, of course, a double-edged sword.

    4) I don’t know if I would necessarily say this paper has been over-hyped. I think it’s certainly been thoroughly explained and posted about on this blog, and I think this is less about self-promotion and more about wanting to explain the work to the public (and other interested scientists). Hype would be a TV special, book deal, and Google ad. ;-) In terms of media exposure, I would say this paper has had less than typical for your average dinosaur story. In terms of blogging, I would say it has had more than usual.

    5) Part of what we’re bumping up against is that paleontology and the biological/geological sciences as a whole have a very “closed access” mentality compared to some other sciences. Look only to the arXiv server and similar preprint servers to see how other fields have handled this (although even here the approach has not been without its speedbumps and detractors). Quite frankly, I think this attitude has to change in our field (but that’s a story for another post).

    OK, back to vacation. . .

  9. Nathan Myers Says:

    By definition, there’s no such thing as over-hyping something in your own blog. Three posts, six posts, ten posts, it’s your blog, go wild. If anybody doesn’t like it, what the hell are they doing there?

    “Hype” necessarily refers to promotion in other people’s media, presumably media read more widely than you can rally yourself. To garner much of such outside attention, you may need to sweeten your material, and you cannot but be tempted to sweeten it to the point of obscuring the facts. (There is no such danger in one’s own blog, because you’ll publish anything just for having spent the time to write it.)

    Sometimes you may be tempted to sweeten it by making it more informative than the average press release, in the way Mark Witton is wont to do with his excellent pictorial reconstructions. That’s called communicating, and is also proof against the accusation of hype.

  10. I think the way you’ve been reporting things is great. You can’t fit everything you want into a paper, no matter how long it is. And better to have that information out in public where it can be used by other researchers, as opposed to sitting in your personal files. If your blog was just a rehash of published information, I would have much less reason to read it. But the current setup is like visiting a museum collection or SVP, but without the cost and travel time. There are a lot of things that are important to report, but wouldn’t justify an entire paper. I’ve learned when making my website that internet sources such as the DML and blogs are often the first or only resource for certain data. Just in the new ornithomimosaur section, we have the new Deinocheirus material, the only data available about “Grusimimus” and “Gallimimus mongoliensis” for six years, ideas on the relationships of Nqwebasaurus and Rapator, etc.. Peer review’s great, but I’m not going to ignore data or not give the proper person credit just because they came up with a good idea outside of a peer-reviewed journal. It’s no different than the “pers. comm.” that’s been in the literature forever. It’s better actually, since dialogue on the internet is actually recorded and accessable to everyone, unlike a spoken conversation. That holds for the form arguments should take as well. I’d much rather have debates go on in public fora than in peer reviewed literature, so that they can occur at a decent pace and so that points can be engaged and flaws indicated immediately. How often have we read a paper that doesn’t address points made explicitly against its hypothesis (*cough* BAND *cough*)? It also makes it interesting for the public, amateurs and even other professionals. How many people would prefer to have a topic they’re interested in be discussed privately and formally where they can’t see it? This is science, where everyone has the right to know all the information and processes it goes through to support hypotheses. And honestly, the age of information isn’t going away, so I don’t think there’s any escaping it.

    Keep up the good work!

  11. Mark Wildman Says:

    I have to agree with Mickey. Surely in todays multi-media world there has to be room for constructive argument and (dare I say it) criticism of both peer reviewed literature and web aired discussion?
    So many of us have filed and used what is good information and data from blogs such as this, and the plethora of web sites that exist. To disregard anybodys comments simply because it has not gone through proper channels is bad science in my book. I have learnt so much “informally” over the years that to castigate such a database is just plain wrong.
    Having said all that, I reiterate my faith in the peer reviewed system and submit that it is enrichened by web based comments and review.

  12. Scott Hartman Says:

    Hey guys,

    Couldn’t you guys have submitted this to a journal on scientific ethics?

    Ok, in all seriousness, I agree with Nathan that “over-hyping” your work on your blog is sort of an oxymoron; it’s your space have at. Of course if it isn’t interesting hype then people may not care enough to keep reading, but it certainly isn’t an ethical issue IMO.

    I admit that while reading the critique of Dinomorph (which as you know I am in general agreement with) I felt a twinge of cognitive dissonance since you had also in the same series of posts put forth data that had no error bars either (e.g. the semi-circular canal data).

    In retrospect, however, I feel that this was my own fault as I was personally (and without intent) failing to distinguish properly between supplied blog information and published data (at one point I conflated them while describing the work although luckily I had a pdf of the paper handy so I corrected myself).

    But therein lies the problem I suspect: we must be smarter consumers of blogs. The data in them should probably _not_ be cited. If the information is worth mentioning in a paper, contact the blogger(s) to get a specific “personal communication”. This also has the advantage of ensuring you haven’t misread the blog, and at the same time lets the blog author(s) mention whether the data is currently in pres or otherwise not available for direct citation pending their own research.

    I don’t really want to see such discussions limited; like the DML (but with less clutter) these sources of information allow for information to be exchanged and commented on far more rapidly than print media (peer-reviewed or otherwise). I just think that as readers (and as bloggers) we need to remember the relationship of blog-data to peer-review, and not conflate how “vetted” the data is.

  13. One question is whether there is the freedom _not_ to know everything anyone has blogged about when publishing on topics often considered by the community of bloggers.

    It may be disreputable not to cite a hypothesis formulated by someone else in a blog post if done deliberately but should you as an author or reviewer be blamed for not knowing/ considering such web ressources?

    Are you as a researcher expected to filter out the one crucial idea from eighty screen pages of online discussion?

    The idea to arrange a personal communication when a blog post is found relevant seems good, though.

  14. Zach Miller Says:

    I’m a big fan of professionals having their own blogs, but I do wonder how one would CITE a blog. There’s no doubt you CAN, but because the author can change blog content, the citation might not be good forever. Also, let’s say you write a paper about Microraptor. Would you have to dig up every blog post written in the last five years about Microraptor? That’d be impossible, even if you were including only relevant blog posts in your search.

    The place of science blogs in the peer-review process is not a topic I can comment on with any real knowledge, but I feel like the Interwebs are valuable to a point, and seeing the supplementary information essentially written as a blog post by enthusiastic authors makes me happy.

  15. Hi All, interesting conversation.

    Just on the issue of citation I thought I’d mention WebCite a project setup by Gunther Eysenbach. It allows you to take an archived snapshot of a webpage at a particular point in time – saves that version and then suggests a citation that will provide both the original, and the archived link, in case the page is lost or changed. In some circumstances you can also get a DOI but I think this is only if the journal in which you are citing the webpage is a member of Webcite and doing all the work for you.

  16. This blog is good.

    The people need science. Now more than ever.

  17. Nima Says:

    Citing a blog… what a novel idea.
    Citing a blog… what a CRAZY idea.

    It’s hard to say which of the two is more correct. A lot of the people who comment on these science blogs are very intelligent, but there is no restriction on who comments, so not everything is of the quality that can be cited.

    It’s hard to say, it hurts me to say this, but many times it’s looked like the field has confined itself withing barbed wire. Journals have to be peer-reviewed by professionals. But there are far too few professionals. There are lots of dinosaur enthusiasts… but they can’t carry the same weight as PhDs. I wish they could…but no. A lot of us just don’t want to go through all the money and work needed for a PhD if we don’t plan on publishing research.

    But a lot of us also have very valuable insight and opinions. Nothing short of a revolution in science (somethings like free online journals but on a MUCH bigger scale) would have to happen for blogs and blog comments to be considered “canon” in the realm of publishable science.

    I see many paradoxes out there. Kent Stevens has a PhD in Computer Science, and no degrees in paleontology or anything similar…. yet he’s publishing scientific papers and they’re getting peer-reviewed… Does it truly take a PhD in paleontology to become a peer-reviewed authority on dinosaurs, or is there an alternative process? (this has nothing to do with blogs, I realize…) Greg Paul seems to have pulled it off pretty nimbly without a doctorate as well… What does it truly take to be a “scientist” in this field?

    For unless the rest of us do that, the most scientific thing most of us will ever produce is limited to the blogosphere.

  18. […] 11, 2009 First off, thanks to everyone for reading, commenting on, and discussing the previous post. Seeing the diversity of opinions expressed has been interesting and gratifying for us, and […]

  19. Nick Gardner Says:

    “What does it truly take to be a “scientist” in this field?”

    Publishing your papers in peer-reviewed journals so that that the research can be reviewed and examined by individuals who should be experts (or at least very informed) on the topic being discussed.

  20. David Marjanović Says:

    As mentioned by Nathan Myers above, I have cited blog comments in this paper. The link goes straight to the reference list; check out “Naish (2008)”. Neither editors nor reviewers nor typesetters ever mentioned it. So, if you want to do it, just do it. Hey, there are still journals out there that are not or not consistently peer-reviewed, and sometimes important review papers which get cited a lot were invited and not reviewed even in journals that normally subject everything to peer-review.

    Though, granted, it was for a nomenclatural point, not a scientific one.

  21. […] that a little in the context of the debates / random thoughts going on at SV-POW! right now (try, here, here and here for […]

  22. Graham King Says:

    Sorry, but I just had to say “WoooAaaah!!!” out loud, when I saw that vertigo-inducing lead photo.

    Any further comment by me would now be anticlimactic.

  23. Nathan Myers Says:

    I will note again that a family of vervets, quartered on that skeleton and wearing camera-equipped vests, could provide regular museum attendees such vertigo-inducing images on a daily basis. They might even be trained to plug in their cameras to recharge overnight.

  24. ech Says:

    “Why take up arguments here, when they should (maybe?likely?) be taken up more formally and privately.” Whoa there – why are you trying to squelch this? STOP IT. I’m sympathetic to the citation problem that is being discussed, but as a layman with a passing interest in this, I really appreciate the quality of these kinds of blogs and discussions! They are very accessible, and I am learning so much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: