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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Neuroskeptic Gets "Cited"

...kind of. Last week, I blogged about a Nature paper, Eisenegger et al, reporting that giving women testosterone makes them behave more generously in a money-sharing procedure called the Ultimatum Game.

But just a few days later, PLoS ONE published a paper, Zak et al, finding exactly the opposite result - testosterone decreased generosity in the Ultimatum Game - although that was in men, rather than women. The lead author of the PLoS paper, Paul J. Zak, then "cited" my blog post in an online comment attached to his article, as part of a discussion of the differences between his paper and Eisenegger et al's. This is not a proper citation of course, but it's a start. At least I like to think so.

PLoS have a brilliant policy of having a blog-style comment thread attached to every paper. This is a far better system than the traditional academic policy of allowing comments only in the form of formal "Letters to the Editor" of the journal. This made sense in the days before the internet, but it's long outlived its usefulness.

A Letter has to be approved by the editor of the journal to get published at all. For reasons of space, if nothing else, the number which get printed is small. Even if your Letter does see the light of day, it will be, at minimum, a couple of months after the original paper was published, by which time most readers of the original will have forgotten what the fuss was about. If the original authors reply to your Letter, and you want to reply to their reply, it'll be another couple of months before you can, assuming you still care about it by this point. And so on.

An online comment thread, on the other hand, is "peer review" in its purest form. The key difference is speed - replies take place in real time or close to it, which makes a genuine conversation possible. The fact that anyone on the internet can comment might not seem to be a good thing; the internet makes you stupid, after all. But the standard of comments on PLoS papers is generally very high; I don't know if this is because of a moderation policy, or just because PLoS readers are sensible folk.

A few other journals have adopted a similar commenting system, notably Nature (although apparently not other Nature group journals like Nature Neuroscience), but this is something I'd like to see all journals adopt. Ultimately, I'd like to see the boundaries between the "official" academic literature and "informal" online discussion such as blogs blurred further; PLoS seem to be leading the way in this regard too with their recently announced integration with ResearchBlogging.org although Nature also have a blog section. Exciting times.

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