Friday, December 26, 2014

Posting comments on papers

For many years, people have wondered why most online forums for comments result in hundreds of comments, but even the most exciting scientific results lead to the sound of crickets chirping. Lots of theories as to why, like fear of scientific reprisal or fear of saying something stupid or lack of anonymity.

Perhaps. But I wonder if part of it is just that it feels… incongruous to post comments on scientific papers. To date, I have posted exactly two comments on papers. My first owed its genesis (I think) to the fact that I had just read something about how nobody comments on papers, and so I was determined to post a comment on something. And it was a nice paper on something I found interesting and so I wanted to say something. I just now wrote my second comment. It was on this AWESOME paper (hat tip to Sri Kosuri) comparing efficiency of document preparation using Word vs. LaTeX (verdict: LaTeX loses, little surprise to me). Definitely something I found interesting, and so I somehow felt the urge to comment.

And then, as I started writing my comment, something just felt… wrong. Firstly, the process was annoying. I had to log in to my PLOS account, which I of course forgot all the details of. Then, as I was leaving my comment, I noticed a radio button at the bottom to say whether I had a competing interest. The whole process was starting to feel a whole lot more official than I had anticipated. Suddenly, the relatively breezy and light-hearted nature of my comment felt very out of place. It’s just very hard to escape the feeling that any commentary on a scientific paper must be couched in the stultifying language and framework of the typical peer review, which is just so different than the far more informal commentary than you get on, for instance, blog posts. And heaven forbid if you actually posted a joke or something like that.

I feel like part of the reason nobody comments is that publishing a paper seems like a Very Serious Business™, and so any writing or commentary associated with it seems like it should be just as serious. Well, I agree that publishing a paper is a very tedious business, but I think making scientific discourse a bit more lighthearted would be a good thing overall. And who knows, one side-effect could be that maybe someone might actually read the paper for a change!


  1. I think it is important for papers to have an comment section, but it's hard to get a good discussion going on any site. Good discussions tend to happen spontaneously (on twitter, facebook, etc) and I think a tool that would allow you to find such discussions for a particular paper would be even more important. has a bookmarklet that does something like that, but it doesn't always find all discussions (e.g. blogposts).

    Someone (maybe Dr. Insight?) suggested a plugin to reference managers that would alert you to comments/blogposts when you add a reference to a paper.

  2. most journals don't allow comments or have terms and conditions, tedious to read.
    There should be a webpage with forum just for comments on scientific papers !
    Which anyone interested in that paper could easily find with keyword-search.