A discussion broke out recently on Friendfeed about online commentary on scientific articles. The discussions were interesting because, for the first time in recent memory, there was disagreement about something fundamental. I view this as an extremely positive sign that out community is starting to grow and incorporate people outside of our core group. In fact, if there’s no disagreement, it’s probably a sign you’re doing something wrong.
The disagreement went in two ways in the two different comment threads. In the second one, genereg promoted the idea that PLoS comments would be more abundant if there was true anonymity afforded to commenters. The other side of the argument, argued by Cameron Neylon(Friendfeed) (LinkedIn), Deepak Singh(FriendFeed) (LinkedIn), and Neil Saunders (FriendFeed) (LinkedIn), was that Real Names™ are important and desirable for online comments. The threads of so many different tangential discussions are running through here that I needed to take a second to write out the background ideologies in play.
1) Online participation depends on lowering the barriers to participation, and unlogged anonymous comments lower the bar to the absolute floor.
2) Online participation depends on a functioning ResearcherID system so commenters can actually get credit for taking the time to write a comment.(Related Blog posts from neilfws, Martin Fenner, Deepak, Peter Murray, and others on friendfeed)
3) Some people don’t want to sign their name to a critical comment, so they just refrain when they don’t have the anonymous option.
4) People comment where there’s a community in which their comment will get exposure and contribute to a discussion.
5) Comments attached to scientific articles aren’t for the purpose of stimulating discussion, but for aiding interpretation of the paper in subsequent years.
It’s apparent that there’s a little bit of talking past one another regarding these points, which is why I’ve collected and laid out the arguments here where they can each be commented upon. My initial impression is that comments as part of a discussion will mostly be made wherever there is community, which isn’t PLoS at the moment. However, comments intended to be interpretive aids for the paper will be made on the PLoS site, and registration won’t be much of a barrier for someone sufficiently motivated to write such a comment in the first place.
In the first thread, which developed more subsequent to the discussion on the second, Ian York (FriendFeed) (LinkedIn) commented that he felt it was rude to take his throwaway comment on friendfeed and re-post it on PLoS. Björn Brembs (FriendFeed) (LinkedIn), Bill Hooker (FriendFeed) (LinkedIn), and Cameron Neylon then pointed out that anything posted on a public site is pretty much free for the taking whether anyone likes it or not. The issues I’ve identified here are as follows:
1) Don’t make a public comment if you don’t want the whole world to hear it. This is especially true for comments to the media, which none of the members of this thread are (or are they?)
2) People will comment in different ways in different places, and, while linking to one from the other is always possible and always within the rights of anyone to do, it may occasionally be rude.
3) Deliberately taking someone’s comments out of context is rude.
4) You get the broadest view of reactions to an article if you don’t limit yourself to comments posted directly on the site, but rather go and find comments in the communities where they’re being made.
5) PLoS could have more comments if it went and found the comments in their communities, instead of expecting the comments to come to them.
6) It’s not technologically feasible to get permission to index every tweet or friendfeed comment made by everyone.
It’s apparent that some of these ideas are also in conflict with one another. To resolve some of these issues, perhaps it would be helpful to view them in light of yet more general issues.
1) Technology should adapt to people, not the other way around.
2) Online, your identity is your content, not your Real Name™.
3) Free and open sharing provides the greatest good for the greatest number.
I don’t believe these ideals are in conflict with one another. All we have to do to make this work is to find a way to aggregate things and re-share them such that context is preserved. As the friendfeed redesign made clear to most of us, tweets are totally different items than blog posts. I think it’s a UI issue. On the right, you’ll see a sidebar containing my most recent tweets. Would a sidebar on the article containing “aggregated commentary about this article” with short snippets and a link out sufficiently respect the need for maintaining context while also respecting that viewers of the article want to see the broadest picture of the engagement with the content as possible?
What is most fair and logical is rarely what happens. The system promoted by the guy with the greatest motivation or most money is generally the one that wins out, so perhaps that can lend some perspective to this discussion.