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Content rules, but commenting can add value

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Content rules, writes Nature in an Editorial in the current issue (464, 466; 2010), in which Nature ’s new online commenting facility opens up the entire magazine for discussion. The Editorial is reproduced here:

‘Conversation is king’, according to a mantra frequently repeated by enthusiasts of online social media. But we editors and writers tend to give our first allegiance to content — not least because of our labours to research, commission, select, create and otherwise add value to content, and to do so in a way that informs and stimulates our readers: the people who pay for it.

But, unquestionably, conversation can add value to such efforts. Therefore, this week we introduce an online commenting facility that will allow readers to respond directly to any of our content.

Commenting is not new to Nature. Our online news service has long allowed it, and recent examples show how lively and interesting readers’ observations can be — in their response to our coverage of Google in China, say, or of dismissed researchers in Mexico.

Online discussions about our research papers are likely to be considerably more subdued, according to the experience of other publishers who already allow commenting. This is understandable. Commenting on a paper in the rather formal context of a journal’s website may seem daunting to some scientists, and to others may pose a needless risk of offending colleagues, or of making an unguarded statement that may come back to haunt them. Perhaps more importantly, a commenter acquires no formal academic credit for his or her efforts, making the time spent commenting seem like time wasted. For that reason, we will continue to publish formal responses to papers in our online Brief Communications Arising section, in which contributions are peer reviewed and have a high threshold for acceptance.

As for the acceptance thresholds for readers using the new commenting facility, we are adopting a twin-track approach. For News & Views, Reviews and primary research, we will vet submitted items before they are allowed to appear on our site. Our intention is to remove only those submissions that are clearly subject to legal concern, obscenity or unjustified assertions. We will not seek to prohibit trivia, for example — although we’d be glad if our commenting readers could help keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as our critically minded audience expects and deserves.

All other sections will be run on the same basis as online news is now: submitted comments will appear online immediately, without any monitoring or vetting beforehand. But they will be promptly removed on receipt of a substantive objection from a reader, on similar grounds to those above. People wishing to comment should be alert to the currently unavoidable weight of English libel law, which places a heavy burden of proof on those making allegations, rather than on the subjects of the allegations who choose to sue, as generally applies in the United States. We will review our approach after a few months.

Meanwhile, we welcome all our readers’ contributions to the conversation.

Some comments from readers to this Editorial:

Todd Gibson said: In light Nature attaching a commenting feature to research papers, I once again encourage researchers hosting journal clubs to task their charges with writing up a consensus review of each article discussed, and posting it to the commenting facility. The article’s authors will almost invariably respond enthusiastically. The activity would both enliven underutilized paper comments, and further develop skills valuable to nascent researchers.

Nick ONeill said: Congrats! I think this is a really great step for Nature, and a step beyond what was “required” in opening your news to everyone online. Very commendable!

William Gunn said: Todd – that’s a great idea. To extend it further, one could imagine the comments section to be a “rolling attendance” journal club.

While I understand the motivation to require registration and to moderate comments and it’s not at all unexpected given the policies in force at Nature Network, I just don’t think silly comments are really the biggest problem.

Timothy Roberts said: Well done!

Frank Norman said: Nice title! I hope the rules for commenters will not put off genuine commenters. It will be interesting to review the level of commenting in a year’s time, and to compare with other sites.

Tyler Kokjohn said: Will conversation add value to content? Let’s examine the evidence. Todd Gibson’s idea is a true gem that was immediately seized on by commentors who have begun to augment it along productive lines. Initially skeptical, I recognize a great start when I see one. Let’s hope the journal club idea is emulated by many others who recognize that although they may yield no formal academic credit, such discussions can be of enormous value.

Nitin Gandhi said: Science is one of the profession where one cannot progress just by doing good PR job and get away. It is now very easy to know where the scientist stands just by click of mouse. With the web-based data like Pub-med, Scopus, etc.

“Nature” has taken one step further by starting this “risky” venture of on-line comments on published paper, this will benefit both he commenter’s and comment upon.

I thank “Nature” to give this opportunity to comment and get commented upon if the commentator is giving time without the apparent benefit – the pleasure will be to realize that science in general getting benefited.

I also feel that all the other journals take the cue from “Nature” and start this system -the global discussion!

I am sure that one day even tgrants evaluation will become transparent and one can see the comments and markings the grant evaluator has made and reader can also make the comments this will certainly revolutionize the science, this will help greatly separate out wheat and chaff.

“Nature” has taken the first step -Congratulations.

You are welcome to add your own views to the dicussion, either here or at Nature’s website.

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