Is snarky honest real-time discussion of a paper’s conclusions more constructive to the authors and the larger scientific enterprise than formal, reserved, and staid holding forth in the correspondence section of a classic clinical journal? Fact is that this discussion will be over even before the next issue of the journal comes out.
A really interesting interplay has been ongoing across the sci/med blogosphere following a commentary last Wednesday by Dr Isis on a NEJM correspondence, entitled, “Shifts to and from Daylight Saving Time and Incidence of Myocardial Infarction.” (free full text at the time of this post.).
Many of us post commentaries on peer-reviewed publications, often tagging posts with the former BPR3/current ResearchBlogging icon and aggregator founded originally by Dave Munger and colleagues. For some reason, my commentaries and few of others have actually garnered feedback from the original authors.
Well, Isis’ commentary drew comments from the original authors of the NEJM correspondence paper, Drs Imre Janszky and Rickard Ljung of the Karolinska Institut and National Board of Health and Welfare in Stockholm.
Long story made short: Isis disagreed with the conclusions made by the authors, DrugMonkey questioned the authors’ desire to have the issues discussed on “equal ground” such as in a response to NEJM, Isis discussing the issue further, then Bora Zivkovic holding forth both on the science (circadian rhythm expert he) and the blogosphere culture in frank discussion of science. Then PalMD, my clinical colleague and co-conspirator in a pseudonymity session at an upcoming conference discussed his perspectives on the episode.
Yes, all these links are rather cryptic if you haven’t followed the discussion. But here is what I find most interesting:
1. The authors of a paper that garnered substantial international MSM press attention responded to a critique made by someone who I think is a physician-scientist like them.
2. The discussion raises some hackles and misunderstanding on both sides.
3. However, the discussion also drew many people into an interest in and understanding of the biology of circadian rhythms who might not otherwise have been engaged in such an area.
4. A real-time discussion ensued between the authors and researchers in related areas who all agreed that the data generated was top-quality but that the interpretations were worthy of significant debate and vigorous discussion.
5. Despite initial misunderstandings of tone and intent, hundreds if not thousands of bloggers and commenters were exposed to the discussion well before even the next issue of NEJM was released.
As you might suspect from my impressions, I’ve found this exchange quite fascinating. Since we get NEJM at home because of PharmGirl, I like the letters, responses, and rebuttals from the authors but the medium is terribly static, staid, and very quickly over, with only three or five people actually having the conversation.
In this case, many people discussed the work in several different ways. What strikes me is the discussion of how pseudonymity has some similarities to reading a paper by RealNames who one doesn’t actually “know.” Bora’s addition that formal discourse by a few can actually be much more damaging than the flippant and honest comments of dozens or hundreds we get on blogs is enlightening. Bora’s comment on his own post is very insightful:
Briefly: pseudonymity is not anonymity. Pseudonym, JUST LIKE THE REAL NAME, is just a string of letters. Online, just like offline, one builds reputation through one’s words and deeds. I’ve been a science blogger for more than four years (in Internet dog years that is about two centuries) and I have learned to trust many pseudonymous bloggers years before I learned their true identities: SciCurious, Sciencewoman, Dr.Isis, DrugMonkey, Physioprof, Abel PharmBoy, Orac, Revere and others earned their reputation by being smart, honest, well-informed and yes, witty. They demonstrated both their expertise on the topics they write about AND their understanding of the medium. There are some excellent reasons to be Pseudonymous online and this does not detract one bit from the earned authority.
As time went by and I discovered true identities of some of these bloggers, I realized that their real names mean nothing to me. None of them turned out to be Craig Venter or Jim Watson. Their real names were completely new to me – just a few out of thousands of scientists out there. Learning their real names did nothing to enhance or detract their reputation – they earned it under their Pseudonyms. Pseudonym is a name, just like the real name: a string of letters, the former given to oneself, the latter received from parents. It makes no difference whatsoever.
But it is interesting that people who diss pseudonyms tend to all be male. Insensitivity? Total lack of perception of what is going on in the hallways of academia? Male privilege? Reverence for the formal academic hierarchy regardless of merit? Yes, all of the above.
The fact that the authors responded to pseudonymous bloggers criticizing their interpretations (not their work but, rather, their conclusions) is to me a window into the future of scientific discourse (notwithstanding that “discourse” gives my colleague the hives.).
Would all of the pseudonymous bloggers have been so frank and snarky in their initial comments on the work? Are their scientific criticisms valid? Did the authors learn more immediately of concerns regarding their interpretations? Will the authors be better prepared for any and all of the dissenting correspondence NEJM will receive regarding their work? Has the sci/med blogosphere been of benefit to the field of circadian rhythms and interest in health effects of disrupting such cycles?
As fellow middle-aged guy PalMD queried and responded:
“I’m a researcher and I don’t know what to do about this blog thing”
Don’t fear the new medium—check us out. Google your work and see who’s discussing it. Comment on it. Start your own blog, if you dare. But don’t reject the blogosphere out of hand, even the cruder bits. Many of your colleagues (especially the younger ones) are out here talking about you, and, as with colonoscopies, it’s much better to be a discussant than a subject.