Blogs have an important role to play in making science accessible and fun.  We’re used to seeing blogs used to highlight and wax lyrical about interesting findings, disseminate critical scientific thought, and pass judgement on good and bad practice.  They provide a quick and easy way of making editorial-style scientific commentary available to anyone with a passing interest, without the need for a subscription to a journal or for membership of a professional body. What we’re not used to seeing is the primary publication of data through blogs.  Why not?

On the face of it, blogs would seem to be a perfect publication medium.  By choosing to publish my data on my blog:
1) I can cut out the delays that plague the publication process;
2) I can make my research accessible to everyone who is interested;
3) and they won’t need to pay a penny for it;
4) I can start a genuine comment-driven dialogue with interested readers;
5) I can bypass that pesky peer-review process;
6) and I can even eliminate the (sometimes outrageous) cost of publication.
Even if I’d rather stick with the tried-and-tested journals for my multi-experiment masterpieces, there must be preliminary data dissemination niche that blogs can fill.  It’s surely only a matter of time before I start publishing my exciting new data on this blog, isn’t it?

I don’t think so.  Here’s why:

1) Journals are beginning to recognise the frustration felt over publication delays.  At the moment, delays are an inherent part of scientific publication for print.  Yes, these delays slow the process down, but they are becoming less of a problem as journals move towards making digital content available from the ‘in-press’ stage.  Of course this doesn’t eliminate the 18 months it took to get the first reviews back, collect the additional data, resubmit, get the second review back, think about how to answer two of the main criticisms and deflect the third without causing offence, submit your third draft, etc. but that’s a problem with peer-review (see point 5 below), not the publication medium itself.

2) Most research isn’t interesting to the non-specialist – that’s why it’s so hard to get published in Nature, Science or even Psychological Science.  We may all believe that our research is directly relevant to the general public,we may even have to assert that in order to obtain grant-funding and excel in academic assessment exercises like th REF, but for most people, even eventual users of the fruit of your scientific loins, this relevance is generally a few steps away from being engaging to read about in its methodological minutiae.  If you don’t need to make your research easy to find for those with only a passing interest, then you may as well make it easy to find for those with a vested interest, such as those who also spend their lives researching the same thing as you.  It is here that the efficiency of a journal as a news aggregator kicks in.  Rather than check hundreds of blogs a day, I can set up RSS feeds for only a few tables of contents and I’m done.

3) Open Access journals are a game-changer.  Journals are masters of the paywall.  This is a serious issue hampering the scientist’s obligation to make his or her work available to the public.  But it seems like this is on the verge of changing.  In the U.S., federally funded research is more accessible to the general public than it used to be, regardless of the journal in which it is published.  Perhaps in tandem with this mandate for public accessibility, Open Access journals are gaining momentum for a number of reasons: the transparency of their review process; the 21st century supplementary data they allow you to upload; and, of course, the ‘open access’ they offer to the science they publish.  The cost of open access publishing is usually shouldered by the publishing scientist, but at least it’s only shouldered once, not every time the science is disseminated as is the case with closed access journals.

4) If the net has an opinion on your work, it will comment on it.  There is usually no official, internet-based, comment-driven dialogue with readers when articles are published in traditional journals.  Whilst internet comments sometimes display humanity at its most idiotic, they are a part of the way the internet operates and lacking in traditional scientific publication.  I am sure that that as the scientific community settles on a standard method of obtaining information about recently published articles online (e.g. through RSS feeds or sites such as a method of commenting that meets the needs of scientists will evolve.  I’m already seeing scientific articles highlighted in the Explore section of my Google Reader RSS aggregator (they’re usually way off the mark, but at least they’re popping up), and with Google desperate to get in on the social web I don’t think it will be long before scientific abstracts are presented to us in such a way that they afford comments, whether they are wanted or not.  In the meantime, I recently discovered that if people find your work interesting, they will find ways to get hold of it and write about it online in a way that is much more comment friendly.

5) Peer review isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we have.  As far as scientific scrutiny goes it’s also better than editorial review in newspapers or journals, and beats no reviewer whatsoever (the sort of review I subject my writing to when I publish it on this blog).  Plenty has been written about this and it is a a contentious topic, but I’m happy with the process as long as there isn’t any systematic bias in the way in which articles are reviewed by my peers.

6) Low-traffic blogs are free, journals are not – this is the only point on which blogs beat journals.  Journals need to choose whether they are going to charge to publish your work, or for access to your work – the double-dipping they currently engage in is unacceptable.  With open access gaining popularity, I’m fairly certain that journals will start charging more for the privilege of providing them with content (without which they would fold within a matter or months) and less for providing it thereafter – they’ll probably make exactly as much money when they switch over to fully open access as they do now.  Even so, there is an argument to be made that journals do provide value for money, for the scientist at least.  As an example, imaging research doesn’t happen unless you have a grant.  If you have a grant, then the exorbitant cost of publication is shouldered by the funding body, not you.  Behavioural journals don’t tend to charge anywhere near as much for publication and these costs could potentially be funded by your employer.  In both of these situations, if you have been able to conduct my research, you should be able to publish it in a journal your data and/or writing are good enough.  Of course, I would love it if the NIH decided they wanted to challenge publishers on their costs, and as they are the ones being fleeced (directly at least) – but taking this passive position leaves me rather uneasy.

Feel free to have your say in the comments below as I’m sure there are many issues I’ve glossed over or missed altogether.

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