“Why aren’t there comments on academic articles?” someone asked me over coffee (yes, I have exciting coffee conversations). “People should point out how silly a lot of this stuff is.”
I shrugged. “Politics,” I said. “Look at the head of any lab: they’ll rip apart a paper in their lab meetings, and then won’t say much in public. They need to keep a congenial public face because those other scientists will be reviewing their papers.”
The truth is there are comment sections on a lot of scientific articles, they are just barely used, or are used poorly (random rants, irrelevant commentary, etc.)
My companion suggested that what we really need is a journal offering critical commentary on other articles: and not just the bad, but the good as well. What does this really say? What is interesting or uninteresting?
This is the Journal of Invited Dissent. Would it work? Probably not: there is too much incentive to keep the veneer of bland congeniality in public. But there is an example of what it might look like (it was not what spurred the conversation above, but it is telling that the problem repeatedly pops up).
Bjorn Brembs has taken exception to an article published in Nature Neuroscience last year. He found the article to be overhyped and under-referenced (though still interesting and useful!). Although he wrote a letter to the editor at NN, they basically shrugged with comments such as “I agree that the article’s tone is a little more breathless than strictly required, but this is the style presently in vogue”.
So he posted the letter to the comments section at PubMed! Something you probably did not even know existed, and are likely to ignore even if you do know of it. And even better, the senior author on the paper publicly responded in the comments!
And these comments illustrate exactly why they are needed: they provide much-needed context outside of the ‘hype’ needed to publish in a high-profile journal. They shine light on the scientific crevices that those few of you who are not experts in motor learning might otherwise pass by.