Are the dinosaur publishers waking up?

cell1293lrg.gifThere’s mention of a number of science blogs in the current issue of the journal Cell, in an article called “Scientists enter the Blogosphere”, by Laura Bonetta.

I’ve always considered Cell and its sister journal Neuron to be the very best of all the life science journals. Compare a Cell/ Neuron paper to a Nature/ Science paper. A paper in Nature or Science is a scientific soundbite about a set of experiments; with it comes a great deal of prestige and, perhaps, a moment in the mass media spotlight – 9 out of 10 science stories that get into the media are from one of these journals. A Cell or Neuron paper, on the other hand, is an in-depth description of the experiments with a thorough discussion of the background and the implications of the findings. Now compare the number of errata in Cell/ Neuron to the number in Nature/ Science. A large proportion of the prestigous soundbites have to be corrected soon after publication, but this is not the case for papers published in the lesser known but more scholarly journals.

So congratulations are in order to all the bloggers mentioned. It seems like the prehistoric traditional scientific publishing houses are beginning to realize the potential of weblogs. Although Nature published a list of the top 50 science blogs last year, it was meant as a novelty story. The article in Cell, together with the controversial little spectacle that took place at Retrospectacle about two weeks ago (which I should have mentioned at the time, but which I won’t go into now), show that blogs are really starting to break through into the realm once occupied solely by the publishers, who seem to recognize, at least tacitly, that blogs can be legitimate sources of scientific information.

Regarding the fair use fiasco at Retrospectacle, Nikhil Swaminathan, writing on one of Scientific American blogs, has this to say:

…do the scientists at Kasetsart University in Thailand and the US Department of Agriculture Research Service…care that their charts and graphs were used by [Shelley] Batts in a scholarly manner, but in a venue that most of us don’t feel is that scholarly?

A discussion on the topic will be taking place here, on ScienceBlogs. But, I’d love to hear from some scientists to get an idea of whether the dissemination of their work via blogs is viewed as productive or not.

I have several responses to this. First, and most importantly, does Swaminathan not see that Wiley’s actions were a knee-jerk response to what they regard as a potential threat to a lucrative industry based on restricted access to scientific data? Second, has he not noticed that Shelley, and many of the others who write science blogs, are themselves scientists who are well qualified to analyze others’ data, and that quite a few science blogs are as scholarly as, if not more so, than conventional sources of scientific information such as New Scientist, the AAAS and SciAm? Third, the number of people who read Shelley’s post is probably larger than the number than who read the original paper, which was in an obscure publication called the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. If I were one of the authors of the paper, I’d be overjoyed about the extra coverage that my work is getting. And finally, these comments, left on blog posts I’ve written by the senior authors of the papers discussed in the posts, may give Swaminathan some idea of whether or not “real” scientists think it is productive for people to blog about their work: Ed Boyden on this post, Ed Callaway on this one and Luca Turin on this one. There are others, but I can’t remember which posts they’re on.

5 thoughts on “Are the dinosaur publishers waking up?

  1. Exactly! I have received thanks and praise (by e-mail or in the comments of relevant posts) from people whose papers (or books or articles) I wrote about, including Elizabeth Lloyd, Chris Steele, Indrani Ganguly, Sara Aton and Eric Herzog (off the top of my head – there were more).

  2. Very nice post. Though to be fair, I don’t think the difference in the number of errata in Nature/Science is caused only by their penchant for spectacular, unexpected (and thus sometimes flawed) research. Surely, the sheer impact factor of the journal also plays in – since your work is read by a far wider audience, errors are more likely to be detected.

  3. Thank you for mentioning Scienceroll! I’m pretty sure about that the weird aim (covering the whole genome before 2082) of Gene genie resulted in such a great success. 🙂 Anyway, the next issue is due to be published this night at Scienceroll.

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