Discourse give me hives

But a fascinating lesson in scientific discourse is currently underway in the blogosphere. It all started with a harmless little analysis of a letter published in NEJM. The strange part (to those of us who live here) was that the authors responded. On the blog. For real. And they were kinda pissed (in the American sense of the word; I have no idea if they’d been drinking, but probably not. After all, they’re not bloggers).

Communication in medical research is slow. In general, this can be a good thing. Before research is published in a respected journal, it should be thoroughly reviewed. Follow up letters to the editor are necessarily few and delayed, given the nature of the medium.

Blogs are changing this. More and more scientists and physicians are blogging about peer-reviewed research, and how this will affect scientific discourse is anyone’s guess.

Science writing has its forms. All journals have rules as to how submissions should be written, and this standardization is generally a good thing. In real life, we also have something known as “journal club”, where a research article is presented and discussed, usually in a less formal setting. And now we have blogs, were strangers from all over the world can discuss the latest research without traditional limitations.

The medium, the message

Blogospheric neophytes may find this medium rather anarchic compared to standard academic fare. There are blogs written in staid academic prose, and others that are not so, um, formal. Many bloggers adopt an informal conversational style, some a confrontational profanity-laden style, but like any medium, style and substance can be rather confounded.

Rather than thinking of the blogosphere as an “alternative” to journals, I prefer to think of it as an ongoing discussion. Some folks will chose the G-rated room, others will prefer to break out the cricket bats and have at it. Either way, if I were an author, I’d be happy that folks were discussing my work. Often, a brief correspondence to NEJM pretty much stops there. The internet tends to extend discussions, and sometimes otherwise-small work will become much more visible. It may even attract the attention of folks in related fields, as it did in this case.

The internet can amplify scientific dialog, and bring diverse ideas to people who might otherwise miss out on subjects outside their usual field of study.

The messenger(s)

Bloggers are freaks—sociopathic, malodorous, reclusive freaks. Or so it sometimes seems. Blogging allows writers much more stylistic freedom than other media. Real life personae and online personalities are often discordant. The culture of pseudonymity is often misinterpreted in this regard.

Pseudonymity is a big part of blog culture. Often a pseudonym starts as a desire to remain anonymous, but even when a blogger “outs” themselves, they often retain their ‘nym. We’ve been having an active discussion around here in preparation for ScienceOnline09, and more questions have been asked than answered. Pseudonymity may allow writers a little more freedom but most of us realize that we may eventually be outed. There appears to be a bit of a consensus from comments at Abel’s place that a blogger’s real identity isn’t as important as what they’ve written.

This fact in and of itself is amazing. In medicine, we are slowly emerging from the days of reputation-based medicine, and moving into the era of science-based medicine. Not that the smartest of us aren’t respected, but the culture of “show me the data” is becoming the norm. In some ways, pseudonymity eliminates the bias of stature and allows writing to be judged more on its merits.

“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 colonscopies, it’s much better to be a discussant than a subject.


  1. As you might suspect, I’ve also 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, as you state, it 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.

    I was going to put up a post on this but you’ve saved me some time. Your final paragraph is pretty spot on even though you are about as old as I.

    btw, congratulations on earning the HONcode certification!

  2. I have shirts that are older than the internet—at least a few that my wife hasn’t found and trashed.

  3. Chris H.

    I claim to being an idiot.

    I saw an article in my local paper, and what numbers they used I calculated a mere 4.7% change in heart attack rates. So I just figured it was within the range of random chance and showed no real difference (p=5%). Especially when a doctor from Northwestern Univ.’s medical school said there were more preventable things to worry about in terms of heart attacks (cholesterol, weight, blood pressure, etc).

    Now that I have learned it was not a real paper, but just a letter accepted to a medical journal. My engineering heart/brain is even less impressed (oh, that reminds me… time to take my statin!).

  4. llewelly

    I have shirts that are older than the internet

    I was 9 months old when the internet was born.

  5. Hey now! I may be a sociopathic recluse, but I do NOT smell! Neither am I in bad order or remotely ‘malordorous’. I am an organized and neat sociopathic recluse, and don’t you forget it!

    But as science bloggers, do we have an obligation to the people we blog about to be polite? Obviously celebrity bloggers do not tend to suffer this crisis of conscience, but then they’re not trying to start a discussion. On the other hand, I think there’s something to be said for speaking casually and not surrounding everything you say with false humble platitudes and the passive voice. I know there’s been discussion on whether we have an obligation to our readers and commenters, but what about the scientists we blog on?

  6. D. C. Sessions

    OK, so I’m a dinosaur. Just call me Sid.

    However, form does matter and a properly threaded exchange with interspersed quotations (per Usenet) is arguably the best exchange format since the Talmud. The Talmud only wins because Usenet is still linear while the Talmud is two-dimensional, and that only by post-editing.

  7. Is it time to write a cartoon with naked eight year olds who are married?

    Blogging is… like glittery vaginas (serious business!)
    …like a colonoscopy (much better to be a discussant than a subject)
    … like the Talmud (but with hyperlinks!)

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