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Digitizing the Coin of the Realm

Electronic publication has transformed the culture of scientific communication

Francis L. Macrina

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The online revolution has changed the way papers are read and evaluated after they’re published. Studies were once critiqued in formal letters and reviews—often published in the same journals as the original papers—and in journal clubs and discussions. The visibility and pace of those critiques have exploded with the advent of blogs and other online venues.

For example, an initiative called Faculty of 1000 was established in the early 2000s as a corporate endeavor to provide post-publication peer review online. The program selects and enlists scientists, termed faculty, to scan the literature and comment each month on the papers they consider most interesting. Their reviews, which highlight good articles and provide constructive criticism, are available by subscription. Subscribers may also log in and comment on any evaluated article, but the site is systematically monitored for inappropriate commentary. Abusive, defamatory or otherwise offensive remarks can be reported and may be deleted by the service provider.

Such consistent controls are not necessarily in place on independent blogs, which have also taken on an increasingly visible role in post-publication peer review. One notable example began to unfold in 2010, when Science magazine published online a research paper about a bacterium isolated from arsenic-rich lake sediments. The authors reported that this organism could incorporate arsenic, instead of the usual phosphorus, into its DNA. The biological implications of the work were huge, and the paper got considerable exposure in the media. It also attracted scrutiny from scientists who used their blogs to offer a variety of critical comments. But these evaluations were met with disdain by the paper’s authors, who said they would only respond to critiques that had been peer reviewed and vetted by Science. Rather than engage with their critics, the authors simply asked scientists to work to reproduce the controversial results. This attitude prompted the journal Nature to publish an editorial which asserted that there is indeed a role for blogging in the assessment of published results. Still, for some scientists, the speed and directness of unvetted digital criticism popped up unexpectedly. A subsequent news article in Nature, cleverly titled “Trial by Twitter,” claimed that “blogs and tweets are ripping papers apart within days of publication, leaving researchers unsure how to react.”

That may be so. But fast-forward a few months for a completely different take on the social networking of scientific data. One of the largest outbreaks of potentially lethal Escherichia coli infections began in Germany in May 2011. In about six weeks, there were more than 3,000 cases and 36 deaths. Scientists on multiple continents shared biological samples and used online media such as Twitter, wikis and blogs to compile their data. Within 10 days of the recognition of the outbreak, the entire genomic sequence of one of the isolated E. coli strains was available on the Internet. As I write, data analysis is still underway, but the collaborative research has already yielded new and valuable information about the E. coli strains involved. The speed and real-time availability of this genetic analysis is unprecedented and underscores a powerful use of digital social media in the dissemination of new scientific knowledge.

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