How Should Science Deal with Online Comments?

By Neuroskeptic | November 13, 2015 3:46 pm

COPE, an organization who issue widely-adopted best practice guidelines in science and scholarly publishing, recently issued a new set of advice for journal editors on responding to allegations of errors or misconduct posted online.


This is a hot topic at the moment, largely due to the rise of PubPeer, a (mostly) anonymous message board in which any scientist can comment on any published scientific paper. PubPeer has been responsible for the discovery of countless cases of fraud, data manipulation, and honest errors. Many journals have retracted papers on the basis of complaints first raised on the site. But a lot of scientists (and some journal editors) are unhappy about being criticized by people whose identities and qualifications are unknown.

COPE’s new guidelines, however, make it clear that anonymous online comments should be treated and evaluated in the same way as named ones. COPE say that the real question is whether the allegations “contain specific and detailed evidence to support the claim” of wrongdoing. If such evidence is provided, COPE say, anonymity is not a problem and indeed, “it is important not to try to “out” people who wish to be anonymous”.

I agree. As I’ve argued previously, critical arguments should be judged on their own merits. If I claim there is a flaw in a calculation, or that I’ve found evidence that an image has been doctored, my claim can be checked by looking at said calculation or image: who I am is not relevant.

There’s only one part of the COPE guidance that I would have done differently. This is where they say that “It is important to take the discussion away from the public domain; don’t engage in specific discussions on social media.”

I can see why this was included. There must be an “innocent until proven guilty” presumption when it comes to scientific misconduct. So scientists whose work is criticized have a right to confidentiality, at least until their guilt is proven. Journals should not discuss their handling of a case in public. It would be inappropriate for a journal to say ‘we are considering retracting this paper’, for instance.

But I would say that in most cases “the discussion”, as opposed to the decision making by journals or other organizations, should take place in “the public domain”. If serious allegations have been made on (say) PubPeer, PubPeer is the place to discuss them.

So I would have worded the “public domain” statement differently. I’d have said that journal editors should not breach confidentiality on social media, but that this should not be construed to mean that allegations posted on social media should be taken “behind closed doors” and only then debated seriously.

Link: Three years ago I discussed How to Respond to Criticism more generally.

  • ld_elon

    Know how to respond, babe. ;|

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  • Thomas Browne

    Unless and until COPE enforces its own guidelines, really suggestions blithely ignored by editors and publishers, these matters must remain in the public domain.

    Forums such as PubPeer do the job that unaccountable reviewers, editors and publishers refuse to do.

    “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial
    diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric
    light the most efficient policeman.” Brandeis

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  • Boris Barbour

    (Disclaimer, I’m involved with PubPeer).

    Presuming innocence should not be a reason to keep the data backing a publication secret, even if the data provides further evidence for misconduct. The authors chose freely to publish. Readers of the publication should be able to evaluate the supporting data for themselves, especially if a concern has been raised. By all means, keep the blame-storming confidential, but not the data.

    A partial solution, that we are beginning to see, is for the journal to apply an expression of concern on the paper until things are resolved. That also has the advantage of correctly making the authors responsible for clarifying concerns about their publication.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Agreed. We need as much openness as possible.

  • Uncle Al

    PubPeer has been responsible for the discovery of countless cases of fraud, data manipulation, and honest errors. ” The managerial problem is PubPeer perseverative insubordination. Government demonstrates two eternal truths:

    1) Ending surveillance ends all problems. Finance, fraud, and enforcement oversights must be oversights for the system to run.
    2) Intense surveillance is useless. The NSA grabs every byte of digital and analogue information, plus capturing all To: and From: addresses on snail mail. For all that, the NSA knows nothing.

    Example: Obamacare is the most expensive, most fraudulent, and least deliverable healthcare modality in the history of mankind. Its costs viciously exponentiate as its deliverables fiercely degenerate – especially for those who pay full fare. Don’t look, don’t report, no problem.

  • Mattia Marotta

    God exists.

    • Neuroskeptic

      But does He post anonymous comments?

      • Mattia Marotta

        Probably not. But God is not a “he”. And this is my real name.

      • OWilson

        God does not condone ad hominem attacks.

        It’s somewhere in the Bible, I’m sure!

        • Mattia Marotta

          That’s right. But what attacks are you referring to? Thanks

    • Uncle Al

      God is a fabrication of the Devil, who exists (and has a piquant sense of humor).

      • Mattia Marotta

        God exists. The Devil is a fabrication of Mankind.

        • Uncle Al

          You are thus revealed to be Satan’s agent. All denial is verification.

          • Mattia Marotta

            Pathetic. I bend the rules. Your atheist scientists are Satan’s agents

          • OWilson

            Hang in there Mattia.

            If they invoke Satan, you know you must be doing something right :)

          • Mattia Marotta

            I’m not scared of a pathetic old satanist that’s only afraid of death like the rest of them. Elitist my nuts.
            Thank you

  • OWilson

    It would be a lot simpler if some common sense (remember that?) was used.

    All scientific data that was accumulated at taxpayer expense belongs to the taxpayer, period! and should be published on a government website.

    All scientific studies that are referenced in public policy expenditures, ditto.

    It is not even necessary to make an exception for security reasons, as the information would be made available to a select few of our elected representatives, for oversight.

    We could vastly reduce the number of FOI enquiries, but even more importantly with could reduse inter agency law suits, subpoenas and such.
    I don’t think the average person is aware of how much legal wrangling at great expense goes on between the various departments of the same government.
    Email wiping, pleading the Fifth, should not prevent the public’s representatives from knowing what is going on at the WH, IRS, State, Justice, V.A. NSA.
    They have forgotten they work for US, not the other way around!

  • From Morocco

    The discussion MUST continue in public domain:
    – Some are constructive may contribute to scientific debate;
    – It’s a deterrent for fraudsters.

  • From Morocco

    To Mattia Marotta, OWilson , Neuroskeptic

    Those who add this clause in the COPE guidance “It is important to take the discussion away from the public domain; don’t engage in specific discussions on social media.” will confront at least level 1 of Hell “Limbo: The uppermost circle is not a place of punishment so much as regret. Those who have committed no scientific sins per se, but who have turned a blind eye to them” The Nine Circles of Scientific Hell [Neuroskeptic (2012) Perspectives on Psychological Science 7(6) 643–644]

    However, there is a room for redemption, simply by suppressing this clause!

    Be reasonable, who’s afraid of discussion in public domain?

    Of course, the sinners = the fraudsters!

  • From Morocco

    Hi OWilson,
    I’ve seen some commentaries on God, atheism; so, I’ve given a religious/totalitarian connotation
    to my comment! The reference is a “sacred” paper of Neuroskeptic “The Nine Circles of Scientific Hell”.

    NB. I do believe wholeheartedly in freedom of expression.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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