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To post or not to post

PLoS ONE launched with an impressive roster of papers and we have continued to publish both quality and volume over the last 8 weeks. Two hundred odd papers in less than two months is a massive vindication of the publishing concepts behind PLoS ONE. The amount of users commenting on the papers published is less substantial which is much as I expected at this point. Nevertheless it is time for users to start exploring the full range of possibilities that PLoS ONE offers.

It is clear that commenting on a PLoS ONE paper, let alone annotating one, can be a daunting prospect if you comments are presented right alongside the paper itself. Readers want to think about what they are going to say rather than make off-the-cuff remarks. PLoS ONE papers aren’t a blog entry where all activity will be pretty much over within a couple of days. PLoS ONE papers are part of the scientific record and will be read and commented on for years to come.

This contrast with a blog was brought home very sharply in the case of the paper “By Hook or by Crook? Morphometry, Competition and Cooperation in Rodent Sperm” by Simone Immler, Harry Moore, William Breed and Tim Birkhead. It was published two weeks ago and got a fair bit of press and new coverage, if you missed it the paper is about the prevalence of hooks on the ends of rodent sperm which allows them to join up into ‘sperm-trains’ and so swim faster than they would individually. Species with more sperm competition are more likely to have well developed hooks.

The point here is that there is only a single comment made on that paper. What the comment does is point out to a posting about the paper on the Gene Expression blog. That posting has twenty five associated comments which form a really good discussion of the underlying evolutionary pressures which might favour this behaviour.

I think that it is a shame that this discussion didn’t take place in closer association with the paper itself; I almost copied it verbatim across. What I assume is that the informality of a blog has appeals that commenting directly on the paper does not yet have. Rather than fight that, from this week on I will try and facilitate it by posting as an entry on this Blog pithy summaries of the papers highlighted in the New and Noted section of the home page. By providing threads for informal commenting on PLoS ONE papers I hope that I can encourage more readers to interact with papers on the PLoS ONE site itself.

The first three of these postings are:

Orphan chromosomes find their way home

Kiwis see no profit in night vision


Pseudomonas demonstrates buffering by biodiversity

We have some other ideas to encourage commenting on PLoS ONE papers which I will blog about soon. We really do want papers to be a basis for dynamic scientific conversations rather than unchanging markers of research past.

And of course there is a bet involved. Phil Campbell, Editor of Nature, bet me a bottle of champagne that online commenting on articles would not have taken off within a year. The isn’t up until the 21st December but it is a bet that we have no intention of losing. Expect to hear more about the Champagne Challenge in the coming months as well.

  1. One thing that you might want to encourage is that the authors themselves get into the feedback process. When you launched, I put an annotation and discussion topic on a paper that interested me. As of yet, not even the authors have responded. Perhaps you can encourage dialogue by sending notices to authors once their papers have received comments. If people see an article with more comments and responses, they’ll be more likely to jump into the fray themselves.

  2. That is a very good point. What is wanted is a way to alert authors when comments are made on their papers. That system isn’t in place yet but should be working wihin a week or so.

  3. Chris

    One of the problems as I see it is the mechanism for commenting. Annotations are easy. Just highlight and comment. But the discussion aspect, probably the most important one, is a little difficult at best. Here are the problems I see

    Feeds – If I could have custom feeds for topics that interest me, I’d be doing a lot of commenting right there. Right now, it’s difficult to keep up.

    Community – PLoS One for all its goodness, still feels like a repository of papers as opposed to a place which fosters communication and discussion. That probably explains why there is commentary on the GXP blog. Perhaps one way around it would be to grab discussion about a paper and display it next to the paper itself. That way, it becomes a portal of scientific discussion in itself.

  4. Deepak,

    I’m not going to disagree with. Hopefully you should see some improvements in the very near future. Better browsing by subject should be in place in a matter of weeks. Feeds by subject are high on our priority list too.

    I like the idea of displaying paper and comments adjacent to one another. That was something that was in the design of the PLoS ONE site originally but ended up on the cutting room floor in order to get at least the bare bones launched before the end of 2006. Time to think about including it in ‘The Director’s Cut’

  5. Chris

    That would be great. The part about displaying online “chatter” about a paper next to it would be very useful. PLoS One should be part of the overall online ecosystem rather than a standalone entity, which is what I believe you want.

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