Monday, March 4, 2013

JACS comment section? Back to the future

It's been a very interesting couple of weeks in the realm of Blog Syn (the beginning of Blog Syn #003A has a roundup for anyone who hasn't been following). People across a number of blogs have noted the importance (or at the very least, usefulness) of chemists participating in social media and rapid web communication (indeed, even Phil Baran's lab has started a blog, despite hegemonic bias against blogging in the field of organic synthesis). 

How can chemists use social media to the greater benefit? Take, for instance, the first comment in Chemjobber's reply to the IBX+water conclusion. Polychem says (bold emphasis mine):
This work makes me think that every paper published on deserves its own comment section. I can imagine it being abused, but there may be some good insights by having essentially a wider peer review where you don't have to pay to print your rebuttal.
Good job Blog Syn people!
 Hmm... a comment section at JACS? Check out this 1996 editorial from the journal! For those stuck outside the paywall, an excerpt:
There is no question that digital computers have had a large impact on the publication of scientific research. JACS uses computers in the management of the journal data base and in production of the journal. Most manuscripts are now submitted in final form as floppy disks, and e-mail is often used for correspondence with authors and reviewers. Recently, especially with the wide accessibility and usage of the World Wide Web (WWW), interest has turned to electronic publishing, i.e., to the posting of manuscripts on the web rather than, or in addition to, producing a hard copy (print) journal. The advantages of electronic publishing include the faster appearance of a paper at a presumed lower cost than printing (with the attendant possibility of wider distribution) as well as the ability to provide materials, like computer programs, movies, color figures, and large amounts of experimental data, not available in the hard copy. Concerns about electronic publishing include the maintenance of the quality and integrity of the published literature, providing for the long-term archiving of papers, and assuring that financial support is available to carry out the needed peer review and maintenance of the archive. These points are discussed in a booklet available from ACS Publications: Will Science Publishing Perish?
Interesting that the ACS proposed lower cost and wider distribution--I wonder if that worked out that way? The last section of the editorial is also a fun read:
JACS Web Page -- An Experiment. The JACS web page (accessible via the ACS publications page at displays instructions for authors, links to supporting information, and the table of contents for the latest issue of the journal. As an experiment we will also try out a section for selected correspondence and comments. Readers can submit, by way of a form available on the web page, scientific comments pertaining to recently published JACS papers. Authors will be asked to reply. Posting of comments will not be automatic. Comments for posting will be selected by the editors and they will not be sent out for review. There will be no appeals for comments not selected. Comments will not be published in hard copy or CD versions of the journal nor will they be archived. We hope these comments will generate interesting discussions and help amplify and clarify ideas and results published in JACS papers. They are not meant to discuss priorities or present still unpublished ideas or results. Additions and corrections will still be published in the printed version of JACS. We hope the level of discussion on the JACS page will be significantly higher than the average WWW newsgroup! This experiment will be terminated if the community feels it is not useful (or if it becomes too burdensome for the editors). At this time we cannot accept manuscripts submitted electronically for review; however, we are investigating the possibility of doing this in the future. As stated at the outset, the science publication field is evolving rapidly. The new possibilities are intriguing, but the community will best be served by an orderly evolution that involves the best features of both the print and electronic media.
It's quite revealing to see the difference between scientific publishing just 17 years ago (oh wow, 1996 was 17 years ago??) and now--after all, electronic submission is de rigueur not only for SI but for main text and for correspondence with reviewers.

More interesting, though: there was a comment section on JACS before the journal even started putting the manuscripts themselves online. Seems like unusually progressive thinking by the ACS!

But if you go to the JACS website now, there's no comment section. What happened to it? A search of editorials from the journal gives no relevant hits and a 2002 editorial discussing other web-based aspects of JACS makes no mention of it. Did it die a quick, fiery death?

Indeed, there's a lot of room for publishers to include the community in scientific discourse. Some do a little: Nature Chemistry, for instance, has a good metrics section that indexes blogs (but no comment section). The ACS journals don't have comments, nor do Taylor & Francis, the RSC journals, Elsevier, or PNAS.

Does anyone do comments?

Yes! Take a look at PLoS One (example article): they have comment section built in to a very slick web interface.

It'll be interesting to see how the face of scientific communication changes over the next few years.


  1. You would have to require some sort of registration though your subscription/organization so that you get truly knowledgeable people commenting.

    1. That's always the rub, isn't it?

      There could always be a combination of real name / pseudonymous / anonymous, with readers allowed to judge weight of comments for themselves. And it wouldn't be difficult to institute an authentication system for 'real names'.

  2. I've wondered if all academic papers should now have comment sections, particularly as we now move into a more open access era. It would need some regulation and I'd imagine that publishers might understandably wish commenters to give their real names. I also wondered if papers could undergo some kind of pre-publication semi-open review process where the paper is published in a restricted access section of the journal but available to view by subscribers or other experts in the field. If the comments were overwhelmingly negative, then perhaps the paper would need to be withdrawn, but if published the comments would also be.

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