The Dutch experimental psychologist Daniel Lakens asked this question on his website, and I thought it was worth distilling for mine, since I have had a lot to do with journals and more recently with websites. There has been a deal of discussion recently about the lack of effective replication in both the medical area and others, so the rules about publication are worth thinking about. Before the ‘peer review’ cheer squad starts to chant, I should tell you that Lakens’s goal is to improve the quality of journal articles, not to replace articles with blog posts. He offers five reasons why, nevertheless, blog posts might be better, and the whole essay is worth reading, along with the Comments.
One of the commenters pointed out, quite reasonably, that the quality of most journal articles is abysmal. Even when the science is good the language can be terrible, and the accessibility to anyone outside the five hundred or so who know this tiny area will be close to Nil. Improving the quality of what is published in journals is of great importance. An important caveat is that Lakens is speaking about his own area, experimental psychology. It may be different in different ways and to different degrees in other areas, and he says so.
Anyway, what are his five reasons? What follows is a mixture of his text and my summarisation. The text will be in italics.
- Blogs have Open Data, Code, and Materials
When you want to evaluate scientific claims, you need access to the raw data, the code, and the materials. Most journals do not (yet) require authors to make their data publicly available (whenever possible). In many journals there is no such stipulation, in others the expectation is that you the researcher would provide the materials if asked. Lakens says in one case you only have to share data when asked to by ‘competent professionals’ for the goal to ‘verify claims’, and that these researchers can charge money to compensate any costs that are made when they have to respond to a request for data.
Some journals in the climate science field do insist on the provision of data code and related materials. Most seem not to do so, which means that those interested in exploring further have to engage in a never-ending email cycle. And it means that there is no way of knowing whether or not the claims made are valid or not.
- Blogs have Open Peer Review
Peer review came into being in the early twentieth century when the volume and breadth of what was being provided exceeded the editor’s knowledge. It is a form of quality control, but it is only a small guide to anything. Having been a peer reviewer myself, over a long period, I have been unimpressed with its general quality. Lakens has a nice comment on it: The quality of the peer review process is as high as the quality of the peers that were involved in the review process. The peer review process was as biased as the biases of the peers that were involved in the review process. And, a little further, Most low quality journals (e.g., Science, Nature) have 100% closed peer review, and we don’t even know the name [of] the handling editor of a publication. It is often impossible to know whether articles were peer reviewed to begin with, and what the quality of the peer review process was.
Now in the case of blogs, and Lakens is talking about blogs like his, where a serious scientist is discussing his own and related science, there is instant peer review — unless you block it by censoring particular views or people. Blog peer review is above all transparent. You know what is being argued and you know who is arguing it — Lakens will not publish a comment that has only a pseudonym for the author. I have never thought that necessary for my blog, but if I was doing what Lakens is doing I might well make complete transparency a rule for commenters.
- Blogs have no Eminence Filter
An ’eminence filter’ is pretty obvious: you get heard if you are somebody important. I have certainly seen that in journals, and especially at academic conferences. The blog, Lakens says, is an egalitarian and democratic medium. I’m not so sure about that. It costs money to set up and maintain a website, so that cuts out people who might have something to say but can’t afford their own medium in which to say it. But it is true that who you are counts for little in the blogosphere. And that has some effects that can be unfortunate. I have noticed that many of the orthodox ‘names’ in climate science refrain from dealing with major essays on blogs because of the criticisms they receive, not from the blog host, but from the other commenters. Yes, and some commenters don’t do the work, take the discussion off into areas they like to talk about, and engage in machine-gunning from the side. Serious readers skip past those commenters, but they can be a bore.
- Blogs have Better Error Correction
If you make an error in a journal article, and realise it after the event, no one will ever know unless they write to you and you tell them. The mechanics of it all are just too difficult. A couple of journals I am familiar with do add ‘errata’ to the next issue or even to later issues, but even in these cases the errata are slips added between the pages, not part of the published journal itself. If I make an error here and somebody points it out, I can correct it, and leave a comment myself to thank the alert reader. Sometimes too much is happening and I forget to do so, but in general, errors on blog posts can be fixed at once. Both Anthony Watts and Judith Curry do this as a matter of course. It follows, says Lakens, that blog posts are likely to be more error-free than journal articles.
Lakens says: … I would consider my blogs more error-free, and of higher quality. There are some reasons why you can not just update scientific articles (we need a stable scientific record), and there might be arguments for better and more transparent version control of blog posts, but for the consumer, it’s just very convenient that mistakes can easily be fixed in blogs, and that you will always read the best version.
- Blogs are Open Access (and might be read more)
Blogs are read, and are accessible, says Lakens, and most journal articles are not. Getting figures about all this is difficult, as he points out. I would agree with him on that. This website has a pretty consistent amount of traffic. Most of these essays are read about a thousand times in the first four weeks, and keep being read, though in much smaller numbers, for a year or more after that. I’ve lost count of how many unique individuals have visited here in the five years since it started, but it must be approaching 70,000. I doubt that I would have many more readers if I were writing in the local newspaper. And the great advantage is that commenters are quick to comment, and others to discuss. That is not the case much with newspapers and hardy at all in academic journals.
I’ll let Lakens finish, for I generally agree with him.
First, It is my opinion that blogs, on average, score better on some core scientific values, such as open data and code, transparency of the peer review process, egalitarianism, error correction, and open access.
And, I am not recommending we stop publishing in journals, but I want to challenge the idea that journal publications are the gold standard of scientific output. They fall short on some important dimensions of scientific quality, where they are outperformed by blog posts. Pointing this out might inspire some journals to improve their current standards.