Why do astronomers not leave feedbacks on papers ?

paperAstronomy is a very fast evolving science and astronomers have always been at the forefront when using the latest web technologies. We astronomers use the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS), a great bibliographic database that contains an enormous amount of papers published in astronomy, astrophysics and physics in the last century or so. We also use the Astronomer’s Telegram, a free online service used for rapid communication of astronomical news (e.g., the explosion of a new supernova) which have completely replaced the outdated IAU circulars (which were also quite expensive).  Another fantastic web service is arXiv a wonderful open access pre-print service where we post our papers before or right after they are published on peer-reviewed journals.

This is all fantastic and few other scientific fields are so advanced on the web as is astronomy. However, retrieving papers from ADS, Atel and/or arXiv is a passive action, in the sense that the readers are left with the article and their own judgement of the published work. The only way to discuss the quality or the implications of a paper today is to discuss this in your own research group, discuss this via email with a small number of people or just go to a conference and talk about that paper. Nothing wrong with this of course, since this is the primary job of a scientist.

However, modern technologies allow a much faster and broader contribution to the discussion.  So why don’t we make this process more active and allow the submission of feedbacks to papers posted on arXiv ? To avoid uncontrolled posting one can use a registration system (as the one already used to post on arXiv and Atel). Then your name appears in the comments so if you want to say something you take responsibility for what you say. Every single reader of a paper can follow the discussion and the authors can reply, if they want to. An objection to this is that the authors might be buried with questions and they’ll never have time to reply to all of them. However, there are simple solutions to this. For example the feedback system can stay open only for a limited amount of time (e.g., 1 month since the first posting), or the feedback service can be interrupted after a maximum number of comments and so on…

Imagine the amazing advantage of this: if you spot a horrible mistake in a paper you can immediately say so. If you want some information on how the authors have carried their research then you’ve a good chance. If you haven’t understood some details of a paper the authors can answer to your questions. Or other readers can just answer to your questions, rather than the authors themselves. Great advantages also for the authors too: what an opportunity it is to clarify obscure details of a paper, discuss your work with a large community and perhaps create further opportunities for new collaborations ?

Imagine how much can the quality of a scientific paper improve in this way…I think it’s time we astronomers move forward without fear on this new other great opportunity the web has to offer !

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5 thoughts on “Why do astronomers not leave feedbacks on papers ?

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    1. Not if the answers are signed with your real name. 🙂
      Then if your post is silly you’ll look silly.
      We should take responsibility for what we publish and say in public.

  1. There’s a more subtle concern: things you write can be casual or carefully thought out, and they could be private and ephemeral or public and archived. Certain combinations of the above are problematic: for example twitter is meant to be an off-the-cuff medium, but when it’s public worldwide and archived forever, people can be seriously embarrassed by their comments, later. Scientific papers are (or should be) way over at the well-thought-out end of the spectrum, which fits well with their public and permanent nature. Comments tend to be more off-the-cuff, but archiving them right alongside the paper makes them very public and permanent. In practice I suspect this would make people much more hesitant to ask questions they are afraid might be dumb or raise criticisms they are afraid might be wrong. Which limits the utility of such commenting spaces.

    1. I think you’re right on the fact that comments might be not so well-thought as papers are. However, one should switch perspective and accept the fact that we might be not so carefull when posting comments and do not expect perfection when reading them. The comments should be considered a medium to achieve a better science, more reproducibility and easier understanding of the argument that a paper discusses. I think all of this is overwhelmingly better than winning a bit of embarassment. Wouldn’t conferences be terribly boring if no one would keep thinking “my question might be considered stupid by the audience, better I shut up” ? I have the feeling (also by looking at what some people said on my Facebook post) that most people are more concerned about appearing good and smart and so boost their careers than producing science of the best quality…

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