Astronomy 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rapid communication of astronomical news (e.g., the explosion of a new supernova) which have completely replaced the outdated IAU circulars (which were also quite expensive).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 !