Editor Geoffrey North of Current Biology is clearly losing his sleep over blogs and that is a good thing.
I think there is a clear good side, illustrated by cases where papers making very radical claims on shaky grounds are published in high-profile journals to large media acclaim.
The dude is so worried about blogs, he could not use the word good without quotes, yet went on to make his own radical claims.
Here we have a healthy system operating in such a way as to correct, in timely fashion, a mistake in the scientific literature the timeliness is particularly important in such a case, as the doubts were raised so soon after the initial media reaction, while the issue was still very much in the air.
But there is also, I think, a danger here, which lies in the very speed of response, and the way that blogs are essentially vanity publications which lack the constraints of more conventional publishing they are not reviewed, and do not even have to pass the critical eye of any editor. In principle, anyone can write a blog and criticize anything they do not have to have any specific expertise. And the criticism can be picked up, advertised and amplified, for example by Twitter, by those who feel a post supports their agenda.
Such criticism can of course be harmful at the least there tends to be a no smoke without fire effect. And once a scientific reputation has been tainted, it can be hard to restore confidence.
Actually, very few scientists are as worried about blogs as the guardians of the ‘healthy system’, and the reason would be apparent by putting the spotlight what Geoffrey North describes as healthy. An author of textbook on evolution wrote a rebuttal about ENCODE’s hyped up claims that textbooks need to be rewritten based on their ‘discoveries’, and here is what the journal editors made him go through.
The publication process was not an easy one. The paper was first submitted to Trends in Genetics on 11/11/2013, but three weeks later, the editor, a certain Rhiannon Macrae, told us that he only has one review, but that was irrelevant since he cannot consider the article anyway because it is too long. That was very weird; three weeks to count the words in a text? His letter, moreover, hinted that he would breathe more easily if we withdrew the paper, so we did. We did, however, get the single review by email.
This very weird review had three parts. The first summarized the situation as Graur is mad, and not entirely without cause. The only reason justifying our being mad, according to this reviewer were the excessive claims surrounding the major ENCODE paper having given ammunition to intelligent designers. The second part of the review characterized our many analyses and discussions as being little better than invective, ridicule, snickers, sarcasm, polemics, excesses, silliness, superficiality, haphazardness, irrelevancies, zingers, and slander. These insults and their many synonyms were contained in a review about one page in length. Only DNA is packed more efficiently. The third part of the review contained a summary: It would be good for Trends in Genetics to publish a reasoned and dispassionate critical essay on this topic by someone of Graurs stature, but not him. Of course at 63 (192 cm), I knew that I had some stature in molecular evolution; nonetheless the stature part supplied amusement to my friends and family for many days.
Our paper was, then, submitted to Genome Biology and Evolution and was sent to seven reviewers. This number is, in my opinion, unprecedented. The seven reviews + the comments by the editor ran over many pages, and after two rounds of revisions (for which we were extremely grateful), the paper was out.
You want another one? Check the following link, where a good paper was rejected for no good reason.
We can go on and on about how peer review system is not working. Blogs are doing their right job, which is to keep journal editors worried about losing their journal’s reputation by allowing too many sensational junk papers.