Sunday, February 15, 2015

Open peer review and its discontents.

Some days ago, I commented on an arxiv paper that had been promoted by the arxiv blog (which, for all I know, has no official connection with the arxiv). This blogpost had an aftermath that gave me something to think.

Most of the time when I comment on a paper that was previously covered elsewhere, it’s to add details that I found missing. More often than not, this amounts to a criticism which then ends up on this blog. If I like a piece of writing, I just pass it on with approval on twitter, G+, or facebook. This is to explain, in case it’s not obvious, that the negative tilt of my blog entries is selection bias, not that I dislike everything I haven’t written myself.

The blogpost in question pointed out shortcomings of a paper. Trying to learn from earlier mistakes, I was very explicit about what that means, namely that the conclusion in the paper isn’t valid. I’ve now written this blog for almost nine years, and it has become obvious that the careful and polite scientific writing style plainly doesn’t get across the message to a broader audience. If I write that a paper is “implausible,” my colleagues will correctly parse this and understand I mean it’s nonsense. The average science journalist will read that as “speculative” and misinterpret it, either accidentally or deliberately, as some kind of approval.

Scientists also have a habit of weaving safety nets with what Peter Woit once so aptly called ‘weasel words’, ambiguous phrases that allow them on any instance to claim they actually meant something else. Who ever said the LHC would discover supersymmetry? The main reason you most likely perceive the writing on my blog as “unscientific” is lack of weasel words. So I put my head out here on the risk of being wrong without means of backpedalling, and as a side-effect I often come across as actively offensive.

If I got a penny each time somebody told me I’m supposedly “aggressive” because I read Strunk’s `Elements of Style,’ then I’d at least get some money for writing. I’m not aggressive, I’m expressive! And if you don’t buy that, I’ll hit some adjectives over your head. You can find them weasel words in my papers though, in the plenty, with lots of ifs and thens and subjunctives, in nested subordinate clauses with 5 syllable words just to scare off anybody who doesn’t have a PhD.

In reaction to my, ahem, expressive blogpost criticizing the paper, I very promptly got an email from a journalist, Philipp Hummel, who was writing on an article about the paper for, the German edition of Scientific American. His article has meanwhile appeared, but since it’s in German, let me summarize it for you. Hummel didn’t only write about the paper itself, but also about the online discussion around it, and the author’s, mine, and other colleagues’ reaction to it.

Hummel wrote by email he found my blogpost very useful and that he had also contacted the author asking for a comment on my criticism. The author’s reply can be found in Hummel’s article. It says that he hadn’t read my blogpost, wouldn’t read it, and wouldn’t comment on it either because he doesn’t consider this proper ‘scientific means’ to argue with colleagues. The proper way for me to talk to him, he let the journalist know, is to either contact him or publish a reply on the arxiv. Hummel then asked me what I think about this.

To begin with I find this depressing. Here’s a young researcher who explicitly refuses to address criticism on his work, and moreover thinks this is proper scientific behavior. I could understand that he doesn’t want to talk to me, evil aggressive blogger that I am, but that he refuses to explain his research to a third party isn’t only bad science communication, it’s actively damaging the image of science.

I will admit I also find it slightly amusing that he apparently believes I must have an interest talking to him, or in him talking to me. That all the people whose papers I have once commented on show up wanting to talk is stuff of my nightmares. I’m happy if I never hear from them again and can move on. There’s lots of trash out there that needs to be beaten.

That paper and its author, me, and Hummel, we’re of course small fish in the pond, but I find this represents a tension that presently exists in much of the scientific community. A very prominent case was the supposed discovery of “arsenic life” a few years ago. The study was exposed flawed by online discussion. The arsenic authors refused to comment on this, arguing that:
“Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated […] This is a common practice not new to the scientific community. The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.”
Naïve as I am, I thought that theoretical physics is less 19th century than that. But now it seems to me this outdated spirit is still alive also in the physics community. There is a basic misunderstanding here about necessity and use of peer review, and the relevance of scientific publication.

The most important aspect of peer review is that it assures that a published paper has been read at least by the reviewers, which otherwise wouldn’t be the case. Public peer review will never work for all papers simply because most papers would never get read. It works just fine though for papers that receive much attention, and in these cases anonymous reviewers aren’t any better than volunteer reviewers with similar scientific credentials. Consequently, public peer review, when it takes place, should be taken as least as seriously as anonymous review.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that all scientific discourse should be conducted in public. Scientists need private space to develop their ideas. I even think that most of us go out with ideas way too early, because we are under too much pressure to appear productive. I would never publicly comment on a draft that was sent to me privately, or publicize opinions voiced in closed meetings. You can’t hurry thought.

However, the moment you make your paper publicly available you have to accept that it can be publicly commented on. It isn’t uncommon for researchers, even senior ones, to have stage fright upon arxiv submission for this reason. Now you’ve thrown your baby into the water and have to see whether it swims or sinks.

Don’t worry too much, almost all babies swim. That’s because most of my colleagues in theoretical physics entirely ignore papers that they think are wrong. They are convinced that in the end only truth will prevail and thus practice live-and-let-live. I used to do this too. But look at the evidence: it doesn’t work. The arxiv now is full with paid research so thin a sneeze could wipe it out. We seem to have forgotten that criticism is an integral part of science, it is essential for progress, and for cohesion. Physics leaves me wanting more every year. It is over-specialized into incredibly narrow niches, getting worse by the day.

Yes, specialization is highly efficient to optimize existing research programs, but it is counterproductive to the development of new ones. In the production line of a car, specialization allows to optimize every single move and every single screw. And yet, you’ll never arrive at a new model listening to people who do nothing all day than looking at their own screws. For new breakthroughs you need people who know a little about all the screws and their places and how they belong together. In that production line, the scientists active in public peer review are the ones who look around and say they don’t like their neighbor’s bolts. That doesn’t make for a new car, all right, but at least they do look around and they show that they care. The scientific community stands much to benefit from this care. We need them.

Clearly, we haven’t yet worked out a good procedure for how to deal with public peer review and with these nasty bloggers who won’t shut up. But there’s no going back. Public peer review is here to stay, so better get used to it.


  1. Dear Sabine,
    It is very, very beautiful this post.
    I wanted to list all reasons but I would have pasted the whole article!

    However I wish to emphasize that the reason for which I like to read you, is written here:

    "So I put my head out here on the risk of being wrong without means of backpedalling, and as a side-effect I often come across as actively offensive."

    I appreciate a lot your efforts to be clear and understandable by anyone, even if they are not a PhD like me.

    So, Thank you very much for your posts.

  2. This is a most relevant post to our time and how we might adjust to science in our lives as discovery grows in communication as things change.

    A logic professor who allowed me an office visit to discuss an issue he said he did not see why in the reduction of syllogisms such conclusions were reached as to their number. I met him through Letters to the Editor in the local newspaper.

    He said my wording was very careful, thought I was doing some linear analysts (I knew nothing about at the time), that I had a Platonic world view (so I had to figure out why he thought these things). Weasel words are a great metaphor or description for what can be careful wording. As you point out the perception of such words can be different, this just never occurred to me so is instructive. We communicated on some level like he said "If you have deduced the 24 valid syllogism that does not obey all the rules that is pretty good."

    So I have a question as I have been thinking on such things with a fresh view. Is there a minimum compression of a word as information that so many can be arranged in a paper limited to so many words? Some of those words could say very much, like if we use names of great mathematicians and physicists or their theorems cited which at least share a common published language. Or are such words limiting to the art of the times merely rearranging the information?

    "History is a process to arrive to a few great men (that itself is quite a word...) and yes, to get around them." Nietzsche

  3. The only response that might seem dismissive but that might be OK that I can think of is like this: "I won't conduct a scientific debate through an intermediary who is a journalist. I will engage with my scientist critics directly".

  4. Bee - Well said. I can understand that an author(s) may not wish to respond to all public comments - after all some will probably come from those who do not have the requisite background/understanding of the material.

    However, when said authors are approached by legitimate popular press journalists and asked to comment on a criticism from a public post, they would do well to understand it is unlikey to have been from just anybody off the street. The 60 seconds it would take to check your blog and name was not asking too much.

  5. There's significant "continuity" from scientific publications through to scientific reports and articles to blog posts to the dreaded "comments sections" often filled with absolute garbage. What I'm saying is that some see a slippery slope of quality degradation as soon as one leaves the well guarded bastion of conventional peer reviewed publications.
    This is not a justification, just a possible explanation.
    The trick, IMHO, is to show that the slippery slope doesn't exist.

  6. Theory suffers process (lack of rigor is Luboš' compulsion) and product (falsification). Yang and Lee were jokes, ditto Barry Marshall. Look! Colleagues apologized. OTOH, modeled Gran Sasso superluminal muon neutrinos, Ephraim Fischbach and the Fifth Force, Eugene Podkletnov and anti-gravity. Where were outraged public voices? Grant funding creates fear.
    Be a heretic, but defend it with experiment or eat crow.

    "You can’t hurry thought." Deadlines cause writer's block. The world arises from boredom and snit. When you need a solution in the worst way possible...Uncle Al's way.

  7. /*..the writing on my blog as “unscientific” is lack of weasel words..*/

    LOL, says the girl, who takes place in every silly essay competition...;-)

  8. My short experience in open publishing combined with my long experience in IT leads me to conclude that this system is really poor. First, the primary need of the scientific literature readers is to not waste time in reading crap hoping to find pearls. The idea of helping to writing a good article is secondary to the reader and have a value inversely proportional to the competence of the writer.

    A peer evaluation system should be automatically inserted at the end of the PDF document like a simple html link to open an evaluation web form. It would take one click to assign a score in one to five stars for (A) consistency (B) importance (C) originality (D) clarity.

    (A) consistency

    5 - There are no obvious consistency errors.
    4 - There are minor errors such as typos that can be fixed and they do not affect the conclusions
    3 - There are important errors but if the author can address them the conclusions may still be valid
    2 - There are significant errors that invalidate most of the paper but there may still be some valid points
    1 - There are major errors that invalidate the entire work.

    So in five clicks the article is evaluated and the reader can also leave a comment if he feel generous. Readers might naturally look for articles on quality criteria.

  9. nicholas,

    Your five star rating system would be an improvement, adding a little order to the debates. But the idea of originality, item D, would be hard to find facts in the communication. It is hard enough to find a commentators who hide by accident behind different operating systems, but the idea that time travel paradoxes is solved that there is an original Shakespeare somewhere in a multiverse is not sufficient to evaluate a paper.

  10. nicholas,

    Your five star rating system would be an improvement, adding a little order to the debates. But the idea of originality, item D, would be hard to find facts in the communication. It is hard enough to find a commentators who hide by accident behind different operating systems, but the idea that time travel paradoxes is solved that there is an original Shakespeare somewhere in a multiverse is not sufficient to evaluate a paper.

  11. nicholas,

    Your five star rating system would be an improvement, adding a little order to the debates. But the idea of originality, item D, would be hard to find facts in the communication. It is hard enough to find a commentators who hide by accident behind different operating systems, but the idea that time travel paradoxes is solved that there is an original Shakespeare somewhere in a multiverse is not sufficient to evaluate a paper.

  12. Snowboarder,

    Yes, I can certainly understand that. Especially in cases when a paper attracts a lot of attention, it might just not be possible. And sure, you want to figure out who you're dealing with before deciding whether it's worth a reply. If somebody thinks I'm not worth a reply, fine by me. I tend to think it's their problem, not mine. I didn't want to pick too much on this guy in particular, he just made a good example for a general problem. Just dismissing criticism because it's published elsewhere than on the arxiv (or other outlets) doesn't make much sense.

    I didn't want to go too much into this, but see, much of the lack of criticism is due to lack of time. I certainly wouldn't have the time to write an arxiv comment every time I write a blogpost (as with all the weasel words and the references and so on). And then, what's it good for anyway? I'll not submit them for publication. (Except for one case in which a comment got published because the original paper got published.) And look, most referee reports don't meet journal publication standard either, that's totally not the point. I just think that blogs fill in a blank there, and I certainly wish that more of my colleagues would speak out about research they like or don't like for this or that reason. I think we can only benefit from this. Best,


  13. Filippo: Honestly, I've seen comment sections of blogs that had a higher scientific quality than some arxiv "papers". Sources aren't a good quality marker anymore (if they ever were). Going for names is better. And then, what does it matter where it comes from. One of the reasons I'm not excited about anonymity is that they're missing the experience marker that comes with it. You can make up for this with pseudoanonymity if you build it. Staying within the 'well guarded bastion', as you put it, is in my opinion just cowardice, and it's not good for science. Best,


  14. I don't know. From where I stand, I mostly see an author of an article feeling hurt because someone calls out the mistakes or inaccuracies in his/her work. I don't know if this says much about the state of the scientific community per se. At most it says something about how badly certain people take criticism, no matter how well-founded it may be. I don't expect defensive attitudes to be new or to have significantly changed over the past centuries. My advice would be to vertically classify and move on.

  15. Do we really want to wake up the day after we post something on arxiv and find that some idiot like Lubos Motl is abusing us ? I'm surprised that you, of all people, can't see how easily "review by blog" could make all our lives even more unpleasant than they are already. We all routinely have to deal with dimwitted referees, that is quite sufficient thank you.

    You are free to attack this guy's work, he is free to ignore you.

  16. I arguably have my differences with Lubos and find much of his writing distasteful. But I still prefer him over the thousands of my colleagues who are afraid to open their mouth and call bullshit when they see bullshit. In fact I am very sympathetic to his exasperation with mediocre research that gets hyped in the media.

    And yes, that's right, people are free to ignore what I write, that wasn't the point I was making. I don't take this story personally, it just made me think about the issue in general. I don't think it makes any sense to discard opinions because they weren't submitted to a particular service. This isn't a scientific way to deal with it, this is just tradition and backward thinking hindering progress.

  17. I have a model for how thinking, design, and research work which is that they are processes of evolution, involving mainly:

    1) Generation of ideas, which could be partially or entire random.

    2) A selection process to filter out and promote some ideas over others.

    3) Some form or forms of memory/communication to transmit the results forward in time where they can be refined and extended.

    Nature uses strict selection criteria of survival and reproduction. The problem we humans tend to have, I think, is that our selection criteria don't always point us in the right direction (although our forms of memory are better than nature's DNA).

    That is the point of your post as I saw it (since I tend to see things in terms of my model). As usual, I found it convincing and very well-written.

  18. JimV,

    Yes, in fact I think of it much the same way. The crucial question is how to best organize the selection process so that it works optimally. Best,


  19. In fact, if we look at the problem as what it really is, there are only two obstacles : the will and the money. The optimal solution is rarely the cheapest and for a very simple and effective solution a champion, with great political power, within the organization is obligatory. As a user of the system you have to organize a petition if you want things to change or a massive sending of emails (

    Regarding the rejection by indifference, I understand what you may feel; it's the most insulting thing you can live ... it's necessary to have long frequented the cruising bars to immunize you.

  20. "
    I arguably have my differences with Lubos and find much of his writing distasteful. But I still prefer him over the thousands of my colleagues who are afraid to open their mouth and call bullshit when they see bullshit."

    You're not serious I hope. You prefer
    that raving obnoxious lunatic to your
    inoffensive colleague down the hall who just wants to get on with his work and wants to mind his own business?


    By the way, how *exactly* should your thousands of colleagues go about "calling bullshit when they see bullshit"? Over lunch? "Hey, I see you have a paper on Randall-Sundrum theories today. What bullshit!" Is that how lunches go at NORDITA?

    "In fact I am very sympathetic to his exasperation with mediocre research that gets hyped in the media."

    There is a vast gulf fixed between mediocre research that gets picked up by the media through no effort of the researcher, and mediocre research that gets hyped because it was done by someone whose principal talent is self-advertisement. The latter are the ones you should go after.

  21. Rastus:

    I am serious. You're not getting my point. The main problem, here as in many other settings, are not the few who are offensive, but the vast bulk of quiet people who just go along and ignore all problems, think about themselves only, and somebody else should take care of these systemic issues, not realizing that they ARE the problem. That, in a nutshell, is exactly the attitude that lead to WWII. You're also not understanding my point about "calling bullshit". Many of my colleagues are very clear on what research they find irrelevant (though bullshit isn't a word they normally use, at least in my presence) over lunch or in journal clubs, closed discussion where no video camera is around. My point is that they would never PUBLICLY say so. They just hope it will somehow vanish because, you see, everybody knows that it's bullshit. But, surprise!, it doesn't work. Best,


  22. B:
    I imagine you mean public peer review as supplement, not alternative, to peer review, no? Unless you're proposing some kind of double blind public peer review procedure?

    OTOH, I've seen colleague's papers, properly trashed by some initial round of reviewers, later sail through review- in both cases, the reviewers seem to know who they were reviewing despite the double blindness. Perhaps, in the light of day, we would not suffer such shenanigans.

    All I know is, there will always be shenanigans. I think this explains the complacency you find so intolerable. Swallowed the dog to eat the cat who ate the bird who ate the frog who ate the fly.
    best wishes,

  23. regretables:

    of course I mean public peer review as supplement, not alternative. As I have explicitly said, public peer review alone will never work because most papers would never be reviewed.

    Sure, double-blind review doesn't work. The smaller the community, the less it works. It's easy enough to Google some phrases from the paper and figure out who has worked on this if you don't know it already. And in my community the papers are one the arxiv anyway, so double-blind review is entirely pointless. Best,


  24. "he hadn't read my blogpost, wouldn't read it, and wouldn't comment on it either because he doesn’t consider this proper 'scientific means' to argue with colleagues. The proper way for me to talk to him, he let the journalist know, is to either contact him or publish a reply on the arxiv."

    This is a commonly used excuse. Several times at my blog I have criticised a paper, and written to the authors to let them know and invite them to comment - since I think it is only fair to let people know if their paper is being publicly criticised. Each time, there is no reply. In some cases this is particularly ironic since the authors are social scientists saying that their aim is to improve dialogue or to "set up fruitful discussion".

    If you avoid weasel words like "potentially controversial" and say what you mean ("completely wrong"), which I agree with you is absolutely the right thing to do, then your criticism is regarded as aggressive, offensive, unhelpful or "not constructive", with the result that the debate is diverted from the content to its tone. The critic can get called a "raving obnoxious lunatic", as above.

    This is really a human nature / social science / psychology issue - how are people going to react, when a paper they have spent many months working on is trashed (rightly or wrongly) by someone who has spent a couple of hours looking at it?

    The "you should publish a peer-reviewed paper" excuse is widely used by climate scientists in response to their critics in the blogosphere, such as the above-mentioned Lubos Motl. Of course when such a paper is
    submitted, those being criticised are the reviewers so the paper is unlikely to get published. You speak of how this is attitude is "damaging the image of science", and it is probably one of the issues that has led to declining trust in climate science.

    By the way the arxiv blog is indeed nothing to do with arxiv - if you look at their about page there is a disclaimer
    "The blog is entirely independent of"

  25. Obviously it's not entirely independent, every blog post deals with an arxiv paper.

    You know, the discontents should be contented, at least you're not like "The Astronomer's" wife:

  26. @ Wes Hanson re URL
    "The Astronomer's" wife seems to be a common affliction, Armageddon (1998)

    Embrace somebody compatibly insane. Ordinary people cannot sustain within a toxic society and polity. Ask her to pluralize "laughter." Try this for candidate co-authors, repairing theory resisting reduction to practice, and candy bars,

  27. Bee,
    I just read the original blog post in question and have to say that I completely disagree that the idea is "implausible". The premise of the archive post that originated the whole thing is that energy, and thus gravity, is affected by the energy involved in entanglement. That does not seem far fetched at all.

    I generally find your postings very "safe" and that you try to position yourself as an outsider just to acquire the popularity from the general public that outsider's claim. However, it is not that hard to think of the strong force binding quarks together as "entanglement". The energy in that entanglement has mass and affects gravity, in fact it is 98% of the mass of nucleons.

    It is obvious that there would be two things affecting the amount of energy in this binding:

    1. The quality of the entanglement, i.e. the resistance to decay.

    2. The distance between the entangled particles. The farther the distance the more energy involved in the entanglement for a given resistance to decay of the entanglement.

    Whether he got the mathematical details right in his analysis is a completely different question. If it's wrong in way that's one thing. But if you are saying that the premise of the energy in entanglement affecting gravity is wrong and implausible then it is YOU who are wrong. If that is what you are thinking then it is time to start thinking out of the box instead of just posing as someone thinking out of the box to gain popularity.

  28. Eric:

    You're writing big words but just documenting that you haven't understood what I wrote. My criticism was that he uses an inappropriate limit, not that entangled particles don't carry energy. I don't know what any of this has to do with flux tubes. Best,


  29. This reply is to respond positively on your comment that physics is over specialized. There should be a core basis which is general enough to give you at least first order insight into research specialties. The solution I stumbled onto after many years post my PhD is collected in a large set of step by step notes I give away whenever opportunity presents itself. It shows the PhD in math and physics the union of algebra and topology, to some types of differential equations as mathematical subject. So far, my informal polling has yet to find a PhD in math that knew that if one can find a Lie group associated with a DE, one may use the "tower" of subgroups to reduce the order of the given DE. I didn't know this from my MS in pure math, which was heavy in algebra and topology with some DE training. Nor did I know this post PhD in physics. Some physicists may be well aware of generating models such as the Standard Model from infinitesimal generators, with attendant particle spectra, but do so without the context of the above mentioned mathematical depth. We may not care if our cardiologist knows the least thing about podiatry and conversely, but a missing core in our PhDs in math and physics is not good when it isn't necessary. Thanks.

  30. Dear Sabine - I have followed your blog for several years now, and although I was in physics in the late 60's, I moved on to oceanography where this level of engagement and discourse is sadly lacking. I'm retired now, but have often told my colleagues to read your blog and start something as refreshing in our field...
    Hang in there - this last post was wonderful, relevant, inspiring and right on point! Keep it up , please!


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