American Naturalist Adds Online Forum

American Naturalist (one of the top journals in ecology and evolution) has just announced that they are rolling out a forum system to allow for online discussions about their published papers.

The American Naturalist is testing a new online forum, starting with the March issue, which allows readers to post comments about a particular article.  The forum is in its beta phase as we work out the best configuration that serves the community.  Please help test it out and start the conversation!

The idea of rapid, open dialog about published papers is certainly exciting, and the possibility that whole community review and feedback could take the place of the necessarily more restricted peer review and publication process is a regular topic of conversation at places like Scholarly Kitchen and academHack.

This idea is the basis of PLoS ONE (a journal that started vigorously pursuing these ideas in 2006)

Each submission will be assessed by a member of the PLoS ONE Editorial Board before publication. This pre-publication peer review will concentrate on technical rather than subjective concerns and may involve discussion with other members of the Editorial Board and/or the solicitation of formal reports from independent referees. If published, papers will be made available for community-based open peer review involving online annotation, discussion, and rating.

and it is good to see other journals including AmNat and the new Methods in Ecology and Evolution journal experimenting with these ideas. One of the things I’ve learned from watching PLoS ONE a bit over the years is that it is difficult to get scientists to engage in this kind of discussion. I almost never see articles actually rated (a quick survey of 10 articles from late 2008 this morning revealed a 0% rating rate). Comments are more frequent (30% of articles in my tiny sample), and this is encouraging for these new attempts, but PLoS ONE has a thoroughly integrated commenting system that makes it easy to post and easy to see that others have posted. The new AmNat system falls short in this regard. It is basically just a Blogger blog with a non-prominent link off of each article that takes you to a separate site with a blog post that contains the abstract where you can comment. I suspect that this will have some negative impacts on the success of the new system and my hope is that once they get it off the ground they will convert it to a more integrated solution that is tied in directly with the main site (or at least try switching over to actual forum software).

In the meantime, I’d encourage you to check it out and participate in their new experiment. For those of you unfamiliar with Blogger, if you want to subscribe to the comments feed, not the article feed (which since you probably are already receiving an AmNat TOCs, hopefully via your feed reader, is entirely redundant) you can use this link for RSS and this one for Atom. As a group you are probably much more familiar with the concept of commenting and interacting online than the average AmNat reader. So, don’t be shy, send them some feedback (via email; yes… email is the preferred feedback mechanism for their new forum system… sigh).

UPDATE: Trish Morse (AmNat’s totally awesome Managing Editor) stopped by to point out that the current Blogger based version is just a trial run to determine whether or not it is worth pursuing a more formal system. This makes it even more important to participate and provide feedback. Check out the full discussion in the comments and then send them an email (which, as Trish so wisely pointed out, is really the best way to solicit feedback from across the breadth of ecologists; my apologies for the sigh) if you have any input. You are also of course welcome to discuss the potential benefits and issues with active commenting on peer reviewed articles here in the comment thread.

4 Comments on “American Naturalist Adds Online Forum

  1. We hope people do check it out. Thanks for the feedback! It might not have been clear from the announcement, but the Blogger set-up is just for the short-term trial. There’s considerable debate over whether comment features add value, and, if they add value, what structure is most useful, so before we invested resources in development of a permanent feature, we thought we’d do a test run. The advantage of Blogger was that we could automate sending the metadata and abstracts as articles are posted and it provided some necessary features. It didn’t lock in a particular format with unforeseen limitations before we see how people might want to use such a feature. Feedback was encouraged by e-mail because we want to hear all the reactions, including from those who feel hostile to the very idea of any forum and would refuse to post. If feedback is posted on the forum, of course that would be fine. Thanks for your interest!

  2. Hi Trish – Thanks for stopping by. I didn’t understand how much of a trial setup this was (I tend to think of “beta” as being working out the kinks of a system that’s fairly far down the line) and in that context I think this is actually a really smart way to start. An ‘About’ page on the current setup explaining the goal of this initial phase might help communicate this to folks who are interested.

    I really appreciate the fact that you’re trying to reach out to all segments of the community and get input from different viewpoints. You are definitely right that email is the best single method for doing so. When you’re thinking about the feedback that you receive I think it’s worth considering the fact that it is going to take a while to convince scientists that these new approaches to speeding up the scientific dialogue have real value. For example, I suspect that many authors will be hesitant to want public criticism of their work without peer review. However, the truth is that this form of dialogue is here in ways that the journals cannot control (e.g., it is more and more common to see comments and criticism related to published research on blogs, twitter, etc). So, even if there is some initial resistance to the idea, and not a lot of early participation, I think there are real advantages to having a forum directly linked to the article in a meaningful way. So, I for one would strongly encourage AmNat to keep pursuing this, regardless of the initial response.

    Given the new context I have a couple of more specific suggestions for forwarding the dialogue both about the articles and about the forum system.

    1. Add a page to the Blogger account for open discussion of the forum system itself. Maybe make it a few pages looking for different kinds of feedback: a) should we have a forum system? b) if we have one what do you think the most important features should be, etc. This would allow a discussion of these ideas rather than one way feedback being sent to you. Provide links to these pages in the sidebar so that people can easily find them.

    2. Add prominent links in the sidebar for the comments feeds. This makes it much easier to keep track of comments occurring across a the full range of articles and forum discussions.

    3. Keep up the good work. AmNat has been a leader in a number of aspects of scientific publishing over the years (e.g., online only articles, data sharing requirements) and I’m encouraged to see that you are pushing in new and interesting digital directions.

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