Cite the shite out of this site. Or better don’t.

I caused a little outrage among the passionate social designers of the future science community, lately. They usually envision a brighter future for science communication, discussing evaluation metrics, funding practices and strongly facilitate open access publishing, open data, science writing, and whatnot. I greatly appreciate this – I convinced my skeptical PhD adviser to publish open access in 2008 and I made suggestions about which online medium would serve best as a publishing platform that has great post-publication review features built in (via Twitter). Still I got called a ‘complete fool’ with an ‘unfortunate, outdated attitude’ by one of them (HHMI Investigator Michael Eisen, via Twitter). Why? Because I don’t see why an article has to mention everybody the author was ever inspired by and I do not think that every source should be ‘cite-able’ – like Twitter (in parts storified by @Hysell).

I made a ‘trollish’ (@sarcastic_f, via Twitter) comment as I entered the general discussion by indirectly responding to ‘We need better culture of citing blog posts, not just papers.’ (Michael Eisen, via Twitter), saying ‘I disagree. I would never quote a blog because most of them are terrible and almost all others are still not worth it.’ (DE, via Twitter). Of course this made a bad first impression. Ironically, what I then received became a collection of tweets directed at me that serves as a great example for why sources like twitter should not be considered cite-able – and I include my own. Because they are not meant to be official statements and people – even scientists – don’t act like professionals when using social media. And such free space is good for us!

@CampOther: “@DennisEckmeier So, do you think blogs can be a good method for educating the public or starting conversations, but not publishing work?”
Dennis Eckmeier: “@CampOther currently, yes.”

My comment about blogs being ‘terrible’ or ‘not worth [citation]’ was made in the context of official science publishing. That’s when I cite stuff. With official I mean something like a paper. Official is what is supposed to become one of the building blocks that make up the core of current scientific opinion: hypotheses based on a solid scientific foundation, experiments, data, scientifically sound interpretation and approved as such by other experts in the field. Blogs I see more like a conversation I have with colleagues in non-official contexts. Something like a lab meeting, a science discussion over beers, a conversation at the poster stand. Here, ideas are just blurted out. The discussions are hypothetical – a ‘raw brain storm’. A place to metaphorically loosen the tie, open the belt and rest your feet on the table. Thus, I was quite surprised someone suggested actually citing that.

I did not go deep searching for blogs that I would consider interesting and more importantly, specific enough to serve as platforms for professional discussions between scientists of the field. Best blogs I have seen serve the communication of science to the public. As such, they serve their purpose often very well, but they are not worth being cited in a scientific paper because their statements are trivial to scientists in the field (or should be). I have not seen a blog that publishes original scientific work. Some give more or less thorough reviews of original work (with a broad range in quality). However, the blogs reviewing original papers with the obvious attempt to follow good scientific practice, usually are not being questioned (exceptions are out there) and sometimes appeared to me as sad self-opinionated rebuttals of some sort. But I might be over-interpreting that.

A problem with reviewers in the traditional pre-publication review process of journals might be that they are part of some ‘clique’ of buddies in the field and political decisions play into the review process. I therefore appreciate the general idea of open post-publication review. But this has to be made transparently. The reviews need to come from experts and should be published together with the article. The discussions between reviewers and authors should be open and changes to the article should be made accordingly or it needs to be clearly marked as not peer-accepted. The very few serious reviews that I saw – and I don’t claim I have seen them all – were published isolated, probably without knowledge of the authors and on low-traffic personal websites. As such, the attempt is honorable and I respect the work that some put into such reviews but I cannot see how this is cite-able material.

“@mbeisen @DennisEckmeier @noahWG @hysell people should cite sources of ideas/inspiration whether from papers, blogs, dwarves, or otherwise”, Jonathan Eisen via Twitter

Free (not “open”) science conversation is extremely important. There are few ‘places’ we can go to just brain storm together. These places should remain ‘un-cite-able’ to allow freedom of thought. I don’t claim rights on ideas I throw out there in such a context. Nobody should. If we start demanding citation for everything we just create another battlefield of “mee mee mee, you didn’t cite the brain-fart I blogged about” and “the ideas of Dr. Whatsherface are absurd, as is obvious in her tweets”. We already have enough of that crap, thanks.

Jonathan Eisen : “@mbeisen @noahWG @DennisEckmeier @hysell people should cite/document the entire history of all work, ideas, etc …”
@DennisEckmeier: “@phylogenomics @mbeisen @noahWG @hysell This is where it becomes ridiculous.”

When I wrote that I was half-joking. I was envisioning how every acknowledgement would start with: “First I must acknowledge my mom and dad for their substantial contribution to my upbringing including supervision and substantial financial aid. Without them I would not be a scientist and wouldn’t have had any idea about this topic, ever.” Of course, after making heavy use of ‘everything’ and ‘always’ and ‘entire’, at some point people were rationalizing, saying that of course he didn’t mean it this way. What shall I say about this other than obviously we agree that not everything needs to be cited.

Noah Gray: “@DennisEckmeier @mbeisen @hysell so you’re an admitted idea stealer then. Good to know.”
Dennis Eckmeier: “@noahWG @mbeisen @hysell Inspiration and stealing are very different things. You are being unreasonable.”

This statement was made after being asked whether I would go to seminars and poster sessions but would not cite them. I never saw anybody quote from a seminar and only in extremely rare cases from poster abstracts. I intended quoting a poster abstract in my latest submission to show that other scientists speculate in the same direction but the author guidelines prohibited that (and personal communications as well). I thought about it and came to the conclusion that this is probably for the best.

When I visit posters and seminars this is part of the free, informal exchange I talked about earlier. Such conversations induce a certain ‘spirit of creativity’ that allows me to generate new, own(!) ideas. This is what I call inspiration. I don’t do the same experiment as and try to scoop other people, period. Thus, posters and seminars for me are no source of cite-able information. When I use a sentence like “This approach is inspired by the approaches taken in…”, it meant that we transferred methods from one species to another one. That’s a different thing. Of course I cite publications of the appropriate authors heavily.

@MichelleNMeyer: “@phylogenomics @benoitbruneau @mbeisen @DennisEckmeier @noahWG @hysell Borrow’g frm blog w/o attribtn–>PhDs wary of blog’g->less info xchge”, via twitter

One should be aware that everything has downsides. Michelle Meyer’s point makes sense (well, after decrypting, that is), but what about:

@DennisEckmeier: “@sennoma Mostly, I don’t want people I never heard of pull out their tweet history to claim rights on my ideas. @mbeisen”, via Twitter

To which I got this response:

Michael Eisen: “@DennisEckmeier @sennoma Dude, ideas are cheap. Almost all good ones are had hundreds of times. Science is 99% execution.”, via Twitter

In this case, what’s the fuzz about not attributing other people’s ‘cheap ideas’ in the first place? Is the idea not the 1% that owns the other 99%?

For my very personal situation: I changed the topic, the organism and the methods thrice since I started my (short) career. Good ideas do not come cheap if you don’t have a decade of experience in the field to know where work is needed and what will be considered relevant. When I have the first good idea in a new field, it is an achievement. It took work to get there. I want to be proud of it.

Also, as a young postdoc I go to the career development seminars in our institution. It kinda seems like your project proposal is a pretty big deal when applying for tenure track positions. And that’s all ideas.

Finally: Please don’t quote my blog posts, tweets, facebook and blog comments in your scientific papers. They are for free and I will deny responsibility for them, if I must. Thanks.

Also, I apologize to everybody who took my tweets as personal attack on their blogs. I have respect for everybody who puts a lot of time and effort in their posts. I hope I made my viewpoint more clear in this … blog. 😉