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It's good to blog

More researchers should engage with the blogosphere, including authors of papers in press.

Is blogging a part of science, journalism or public discourse? In fact it may be all of these — an ambiguity that can sometimes leave scientists feeling uncertain about the rules of the game.

Imagine, for example, a case in which Nature's blog The Great Beyond highlights new scientific results presented at a conference on climate. That blog entry then stimulates an online debate, with climate sceptics interpreting the results their way, and others firing off rebuttals. Imagine also that the work is described in a paper that had been accepted, but not published, by Nature. The authors of the paper want to enter the fray, but feel inhibited from doing so because of the embargo imposed by Nature and many other journals on communication by authors to the media ahead of publication. And why was Nature blogging their work anyway, ahead of its publication?

“There are societal debates that have much to gain from the uncensored voices of researchers.”

This scenario highlights a need for clarification about Nature publications' procedures, and about how embargoes apply to blogs. It also highlights more generally the potential importance of scientists engaging in the blogosphere.

All Nature journals maintain confidentiality about submitted papers, so that only the editors directly responsible for those papers know about them. Other staff — including the various publications' journalists — are usually informed about a paper only once it has been accepted, and with the proviso that they do not disseminate any information about it to external contacts or readers. Likewise, we ask that authors refrain from actively promoting their work to the media and public ahead of its publication. This embargo policy rests on the principle that scientists' and the public's best interests are served by press coverage of work that has been peer reviewed, and is available for others to see for themselves.

At the same time, however, our cardinal rule has always been to promote scientific communication. We have therefore never sought to prevent scientists from presenting their work at conferences, or from depositing first drafts of submitted papers on preprint servers. So if Nature journalists or those from any other publication should hear results presented at a meeting, or find them on a preprint server, the findings are fair game for coverage — even if that coverage is ahead of the paper's publication. This is not considered a breaking of Nature's embargo. Nor is it a violation if scientists respond to journalists' queries in ensuring that the facts are correct — so long as they don't actively promote media coverage.

The blogosphere differs from mass media and specialized media in many respects, but the same considerations apply in disseminating new scientific results there. Authors of papers in press have the right to correct misrepresentations and to point to results that will appear in a paper. But a full discussion should await the paper's publication.

Indeed, researchers would do well to blog more than they do. The experience of journals such as Cell and PLoS ONE, which allow people to comment on papers online, suggests that researchers are very reluctant to engage in such forums. But the blogosphere tends to be less inhibited, and technical discussions there seem likely to increase.

Moreover, there are societal debates that have much to gain from the uncensored voices of researchers. A good blogging website consumes much of the spare time of the one or several fully committed scientists that write and moderate it. But it can make a difference to the quality and integrity of public discussion.

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It's good to blog. Nature 457, 1058 (2009).

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