In a recent editorial 'The web as originally intended' we invited you to become a web socialite. The title referred to the fact that the web was actually created as a collaborative workspace for geographically dispersed scientists. We encouraged you to use a new 'social bookmarking' tool from Nature Publishing Group called Connotea and in editorial circles we now use the tool to circulate links to topical issues and to provide background reading lists for some journal content (for example this editorial). However, usage among readers continues to grow rather slowly.
The web is finally making the transition from a largely passive information source to an active social environment — as was originally envisioned by its designer Tim Berners-Lee. However, this transition is not driven by high-end science users, but largely by recreational users who are immersed in blogging to their 'etherfriends' around the globe and contribute to wikis on all manner of esoteric topics. Scientists, it appears, still prefer to access information after it has been through tried and tested peer review filters or to discuss new data in person at conferences — even if often grateful to be able to keep up-to-date on the road courtesy of wireless internet access and RSS feeds. Nature has run several blogs from conferences on public interest topics such as climate change and they are well read. However, both Nature Genetics and Nature Neuroscience have been experimenting with a blogging service for their respective readerships for several months and find that uptake has been slow (http://blogs.nature.com/ng/freeassociation/ http://blogs.nature.com/nn/actionpotential/).
Why is this? Clearly information overload and limited time are major issues. Indeed, these are two of the major reasons why a peer-review process based on blogged community feedback (of the sort employed by several physical sciences journals such as Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics) is unlikely to succeed in cell biology. There is also a reluctance to enter into 'off-the-cuff' discussions on complex topics given how charged such debates can become. Cell biologists have never shied away from a good debate, but prefer to argue with their immediate peers, or in the restricted environment of a scientific conference. Many are anxious at the prospect of the world listening. This is unfortunate as the blog culture is all about a colloquial, relaxed approach to discussion. In the end, blogs will still only be read mainly by the same peer group that you would happily debate with at a conference, as the volume of data out there is such that people only access what they are particularly interested in. It is worth noting that Calvin Andrus, head of the CIA's 'Unit for Collaborating Technologies' strongly favours getting CIA agents to keep up to date with each other through (restricted) blogging. Evidently, blogging is likely to become the 'social glue' for thoroughly globalized communities.
While blogs should generally be read in the context of a semi-informal chat, there is a very important issue that must be considered: signing one's name to possibly incorrect information. Wikipedia, the greatest of all wikis, is a prime example. The concept of a totally free global encyclopaedia based entirely on voluntary contributions is laudable. It is not surprising that usage of this site has long surpassed that of the most popular international broadsheets. More surprising is that so many volunteers take the time to enter what is often very well researched information. However, not always, as John Seigenthaler, Sr, the former editor of The Tennessean, found recently when he was linked on Wikipedia to the JFK assassination (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Wikipedia-Fake-Bio.html?pagewanted=print). Without a stringent system of peer review and author selection it is difficult to prevent abuse of the system. The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, has implemented a peer review system, however, as the open community is invited to judge, the service remains open to subversion by radical interest groups — albeit not as easily. Nevertheless, when taken with a pinch of salt, as a free source of information Wikipedia is a great invention for the global good and should be encouraged.
In an interesting twist, a public increasingly acclimatized to a zero-delay, easy-to-digest news-stream of patchy quality, is being encouraged to discover the values of peer-review. The UK charity 'Sense About Science' has recently published a pamphlet entitled “I don't know what to believe...” that amiably summarizes the advantages of investigating whether the source of news about the latest miracle derives from a quality peer-reviewed journal or Joe Blog's latest blog. We have always strongly encouraged the publicity of your findings, but given the chronic level of 'over-sell' by headline savvy journalists and the understandable frustration of a public that hears of 'the cure for cancer' over and over again, we also strongly encourage you to ensure that the news-piece is balanced (ask the journalist to run it by you) and properly referenced.
Embrace the enhanced communication offered by quality components of the 'social web'. Try out the carefully curated blogs on Nature Neuroscience and Nature Genetics and tell us if you would like to see this type of forum at Nature Cell Biology! In the meantime, we do not think the days of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or traditional peer-reviewed scientific journals are numbered by any means.
Further reading on http://www.connotea.org/user/bpulverer/tag/Blogs%20Wikis