Ethical quandary, to blog or not to blog


Not apropos of anything, an ethics question flitted through my mind as I was reviewing a rather interesting paper for a journal, which shall remain nameless. As for all questions of such deep significance and importance, I would love to turn to my most valuable resource, the scientists and/or blogger tweeps with whom I communicate and/or interact and/or whom I follow on Twitter. I do see the social medium of Twitter to be a valuable tool for collaboration, and I hope there'd be someone there, who can answer my question - either in 140 characters on Twitter, or more at length, here in the comments.

The question is this: Would it be ethical to blog about a study for which I've been a peer-reviewer?

This situation would, of course, arise after the corresponding paper has been published, and is accessible from the publisher or via PubMed, i.e. it is already in its intended professional domain. My reason to blog about it would be:

(a) to highlight whatever salient points I think the study contributes to our overall body of knowledge in the field, and/or...
(b) to critique some particular aspect of it that I see as a shortcoming.

This is something I do for any research-blogging I undertake, for any paper that I take up to analyze and report on; for me this is an exercise in science communication. However, in this particular hypothetical context, there are several additional considerations:

  • I shall have reviewed this paper thoroughly and made comments, as well as mental notes, which puts me in a position to comment knowledgeably on the finished product.
  • However, the critiques I would want to discuss in the blog post: must they encompass all the critiques I had in the first place, and no more? If I find some lacuna that has not been addressed by the authors in the finished product, am I obliged to point it out, in the spirit of scientific debate, or shut up about it?
  • I shall have primarily looked at an imperfect form of the manuscript, which may potentially color my perceptions about the quality of the finished product. To anthropomorphize, I have met the paper when it is in a weak, vulnerable condition. Does this bias actually exist, or am I imagining it up?
  • Is it acceptable, or for that matter, am I ethically required, to disclose - in my blog post - the fact that I have been a reviewer of the study under discussion? Does it necessarily compromise the anonymity around the peer review process, if I do?

Perhaps I am engaging in needless omphaloskepsis, and over-thinking the whole thing. I don't know of anyone who has had similar questions (possibly because people have much better things to do in life).

May I solicit your esteemed opinions for some guidance out of this quandary?


9 Responses to “Ethical quandary, to blog or not to blog”

  1. Akshat Rathi Reply | Permalink

    I think it would be ethical to blog about a paper that you have peer-reviewed, if you do the following. First, disclose that have been a reviewer for the study you are blogging about. Second, assuming that you will blog after the paper has been published, either the skip the limitations that have been worked on for the final publication or, if you mention the limitations, acknowledge that authors fixed it.

    If you do this, I would consider that your blog in someway would be post-publication peer review. That is a good thing.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you, Akshat. What you said makes a lot of sense. I was concerned about breaking the cloak of anonymity as a reviewer. However, majority of the commenters seem to have given it no mind.

  2. Anonymouse Reply | Permalink

    I think..
    - as a reviewer, you are not required to remain anonymous, before or after publication. Doing so is an option which you exercise at your discretion. You are not obliged to mention having been a reviewer.
    - you are not obliged to remain silent about new or old flaws. You are not obligated to point them out either.
    - as a reviewer, you are probably more likely to be biased in the article's favor, rather than against, so long as the authors mostly made the changes and corrections you requested (I am). This hurts no one, and would not bother me.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you for your comments. I understand what you are saying. What I am not so sure about are the ethical implications of my doing so... :D

  3. Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

    There were some thoughtful comments on Twitter; thank you, all. I wish there were a way to incorporate all the Twitter comments easily. For now, I'd have to take recourse to copy-pasta...

    Eva Amsen (@easternblot), a scientist and my former blog colleague at Nature Blogs, said:
    I say yes: you'd likely have found the paper otherwise. 1/2
    But to make it transparent, maybe consider signing review 2/3
    After all, the authors would recognize your comments. 3/3

    Thank you, Eva. The review signing is an interesting concept. I have to find out if the journals I review for have such a process in place.

    Paige Brown (@FromTheLabBench), also a scientist and our intrepid Community Manager here at Scilogs, said:
    I don't think you are overthinking it, but my answer is YES!
    I think you should absolutely blog about it, and bring up any other critiques you have had after reviewing it
    the process of peer-review should be open and transparent - discuss all your thoughts IMO
    before publication is another story, but after publication all critique is fair game IMO

    Matt Shipman (@Shiplives), Science Communicator par excellence and my Scilogs-brother, said:
    I'm outside that community but think it'd be OK. (?)
    Great Q though - curious to see more thoughtful answers than mine!

    To which, Paige kindly responded:
    me too. Especially since pub is out of review now

    Ryan Ellingson (@evol_happens), another commenter, said:
    Anonymous reviewers but not authors never made much sense to me. All or nothing seems better.

    Paige Brown also said:
    you can also talk about process of pub, what changes they made to final version!

  4. Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

    Further comment stream via Twitter:

    Malcolm M. Campbell (@m_m_campbell), a biologist, science communicator, and a fellow Scilogs-blogger, had a different and more circumspect take:
    Would do 4 things before proceeding with blog post. 1/8
    1) Check journal policy re: review confidentiality. 2/8
    2) Would talk to journal Editor-in-Chief about plan. 3/8
    3) Would discuss blog post plan with paper authors. 4/8
    4) Would discuss blogging plan with other colleagues. 5/8
    There are other seasoned academics (even at SciLogs).. 6/8
    ..who could offer helpful advice about your proposal. 7/8
    Hope this is helpful. 8/8

    Chris Buddle (@cmbuddle), another biologist, science communicator, and a fellow Scilogs-blogger, agreed with Malcolm:
    I agree wholeheartedly w/ @m_m_campbell —especially being open & transparent w/ journal editor(s) & authors. V. important.
    I must admit, I’ve blogged about a lot of papers, but never one for which I was a reviewer.

    Thank you, Malcolm and Chris, both for your valuable inputs and suggestions. I am in awe of Malcolm's ability to neatly break his message into a predetermined number of smaller nuggets, eight in his case. I can never do that; I always run over or under! :(

    Malcolm's suggestions are well-taken in the context. Of his 4 points, the first one is relatively easy to do, I think; however, it may necessitate an email exchange with someone in the journal office, if the said policy is not clearly spelt out at the journal website. Whether they'd have the time or inclination to engage with a random blogger on this issue is another matter altogether.

    The same goes for communicating with the Editor-in-Chief, who would likely have a lot more of bigger fish to fry. However, it's worth a shot.

    The point that doesn't make sense to me is number 3, especially since the hypothetical blog post would appear after the paper has been published.

    To my mind, Malcolm's point number 4 is exactly what I am doing right now, via this blog and Twitter, no? :D

  5. Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

    Khalil Cassimally (@notscientific), science communicator and our former community manager here at Scilogs, was more conservative in his approach, and raised an excellent point at the end:
    Think it depends on angle. If you want to communicate ppr
    to a wider audience, then don't see why it should be a prob.
    But if you intend to point out technicalities (probs etc), then surely
    more helpful to reach out to the authors directly (or as peerreviewer)
    In brief, we shouldn't just write because we *can. The why is more imp

    You are right, Khalil, in assuming that the goal for the blog post would be to communicate the paper to a wider audience - just as I'd normally do for any other paper. What I am seeking to avoid (in a hypothetical context) is a conflict of interest between my role as a reviewer of a paper and my role as a science communicator commenting on that paper.

    Of course, it is helpful to reach out to authors directly about problems in the paper. And as a reviewer, I do that without fail; I consider that honest, unbiased assessment a professional obligation, and I take pains to point out possible areas of improvement in the paper so that that body of work may be successfully added to the overall knowledge.

    But as I said above, I also consider that my role as a reviewer is separate and has a different scope, as compared to my scicomm avatar. The question is, can the twain ever meet?

  6. Eva Amsen Reply | Permalink

    You should be able to sign your reviews. If the journal doesn't allow it for whatever reason, the editor will remove your name before sending it on. We recently ran a survey at F1000research and one of the questions to reviewers was whether they had previously done open peer review (all of ours are signed), and some people said that they signed their name on reviews even if the journal by default ran anonymous reviews. Anonymity is mostly for reviewers' (perceived) benefit, but available evidence (mostly from BioMed Central studies) suggests that signed reviews are more thorough, so the editors shouldn't have a problem with you opting to reveal yourself.

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