It isn’t at all unusual for the authors of scientific papers to leave a comment at a blog discussing their work — it’s happened here quite a few times, and it’s a good thing. It’s a plus when they confirm what you’ve said or add more information to the discussion, and it’s also wonderful when they correct you on errors. I think most scientists are getting the idea that blogs are tools to help disseminate scientific ideas to a wider audience than the science journals can. They certainly don’t replace the journals, but add a way to inject the results into the public sphere, where they can be part of a popular conversation.
Sometimes you do find scientists who don’t quite get it. Dr Isis wrote a critique of a paper in the NEJM that reported a correlation between the change to daylight savings time and heart attacks; she thought the data was interesting, but the interpretations were sloppy. She pointed out some observations that were glossed over, suggested that some specific interpretations were a bit off, and listed some other articles on similar topics.
The authors took exception to the criticisms and left a comment. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind of informative comment, pro or con, that advances an argument — it was more of a condescending dismissal that ignored her comments and suggested that she needed to learn some basic epidemiology. And then there was this bit:
There can be many other explanations and pathways not written here (again we had a strict limit). The reviewers and editors agreed to our interpretation as probably the most likely one. So were experts in this field all over the world who commented our study so far. We would actually encourage you to write a comment to NEJM. NEJM is well known for its devotion for scientific debates on recently published papers. That would be a normal way to debate and discuss scientific findings. We would also have a possibility to answer on an “equal ground”.
The first part is a particularly annoying misconception. Peer review is only a first, preliminary hurdle for a paper to cross; passing peer review and getting published does not mean that your work is right. Some incredibly awful papers get through the review process, somehow. Getting published only means that now your paper is going to be opened up to wider criticism. Don’t take the attitude that publication means vindication; I know reviewers, and I’ve reviewed papers, and I know that reviewers are sometimes lazy, sometimes susceptible to croneyism, and always overworked, and that publication doesn’t mean you are right.
The last part shows that the authors have the wrong idea about blogs. A blog post is different from a letter to NEJM; it can reach a much wider audience, for one thing, and uses a little more stylistic variety than dry academic writing to appeal to a larger group (Dr Isis is definitely guilty of that — she uses humor, which is often sadly lacking in medical journals). I get the impression that the authors would prefer criticisms be made in the journal, not because it would directly target the best people able to understand the argument, but because it would limit the number of people who would see the disagreement.
The attitude that this is the “normal” way to discuss science is also aggravating. It is a restrictive view that contributes to the popular conception of scientists as aloof and unengaged with the culture, and it’s not true. We need to change the idea of normal so that talking about science over breakfast is normal, that having a conversation about science around the watercooler at work is normal, that guys at the bar get into arguments over science instead of football (sometimes) is normal. Change normal!
And finally, a blog is equal ground. The authors could have easily thrown in a few observations and explanations that supported their position, rather than treating Dr Isis like some ignorant nobody they could swat away by telling her to take a course in epidemiology. Explain your answers as you would to an undergrad or bright high school student. If you can’t, it implies that you aren’t looking for an equal opportunity, you are looking for a way to avoid probing questions.