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Why you should post comments, notes and ratings on PLoS ONE articles

Over the past two years or so I have been repeatedly asked about the commenting, annotating and rating functionality on PLoS ONE articles. As Euan Edie, Deepak Singh and Cameron Neylon have noted, while the amount of user activity on our articles is still not at the level we might hope for, it is much greater on PLoS ONE than in other journals that have ‘user feedback’  functionality. The more that journals implement such functions (which will likely be a part of the article-level metrics of the future), and the more that people get comfortable with using such functionalities, the better it will be for science.

Yet, many people are still unsure about doing this themselves. So, I decided to compile the most frequently asked questions and try to provide some answers. The list is by no means exhaustive so feel free to add more in the comments:

Q: I have just read a peer-reviewed article on PLoS ONE. What do I do next?

Rate the article – tell us what you think of it by giving it a star ranking (1-5). Post a comment and/or an annotation and it this way build on the article and start a conversation with your peers.

Q: But, I am not an expert in the field!

That is perfectly OK – nobody can be an expert in everything. But, you read the article because you were interested in the topic and understood some, most, or all of it. Thus, you are an educated, informed reader. Comments or questions you post may be worthwhile and of interest to others.

The authors, referees and academic editors of PLoS ONE articles are encouraged to respond to your comments and questions. They have put a lot of hard work into the manuscript and will appreciate compliments as well as polite criticisms and questions from both experts and non-experts.

Comments that are entirely off-topic, or offensive, or posted by purveyors of pseudo/non/anti-science, will be deleted. If you notice an inappropriate comment, please flag it via the site, we can evaluate it and act accordingly.

Q: I think the article is well done, well written and complete. I have nothing to ask, critique or add to it. I also think that the paper adds another piece to the puzzle, is not controversial and does not challenge existing theory. Good, but not exciting. Should I say anything?

Yes. PLoS ONE welcomes such articles. You may choose to rate the article high on Reliability and Style and lower on Insight if that is how you feel. But do post a comment nonetheless, stating your opinion. Congratulate the authors on good work and note that you think it is a valuable addition to the existing body of knowledge without being revolutionary.

Q: I think the article is challenging the current dogma in ways that make me excited about the new view. But I may have quibbles with some details.

Rate the article, perhaps giving somewhat lower marks on Reliability and Style and higher on Insight, if that is how you feel. Post a comment that shows your excitement about the work, as well as voices your minor concerns.

Q: I think the article has a major problem, but I am afraid to challenge a big name in my field.

Your nervousness is understandable. But, if you believe that you have identified a real problem with the article and you feel confident about it, it is likely that other readers will feel the same. Be the first one to comment about it (try to use non-confrontational language such as ‘could’ not ‘should’ etc) and read the responses of others who may agree or disagree with you. On PLoS ONE everyone is equal and everyone is expected to treat others with equal respect. Courage to challenge authorities will gain you a fair reputation among your peers.

Q: What is in it for me? Why should I spend my time and expose myself to do this?

Think of it in a long-term perspective. Post-publication commenting is likely to spread over time and become ubiquitous. Within the next few months, all seven PLoS journals will have this functionality. Other publishers are likely to follow suit. People who comment frequently and write valuable comments will build reputations over time. If you rate, annotate and comment on PLoS ONE papers now, you will be one of the early adopters and will be recognized and respected for this in the future.

One thing to keep in mind is that a PLoS ONE article is not a blog post – the discussion is not over once the post goes off the front page. There is no such thing as going off the front page! The article is always there and the discussion can go on and on for years, reflecting the changes in understanding of the topic over longer periods of time. If all the comments and discussions (that currently take place in private or ‘hard to find’ locations) can be found on the paper itself then think how powerful that would be for other readers.

Imagine if half a century ago there was Internet and there were Open Access journals with commenting capability like PLoS ONE. Now imagine if Watson and Crick published their paper on the DNA structure in such a journal. Now imagine logging in today and reading five decades of comments, ratings and annotations accumulated on the paper!!!! What a treasure-trove of information! You hire a new graduate student in molecular biology – or in history of science – and the first assignment is to read all the commentary to that paper. There it is: all laid out – the complete history of molecular biology all in one spot, all the big names voicing their opinions, changing opinions over time, new papers getting published trackbacking back to the Watson-Crick paper and adding new information, debates flaring up and getting resolved, gossip now lost forever to history due to it being spoken at meetings, behind closed door or in hallways preserved forever for future students, historians and sociologists of science. What a fantastic resource to have!

Now imagine that every paper in history was like that (the first Darwin and Wallace letters to the Royal Society?!). Now realize that this is what you are doing by annotating PLoS ONE papers (and articles in other journals that allow user activity). It is not the matter so much of here-and-now as it is a contribution to a long-term assessment of the article, providing information to the future readers that you so wished someone left for you when you were reading other people’s papers in grad school and beyond. Which paper is good and which erroneous (and thus not to be, embarrassingly, cited approvingly) will not be a secret lab lore any more transmitted from advisor to student in the privacy of the office or lab, but out there for everyone to know. Every time you check out a paper that is new to you, you also get all the information on what others think about it. Isn’t that helpful, especially for students?

For more information about commenting, annotating and rating papers, including the technical details, see the Comment Guidelines. To get the first taste for the “feel” of the commenting interface, go and play in the Sandbox. Then charge ahead and get started – join the community.

So, go forth and comment on papers in areas you are interested in. And if you are a member of a lab group, a graduate seminar, an honors class, or an AP Biology class, let me know if you would be interested in doing a Journal Club on one of the PLoS ONE papers in the future – a great exercise for you, nice exposure to your group, and a service to the scientific community of today and tomorrow.

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