Medical Trove PubMed Dips Toe Into Scariest Internet Realm: Comments

PubMed Commons

PubMed’s pilot project to allow reader comments.

Since you’re here reading CommonHealth, chances are you’re such a savvy navigator of medical information that you’re familiar with PubMed, that monumental database of 23 million medical research papers at latest count.

(Just in case you’re not, check it out here — it’s a priceless treasure trove containing the nearest thing we’ve got to the publicly accessible sum of all humanity’s knowledge on medicine and the life sciences.)

If you are already a PubMed fan, you might be interested to learn that the great repository has just taken a bold step into the 21st century: It has begun to accept comments from readers, in a pilot project called PubMed Commons.

The move is being widely hailed as a significant step forward, but in this time of Internet trolls and spambots, the decision is also not without controversy. It means a step into one of the more problematic aspects of the Internet — the comments section.

Yikes. You know how nasty and crazy those can get. To the point that some Internet venues just turn them off. Sometimes, after I kill out the rare nasty comments we get here on CommonHealth, I feel as if I’ve just cleaned a toilet.

Back to PubMed. First, the positive side: The scientific papers on PubMed go through a process of peer review in advance — meaning that usually a handful of scientists assess the research and decide whether it’s worth publishing in a given scientific journal.

You could argue it’s only fair: If you trash my paper, I can trash yours.

But there hasn’t been a great process for evaluating research after it’s been published. Science aims to be “self-correcting” — findings need to be checked and replicated in order to become accepted as correct. Until now, though, if you find something in a paper that seems wrong, there has only been a cumbersome process of sending in a letter to a journal’s editor and hoping it will be published.

Now, papers posted on PubMed may be subject to a sort of instant, post-publication peer review.

“The general public will be able to watch scientists debate, argue, critique one another’s papers in real time,” said Ivan Oransky, global editorial director of Medpage Today.  “I happen to have some issues with how open it will be and who can comment, which are my particular issues, but I do think that in general, it is a step forward and it’s a big deal; it’s people being able to see what’s going on.”

Now to the bit of controversy Oransky alludes to: PubMed isn’t allowing everyone to comment. At this initial stage, they’re mainly allowing only people who have already authored papers that are in PubMed or have received certain government grants to comment on other people’s papers. (My rough literary analogy: Only people whose books have been featured in the New York Review of Books may comment on the current edition’s reviews.)

You could argue that these limits on commenters are only fair — if you trash my paper, I can trash yours.

The counter-argument is that they’re not very democratic, and you could lose many highly valuable commenters if you only allow published authors to comment.

Of course, you could also lose a whole lot of mean trolls, too. Continue reading