A word about the Retraction Watch comments policy

logoBecause of a number of heated exchanges in the comments over the past few weeks here at Retraction Watch — mostly in response to our coverage of the shutdown of the Science Fraud site — we’ve added this to our FAQ:

We are huge fans of Retraction Watch commenters. They broaden our posts, send us tips, and correct us when we get things wrong. Without them, the site would be a shadow of itself. However, we have recently found ourselves — this update is from January 2013 — having to edit ad hominem attacks out of comments, unapprove other comments, and contact some commenters to remind them of what’s appropriate.

It may not be clear to those who feel the need to resort to such personal attacks that they destroy the discourse that we and others have worked so hard to build on Retraction Watch, but it is abundantly clear to us and many others. The same goes for unfounded allegations and unverified facts.

We will not tolerate these sorts of attacks, and will simply edit or delete comments that contain them. Until now, we have made an attempt to contact the commenters who left them, as long as they provided real email addresses, but given the volume, we will no longer be able to do that. If you have a question about why your comment was edited or removed, please use the email addresses provided in our About pages to contact us.

In other words: Shed light, not just heat. Facts, challenges, disagreements, corrections — those are all fine. Attacking the person, instead of the idea or the interpretation, is neither acceptable nor helpful.

For more on the role that comments play in scientific discourse, see pieces by John Hawks, Matt Shipman, and Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, among others.

Thanks, as always, to everyone who has been contributing to the discussion on Retraction Watch.

41 thoughts on “A word about the Retraction Watch comments policy”

  1. I completely support this new policy, especially given that RW has been getting more and more attention in the media.

  2. So I suppose I’m not supposed to question your intelligence and morals in announcing such a policy?

    JUST KIDDING! 🙂 … seriously, well done.

    And I suppose it’s a sign of a certain maturation that this blog has reached the point where such heated dialog occurs.

    Here’s hoping you can manage it after the fact and won’t have to resort to moderation, which can severely slow down the discourse.

    1. Very kind of you, Sci and AMC, thanks. Feel free to snag the “shed light, not heat,” but we don’t get credit for that. It’s an oft-used phrase.

  3. I’m not much of a shouter but ‘THANK-YOU!’. The comment section of the Science Fraud post turned ugly and was not anything I wanted to take part in (aside from my one comment early on).

    Also, I have to agree with scicurious the ‘shed light, not heat’ is brilliant.

  4. With an NIH funded survey of self reported misconduct in NIH grants at 35% it should be open season on the tax payer funded fraudsters, both the idea and the person behind the false idea are free game. False
    speech exposure is protected by free speech. If a researcher feels that he/she has been defamed we have a civil remedy in the courts, but with the rate of corruption in NIH grants I doubt that many would put their money where there mouth is—- its too risky for them and they would likely lose in court or their wallets.
    If you can’t stand the heat of being exposed of cooking books in the kitchen get out of the NIH and fund your own great ideas yourself! Retraction watch is a free speech forum and should not knuckle under to lawyers and corrupt researchers.

    1. RW is not a free speech forum. It’s a blog set up and owned by Adam and Ivan. They set the rules here. Some people started behaving like children and so this new policy was necessary. If you can’t stand the new policy, then…

      1. Average PI,
        We should strive for excellence in tax payer funded research, not average. Any public forum of expression
        is protected by the first amendment of free speech.

        Average PI, I agree that some bloggers get too political, what about: publish or perish to get tenure, grantsmanship, COI, etc. THe NIH should be totally defunded and shut down. Google Douglas Kiel Harvard OHRP.

        Yes, retraction watch should have professional guidelines but can’t be held liable for the loose cannon
        comments of an an individual—that is the Constitution. Did you ever go to the speakers corner in London?

        1. Of course retraction watch doesn’t have 1st amendment obligations.

          Having said that I suspect their motivations may be a little more complex than those they present. No one comes to this discussion without conflicting interests. And their interests are those of their backgrounds – publishing and journalism. That is going to be different from scientists. If scientists wish to have a science orientated blog – or a blog orientated to the needs and concerns of scientists – they need to set one up. This a publishing blog focusing on the end phase of scientific misconduct as it impacts publishing.

          In the end, their blog, their rules or even arbitrariness if they so choose.

  5. Good!
    1) From online discussions experience (starting ~1985 on USENET), the following make for good discussions without moderation:
    a) Uncontentious topics
    b) Discussion has a strong set of real experts
    c) Real names are generally used, and people may even know each other in real world
    d) Relatively small number of commenters

    2) But the further one gets from that, the lower the signal-to-noise ratio gets unless there is a clear comments policy and strong moderation. The net effect is a Gresham’s Law of the Internet, in which a bad comments drive out the good. Once upon a time, USENET comp.arch (computer architecture) was a terrific discussion group, with a strong core of experts and useful commentary. It even survived the AOL wave, but as it got opened up with the WWW, it got bad enough that most experts quit.

    3) Sadly, blogging tools are nowhere near good enough to make moderation as easy as it should be. One ought to be able with a click, approve a comment, delete it, or send it to “somewhere else”, ideally with a standard code that says why, and a link so people can follow it off the main thread if they wish. For instance, RealClimate has its Borehole, and other blogs have added such things.

    SO, I am ecstatic to see a stronger moderation policy … but ask for better tools!

    1. I lay much of the contentious poo-tossing to the ability to be anonymous. Real names should be used. In some cases, persons may with to comment on something where anonymity is required. In that case, some nom de post is necessary. But requiring people to use actual names with real email addresses would solve many proglems.

      1. Identity is more complex than that. Online reputational and identity systems have a long way to go.
        It was a lot easier in the early USENET days when people generally had only a single email address and you knew who they were in the real world. These days, it’s easy for peopel to create multiple virutal identities if they want to.

        In descending order along some authentication scale:
        1) Real name, identifiable in real world, i.e., name is unique, or tied to website, WIkipedia entry, CVs, bios, a real email address. Real name consistently used across WWW. That may or may not mean its true, but at least means one get get sense of reality.

        2) Real name, but not identifiable in real world. Bill Smith..

        3) Partial real name: Joe..

        Items 2) or 3) might as well be anonymous (to other commenters), although possibly not to administrator if they have identifiable email addresses, or if the blog requires registration.

        4) More-or-less unique pseudonym, used consistently, Googleable enough to find, and especially if tied to a blog/website, whether or not one actually knows the real-world identity. This is actually *better* than 2) or 3), in that the virtual identity can acquire a reputation, plus or minus. They might have a real email address, even if the real-world identify is still unknown.
        I know of people who who do this consistently and actually have pretty good reasons for pseudonymity.

        5) Blog-locally unique pseudonym, at least better than 6)..

        6) “Anonymous”, which some blogs allow, and is really annoying when there are several people in a thread doing that, who can’t be bothered enough to even do 5). Threads become totally incomprehensible..

        There are of course times when real anonymity may be needed or at least pseudonymity,

        but there are many comments on many blogs for which the plausible strategy is:s simply:
        IUOUI: Ignore Unsupported Opinions from Unidentifiable Individuals

        1. Thanks John. I appreciate that #4 might be useful for certain people under certain circumstances, but “Google-able enough to find” is also “Google-able enough to fire.” In most “right-to-work” states (sorry for the parochialism) an employer can fire at will. In 2008-09, Pharma axed ~30,000 scientists. Given that any teenager worth his Clearasil could effectively cyber-stalk a consistently-pseudonymed poster, if it’s worth creating a nom-de-post, it’s worth doing right.

          1. Farm-a-pawn:
            4) Covered a wide range and later I said “There are of course times when real anonymity may be needed or at least pseudonymity, ”
            It is easy enough for someone to not have a website, not give real email addresses, but still use a consistent pseudonym for comments they worry about, and use a real name or different pseudonym for other material, and that’s very hard to track, especially if they use an anonymizer or at least dynamic IP addresses from a large pool.*

            (There are certainly websites where I’d never even think of using a real name or email address … but that fact helps me resist commenting there, too.)

            It is a tradeoff. A truly-anonymous poster may offer facts that can be verified, once exposed, such as plagiarism or some forms of falsification/fabrication. Some comments shade into opinion or of the form “XYZ is bad, and if people looked they would find the evidence.” The latter might be true or might not, but in such cases, if offered by a consistent pseudonym who has built a track record of credible comments, it may carry more reputational weight. When offered by an unidentifiable one-time name, not so much.

            Anyway, I reiterate: There are sometimes very good reasons for reasonable people to be anonymous, but they must also realize that the net is filled with trolls, sockpuppets, even paid shills who may use anonymous names to make false attacks and fill up threads with nonsense. The challenge is to use anonymity to protect honest whistleblowing, while not allowing reasonable discussions to be swamped and defamatory comments made from behind anonymity, in blogs filled with such.

            Again, the point of all this is that the webmasters get to set the rules about identity, but good rules are not necessarily simple, not just “real identifies required,” and even within less restrictive rules, there are tradeoffs a person may want to make.

            * Blogging systems normally record IP addresses, whether you give a real name/email or not. If you use a fixed IP address, you’re easy to find. If you use a dynamically-assigned IP address (see Wikipedia, it’s much harder, if it’s from a large pool, i.e., you have a DSL router in a large metropolitan area and you reboot it, and lease times are short enough for it not to be sticky. Don’t post to the same site with both real and hoped-to-be-private names in the same session, as the IP address will be the same. IP addresses are geographically locatable to within a pool of those dynamically assigned, which likely doesn’t matter much if that pool = San Francisco Bay Area, but might if it were to a small town. Try this to see where the Internet thinks you are at the moment.

            Assume that even a friendly, ethical site might be hacked or subpoena’d.
            If really worried, use an anonymizer.

      2. To me, restricting comments to publicly disclosed registered users is a recipe for blogospheric irrelevance. The internet is constantly scoured by individuals and institutions seeking to manage or manipulate their “online reputations,” a censorial process that increasingly includes legal and employment-related retribution for the type of things that are discussed here. Anonymity allows at least some discussion of behind the veil perspectives, which in my own case are hopefully somewhat constructive.

        1. That is a very interesting comment, and I do think there is a lot of sense to it. I am rethinking my point in light of your comment. In particular, there probably are persons with inside information who might be commenting here and who might not in the case of real names.

          1. Yes, as per 4) in my earlier comment.

            However, one can distinguish between:
            a) An anonymous (or better consistent pseudonymous) poster providing information that can then be checked out. AND
            b) An unnamed person offering strong opinions and perhaps hurling insults that would not happen face-to-face. IUOUI applies there.

            The reason consistent pseudonymous is to be preferred is that allows some credibility assessment of assertions that may not be so easily checkable.

  6. The editing of comments is out of line. While it may be within RW’s rights, it’s also within my rights to refrain from commenting further, and limiting my visits to this site.

    1. Given most blogging software, a moderator can easily accept or delete a comment. Editing takes more work, so most people don’t do it, but some are willing to take the time. I’ve long argued for the “send this to a shadow thread leaving a link in place, tagged with a code for why I did it” approach. I actually prefer that to seeing comments edited .. It takes comments out of the main thread, but keeps them where they can be used both to assess the moderator and the commenter. Unfortunately I have not seen blogging software that does this.

  7. I firmly feel that Identity of the blopger is important way to clean this system. It should be apparent to the accusers on this site that when you point one finger towards somebody, the remaining 4 fingers may be pointing towards you. Each accuser must look at his or her own record and consider if his or her own data in the public domain does not have something that cant be ridiculed or attacked by another anonymous bloggers should they choose to do so. The victim may have a genuine explanation for what someone is attacking but once the attack is the open, the discussion already is usually so caustic that the victims do not step forward to defend themselves on this forum. Why do something to others that you would not want to happen to yourself. If your allegation is real, write ORI, or to the head of the institution concerned and then if they do not take action then post here. This is the reason law exists in our country. IF you post here without going through this rout suggested, there out to be something not that clean about your accusations. Please lets all try to make this an endeavor where the ultimate purpose of this site is served, and that in my view is to improve the quality of science and weed out the real and genuinely wrong or fraudulent stuff out there.

  8. Their blog, their rules. It is that simple. If you don’t like the comments policy, go somewhere else…create your own blog.

    This blog has scientific value. If the owners wish to retain that value, they must do what is needed. Brand control is why Facebook is alive and MySpace is dead. Keeping flame wars from happening in the comments section is how the owners can protect the reputation “brand” of the site.

    Personal attacks are the last refuge for those that are wrong.

  9. OK, so I’m a little late w/ this comment but here goes. 1) I applaud RW’s (new) policy of editing out ad hominem attacks and “wild accusations.” It is clearly time for that.
    2) this is not an exclusively American blog, though its originators are American; free speech and polite discourse should not be considered an exclusively American trait. Americans in their pride seem to be susceptible to “jingoism.”
    3) anonymity is fine with me, especially if ad hominem attacks are edited out.
    4) what is a “sock puppet” exactly? I can guess, but wondering if someone has an informed definition.

  10. Proof that this policy works is that the last few days have seen a return to civility in the comment section of this blog.

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