I Think This Post Warrants Four Keyboards

At his blog, Seth Roberts has repeatedly lamented that in scientific discourse, there is too much criticizing the weaknesses of scientific work and too little appreciation of its strengths:

For a few years, I attended a meeting called Animal Behavior Lunch where we discussed new animal behavior articles. All of the meetings consisted of graduate students talking at great length about the flaws of that week’s paper. The professors in attendance knew better but somehow we did not manage to teach this. The students seemed to have a very strong bias to criticize. Perhaps they had been told that “critical thinking” is good. They may have never been told that appreciation should come first.

Based on my experience, which, of course, differs from his, it seems to me he is overstating the case. This seeming imbalance is largely due to the way communication works in scientific fields. No journal would publish an uninvited comment that reads, "The article 'Social Networks in Car Manufacturing Management' by James Miller was really brilliant. I learned a lot from it and I think the innovative survey technique he used should also be utilized by other researchers who study social networks. I made multiple photocopies of the article and sent them to my friends..."

O.k., I'm getting carried away here, but you get the idea.

The norm to focus on weaknesses makes sense because in nine out of ten (or so) cases you can learn more from someone pointing out weaknesses rather than strenghts. In part this is because the author of the original article will already have put some effort into pointing out the strengths of his work and in part it is due to something I haven't figured out yet.

So, if an author publishes an article in a journal and everybody really likes it, they're just going to stay silent. This is a problem, however, because silence may also mean that nobody's read it (which is arguably even worse than people disliking it). Silence is a noisy signal.

I have an idea. All journals have webpages nowadays. At Amazon you can rate books on a five-star scale. On YouTube you can rate videos, also on a five-star scale. And so on. I propose that academic journals let anybody who has access to the digital version of their articles rate articles on a similar scale. It shouldn't be stars; rather, something more scholarly, say, pens. Or brains.

Wait a minute, stars would be ideal for astronomy journals. Test tubes for chemistry journals. Bullets for criminology journals. Etc., etc.

Think about it: "Five bullets? That's a must-read!" "Only two brains? Boy, it seems that Wilson bloke is really losing it, shame!"

Oh, and I think invited comments should come with "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" icons.

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