The Quiet Revolution in Scientific Peer-Review: An Introduction to Research Blogging

January 30, 2008

A quiet revolution is taking place in the way the primary research literature gets reviewed. Like all revolutions in their infancy, this one looks hungry, raggedy and generally not respectable. But that could change rather quickly given the right technology.

Research Blogging is a brand new service that aggregates commentary about the peer-reviewed literature appearing on blogs.

Let's say Mary the Chemist finds a procedure in a paper on reductive amination that solves a problem she's been having in isolating her products. After having used the procedure awhile, she notices that one class of substrate not described in the original paper gives much lower yields than those reported. Not having the resources to create a complete paper around her observation, she decides to write about what she found and post it to her blog.

If that were the end of the story, it's very unlikely Mary's posting would be of much use. Although Mary's blog is read by a couple of hundred people daily, few of the readers on the day her posting appeared had an interest in reductive amination or the paper she discussed. And none of her readers on that day were able to follow up on her observation.

Mary continues to post to her blog and eventually her observation, of potentially great value to the right chemist, gets buried in the archives (and on page 3 or 4 of most Google searches).

Enter Research Blogging, a Web-based database associating blog entries with references to the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Some time before writing about her observations, Mary signed up for a Research Blogging account and registered her blog with the service. At the time she wrote her observations on the reductive amination reaction, Mary applied special markup to the posting to make it readable by Research Blogging's automated system.

Instead of disappearing into the digital abyss, Mary's observation becomes permanently associated with the original paper.

Although Research Blogging's user interface is currently primitive, it's unlikely to remain so for long. The founders of the service appear both motivated and committed, recently forming a non-profit corporation to support their work.

In the future it's not inconceivable that Barry the Chemist, after having finished doing his CAS search on reductive amination methods would next turn to Research Blogging to make sure he really knows everything written about the three most promising peer-reviewed papers he's considering using.

Research Blogging is a wonderful idea with great potential to fill a significant need. Like any new technology, though, there are some issues to work out. The next article in this series will offer some ideas.