Keep Calm and Comment On


Tara Burke

PubMed begins pilot program to allow users to comment on abstracts


Traditionally post-publication commentary on scientific publications has been limited mainly to the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of journals. Last week, in an effort to create an easily accessible forum for open criticism and dialogue about scientific ideas, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) started the pilot phase of PubMed Commons, a program that will allow users to comment on any publication indexed by PubMed, a free database of abstracts from biomedical journals. As of now, PubMed Commons is open to limited users but once the program is officially launched every individual listed as an author on a PubMed citation will be able to be make and view comments.


Before you rush to comment on a paper that contradicts your research, you should read the detailed PubMed Commons user guidelines. The most significant guideline is that comments can only be made with a user’s true identity. That is, no anonymous comments or pseudonyms will be allowed. The guidelines also ask that comments be detailed and provide specific references to the papers (i.e. page and figure numbers). You may mention your own unpublished data but NCBI asks that you not comment on unpublished work by others. NCBI requests that comments be respectful and polite, and neither contain partisan political views nor commercial endorsements. It’s also worth noting that the comments will be permanent once posted and will be citable. A more detailed explanation of the comment guidelines is available on the NCBI FAQs page.


Right now, reactions to the addition of comments to PubMed show moderate enthusiasm as scientists wait patiently to see how well the pilot program is executed. The most contested parts of PudMed Commons appear to be whether comments should be anonymous and who should be allowed to comment. NCBI has adopted the strict commenting guidelines because they are concerned that many scientists may not want to comment if a large number of the comments are irrelevant. Some argue that not allowing comments to be anonymous may deter younger scientists from commenting on certain publications out of fear that it may hurt their career. PubPeer, a website that allows scientists to provide feedback on publications, is excited about PubMed Commons but urges NCBI to allow anonymity of commenters. They argue that anonymity is vital to boosting useful comments. PubPeer sites that the majority of their comments do not come from registered users but from unregistered commenters. Another criticism of the new comment system is that it’s too exclusive, allowing only PubMed-cited authors to comment. Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers, is generally enthusiastic about PubMed Commons. They are excited to see another forum for post-publication review. However, they hope that PubMed Commons eventually becomes open to all individuals.


The implementation of online comments on PubMed brings up other important issues that plague the scientific community such as a seemingly lackluster effort by scientists to engage the public, open-access to all journals, as well as the often criticized peer-review process. More specifically, if comments were open to the general public this may require the addition of a synopsis that better explains and communicates the significance of the findings to the general public. Also, allowing open comments by the general public may further propel the movement to make all journals adopt an open-access format as it may become contradictory that the general public is allowed to comment on PubMed abstracts but doesn’t have access to the full articles. The most direct effect of the new PubMed policy will most likely be on the peer-review process. Comments will likely extend peer review so that it no longer ends once the paper is published. Also, since comments will now be recorded, opinions of papers will now extend beyond the discussions often observed during scientific conferences.  NCBI hopes the pilot program will reveal the best guidelines for comments on PubMed but it is clear that science publications are headed towards a more open policy.


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