Thursday, January 18, 2007

Comment and Reply

The evolution of animal behavior can be a surprisingly conservative process. Even though the habitat, niche, and social organization of a creature may change as it evolves, certain core behaviors are often retained.

One example of this is the fecal throwing habits of monkeys. Bereft of dangerous claws, poison, or hooves, monkeys have been forced to defend themselves by slinging their own poo at perceived enemies. Despite tens of millions of years of evolutionary divergence, the adaptation of culture, and the invention of the scientific method, researchers do exactly the same thing. Only they call it “Comment and reply”.

There are two criteria that must be met before a researcher engages in this undignified activity.

First, he must identify a paper that, despite appearing to be the summation of a scientific research project, is in fact a huge, steaming pile of shit.

Second, he must fee that this paper was either hurled at him directly by a rival team, or else tossed close enough that the smell distracts him from the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge.

When an aggrieved scientist feels that these two criteria have been met, he then squeezes out his own steaming turd, and fires it off at the editor of the offending paper. That editor takes the crap, examines it with the help of a reviewer, and passes it on to the original authors.

Those authors in turn drop a load in response to the comment, called a reply. The comment and reply are then generally published, side by side, in the journal that ran the original paper.

Usually that is all that happens, aside from the odd snide letter to the editor. Rarely, one side or the other will capitulate, and plate the opposing side’s poop with gold. And every now and again, a real shitfight results, with claims and counter arguments splattering against each other for years to come.

I am about to start putting together my first comment. Hopefully the level of discourse will be higher than that in this explanation.


Chris R said...

Crafting comments which sound superficially reasonable and respectful, but are anything but in reality, is a time-honoured scientific tradition. Don't go letting the side down, now...

Are we going to get to see your opus at any point do you think?

C W Magee said...

Unfortunately, crafting superficially reasonable papers is also a time-honoured tradition, which is why shit must be slung. Hopefully, you'll see the comment in the Astrophysical Journal Letters about a year from now...