Why Ditching Comment Sections Sucks for Science

Warning: The following contains many opinions. Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/GUlfz

How many different times and ways have we heard the 'to keep or ditch the comments' argument? Online comment sections are good because they provide a venue for open debate. Comment sections are bad because they can change readers' perceptions of the preceding article, news story, blog post, etc. Comment sections are good because they embody a departure from the old broadcast, one-way model of mass communication. Comment sections are bad because of the 9% of online community participants who even bother to leave comments, a sadly significant percentage are dedicated trolls. Let's ditch the dang comment section, because it's useless anyway. Readers are moving their below-the-line comments to social media, the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. (Tracking these social media comments is another story). I mean, has YOUR commenting on a news article or blog post ever seemed to make any kind of a difference, or changed any minds?

This seems to be how the discussion often goes. And many of the arguments for ditching comment sections are solid ones.

But this doesn't change the fact that having comments separated from the articles, news stories and blog posts they go with SUCKS when it comes to pointing out and correcting inaccuracies or bad science reporting. Of course, we can as always write letters to the editor, or if we are lucky, find the author/journalist's e-mail address to send them our comments directly. (This is harder than news outlets make it out to be. I know - I had a hard enough time finding e-mail addresses for prominent bloggers to contact them for research interviews.) But this usually doesn't allow for media correction in an especially timely or transparent manner.

Many scientists and science bloggers know too well that while they can - and do - publish blog posts that correct scientific inaccuracies in the media, only a tiny percentage of readers who saw the original stories will see these 'correcting' posts. If only there were a way to track blog posts that pointed out errors in news stories. The trackback seems to be no more.

When Popular Science shut off comments, Suzanne LaBarre wrote that "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story." In other words, why give uncivil commenters the power to influence our readers' perceptions of our content, when we've worked so hard to write a complete and fact-checked story that should be able to carry its own weight? What Popular Science didn't seem to consider was the fact that this 'skewing' of a reader's perception surely also occurs when the reader sees Facebook comments and Twitter conversations about a Popular Science story before they follow the link to actually read it. (At least Suzanne LaBarre provided her e-mail address at the bottom of Popular Science's 'Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments' post.)

But there's no point in holding onto a tradition with diminishing benefits, right? Below-the-line comment numbers in many online venues, especially science blogs in my own experience, are decreasing anyway. If all we are left with is a vitriolic commenting community inhabited by trolls and nuts, what's the real harm in turning off below-the-line commenting capabilities?

But as more news outlets and other media platforms ditch their comment sections, some are developing other tools to bring back the power of accessible and timely media criticism and correctionHypothes.is is a new browser application (you can install it for your Chrome browser) that allows users to annotate and comment on any online article, news story or blog post, comment section or no. I just discovered Hypothes.is a few days ago, but I'm already a huge fan. A number of scientists are already using this browser application to provide scientific feedback on news articles that misrepresent climate science research, for example.

A New York Times column, with hypothes.is-powered annotations on the right.

So what is the solution? How do we maintain the power of open debate online? How do we ensure accessible media commentary and correction by readers who know what they are talking about? Can we leave it all to social networks and dedicated e-mails-to-editors? Are journalists going to start tracking critical commentary of their work in science blogs or in social networks, to make up for the loss of comment sections? I fear not. I think we need some creative solutions here.