posted an original scientific paper here on my blog. The obvious question is, “Why is it on the blog instead of in a peer-reviewed journal?”
This project goes way back to the last century. I was doing my first post-doc, and I applied for an NSERC post-doctoral fellowship. I proposed a project that came out of my Ph.D. research. I had been studying leg motor neurons in crustaceans (published in Faulkes and Paul 1997). There was this one paper about spiny lobsters that just did not jive with everything else I had found. In my fellowship application, I proposed to try to resolve those questions by re-examining spiny lobsters’ neurons – in other words, the project that I posted yesterday.
To my surprise, I got the fellowship. I used it to move to Australia and do a post-doc with David Macmillan. It was a wonderful experience. But what happened to the proposed project was... normal research happened.
David Macmillan asked me to pick up another project in addition to the leg motor neuron one (Faulkes and Macmillan 2002), and help mentor an Honors student (Patullo et al. 2001).
I had setbacks in getting animals. Spiny lobsters were too hard to work with. Suppliers for slipper lobsters didn’t come through, and I thought I was sunk until I finally stumbled on seafood place down the road that had live slipper lobsters. All hail the Queen Victoria Market!
Then, once I had the slipper lobsters, I made serendipitous discoveries that I just had to pursue. Discoveries like that slipper lobsters didn’t have giant neurons needed for escape behaviour (Faulkes 2004) and that they were diggers (Faulkes 2006a). And the seafood supplier came through again, with live spanner crabs, which I’d been dying to look at since my thesis on sand crabs (Faulkes 2006b).
I did the leg motor neuron project around all of those others during that post-doc. Clearly, I had lots to show for my time in Australia regardless. But that was a post-doc project, and I’m a tenured associate professor now, so... you can do the math. This has been sitting around, waiting, for over a decade, to see the light of day.
I haven’t even presented this research at a conference. I should have.
All that time, it’s been gnawing at me.
It’s been gnawing at me that I had this project done, but that it wasn’t out yet. Especially because this was the project that I had gone to Australia to do in the first place.
And it’s not been for lack of trying. I’ve submitted this paper, in one form or anther, to about three different journals over the years. It was rejected every time. I may post the reviews later in a separate post. In a nutshell, one of the major issues that the reviewers had was that the data just weren’t conclusive enough. And honestly, I think they’re right. It drives me nuts that I wasn’t able to pin down what was happening with those two medial cell bodies. Reviewers of a different paper that used the same techniques called the methods, “old fashioned.” If they were old fashioned before, they’d probably be criticized as ancient or obsolete today (even though they let me answer the questions).
What could I do? I’m not in Australia, so I couldn’t get more Ibacus. There are no slipper lobsters around the South Texas coastline that I know of. There was no way that I can get any more slipper lobster data.
For a long time, I thought I would try to do the anatomy of the leg motor neurons from another unstudied crustaceans, like a shrimp. It would turn it into a broader comparative paper with more data. But... that wouldn’t shore up the weaknesses in the slipper lobster data. Plus, even if I did get more data from another species, that would take even more time – time spent when I have enough other irons in the fire. How long would it take before this project would be out? Another decade?
I still considered submitting the manuscript, more or less in the form I posted, to yet another journal and trying my luck. But I couldn’t figure out what was an appropriate one. Journals that used to publish crustacean locomotion stuff don’t do much of that now, mainly because the number of researchers in the field has contracted. I was considering submitting it to the forthcoming PeerJ when it opened, for instance. Even then, that I agreed with the limitations that the reviewers pointed out to me meant that I didn’t fancy my odds. Nevertheless, I’m confident enough in what I wrote that I bet that if I keep at it, sooner or later I could find a home for the paper. But do I want to put it out in the Chinese Journal of Irreproducible Crap? Is that any better than burying it in my back yard (if I had a back yard)?
Those, if you like, are the negative reasons to publish the slipper lobster paper on my blog: because it sucks so much that it couldn’t get past the gate at a real journal.
But there are positive reasons to publish it on my blog, too.
Because I am tenured, I have the good fortune to be free to experiment a little. I’ve been productive enough the last few years that whether this slipper lobster paper gets out or not is not going to affect my promotion prospects, any grant applications, my career advancement, etc. Having tenure is supposed to be a way for people to try risky things.
I thought, “Let’s try something new.”
Regular readers will notice that over the last year or so, I’ve been experimenting with different ways of doing my science. I’ve written about independent science. I’ve participated in #SciFund in addition to writing regular grant proposals. I self-published my Presentation Tips ebook on Amazon. Publish some original science on my blog? Well, why not?
As I wrote back at the start of the second round of #SciFund (new emphasis):
(S)o many scientists are still in the place artists were. We’re waiting to be chosen. Waiting to be given permission. Working and working and working in the hope of being given a shot at the big time by someone else with more money, power, and influence. ...
It doesn’t always have to be that way now.
After all, in the last year we’ve seen Rosie Redfield live-blogging her research on arsenic life, even before depositing a complete pre-print in arXiv. And all of that was okay with Science magazine, who published the final version. The rules for biological publishing are not as rigid as they were. Putting manuscripts out on the Internet for people to see is not the absolute kiss of death for publication in a journal that it used to be. I’m thinking my blog post is functionally equivalent to a pre-print on arXiv. Maybe at some point, I can still get this into a real journal. (Hope springs eternal.)
I’ve also been paying attention to the people who say that scientific publishing is broken, and we should blow it up and start over. Lot of those people are basically advocating what I just did yesterday: “just blog the paper.” (The list of influences here is long and varied, and I can’t pull up all the relevant names, posts, ideas and such right at this moment.)
Could blogging research work? We won’t know until there are a few people crazy enough to try. It’s not without precedent. Bora Zivcovic had a blog post of original research
This paper was a good one to try for the experiment. As a scientist, you have to develop a gut instinct for evaluating your own work. Is this publishable? If I was reviewing this, what would I want to see? My instincts told me this paper was stuck in an uncomfortable zone between “publishable” and “shouldn’t see the light of day.” There’s enough good about it that I want to share it, but there’s enough shortcomings with it that I know it would be a continuing struggle to go through traditional scientific publishing.
I do not plan on doing this routinely. It was this very particular set of circumstances with this particular project that led me to try blogging it.
The problems I’ve had getting my slipper lobster paper published are far from unique. People talk about the “file drawer” problem: projects that were never published because they were negative results, or weren’t significantly novel, weren’t published fast enough to avoid getting scooped, or any number of other reasons. There might be a single experiment that that the reviewers think is inconclusive, so you take that out of the final manuscript, even though it might be a clue to other researchers. What do you do with all that data?
Figshare is partly a reaction to, and solution for, problems like this. It allows people to put up datasets and figures and such that wouldn’t going to make it into a paper on their own. (The two key data figures in yesterday’s post are on Figshare and have DOIs, making them citable on their own.)
But I wanted to do more than share the figures. I wanted to tell the scientific story. I wanted to give context to those figures. So, I’m trying this with a blog post.
Do I have concerns? Hell, yes. Another thing I’ve written routinely about on this blog are problems of archiving.
While I was converting the manuscript to blog format yesterday (almost as intense as if I were getting ready to submit it to a journal), I was updating the references. I was pleasantly surprised; almost amazed, honestly. Almost every paper was online, with a DOI, and a PDF. The exceptions were book chapters and a couple of now defunct journals. A lot of them did not used to be online; I know, because I’d checked. The commercial publishers have done a fine job in digitizing those back issues, and making a lot of that old literature more readily available than ever before.
I am worried about that blog post being ephemeral. I do plan to put up a PDF on my home page, and will probably deposit copies to my university library, too. Any other suggestions would be welcome.
Ultimately, I published the paper on my blog because it wasn’t doing anyone any good sitting on my hard drive. It may still not do anyone any good (it is pretty darned specialized, and there are not as many crustacean neurobiologists as there once were), but at least now the chance is more than zero.
Okay, everyone. Fire away. I know people are going to have opinions on this. Indeed, I bet that this will be like the situation where the DVD bonus features are more interesting than the actual movie: more people will care that I posted a paper on my blog than about crustacean motor neurons. And that is just one more positive reason to do it: publishing a paper on a blog is still unusual enough to be worth talking about. Another paper in a niche journal isn’t. Conversation starter, publicity stunt, call it what you will: I plead guilty.
Did I give up on trying for a peer-reviewed journal too easily? Am I showing the way for how science publishing will be done in the future? Am I crazy, or just completely crazy?
The distal leg motor neurons of slipper lobsters, Ibacus spp. (Decapoda, Scyllaridae)
Abandonment issues by Al Dove (the homeless paper I mention in the postscipt was the one I posted yesterday)
Why or why not cite blog posts in scientific papers?
Circadian Rhythm of Aggression in Crayfish
Faulkes Z. 2004. Loss of escape responses and giant neurons in the tailflipping circuits of slipper lobsters, Ibacus spp. (Decapoda, Palinura, Scyllaridae). Arthropod Structure & Development 33(2): 113-123. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.asd.2003.12.003
Faulkes Z. 2006a. Digging mechanisms and substrate preferences of shovel nosed lobsters, Ibacus peronii (Decapoda: Scyllaridae). Journal of Crustacean Biology 26(1): 69-72. http://dx.doi.org/10.1651/C-2628.1
Faulkes Z. 2006b. The locomotor toolbox of spanner crabs, Ranina ranina (brachyura, Raninidae). Crustaceana 79(2): 143-155. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156854006776952874
Faulkes Z, Macmillan DL. 2002. Effects of removal of muscle receptor organ input on the temporal structure of non-giant swimming cycles in the crayfish, Cherax destructor. Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology 35(3): 149-155. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1023624021000014734
Faulkes Z, Paul DH. 1997. A map of the distal leg motor neurons in the thoracic ganglia of four decapod crustacean species. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 49(3): 162-178. http://dx.doi.org/10.1159/000112990 [Note: Yesterday’s post will make a lot more sense if you look at this paper.]
Patullo BP, Faulkes Z, Macmillan DL. 2001. Muscle receptor organs do not mediate load compensation during body roll and defense response extensions in the crayfish Cherax destructor. The Journal of Experimental Zoology 290(7): 783-790. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jez.1129
Photographs by David Paul.