A blog on statistics, methods, and open science. Understanding 20% of statistics will improve 80% of your inferences.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Five reasons blog posts are of higher scientific quality than journal articles

The Dutch toilet cleaner ‘WC-EEND’ (literally: 'Toilet Duck') aired a famous commercial in 1989 that had the slogan ‘We from WC-EEND advise… WC-EEND’. It is now a common saying in The Netherlands whenever someone gives an opinion that is clearly aligned with their self-interest. In this blog, I will examine the hypothesis that blogs are, on average, of higher quality than journal articles. Below, I present 5 arguments in favor of this hypothesis.  [EDIT: I'm an experimental psychologist. Mileage of what you'll read below may vary in other disciplines].

1. Blogs have Open Data, Code, and Materials

When you want to evaluate scientific claims, you need access to the raw data, the code, and the materials. Most journals do not (yet) require authors to make their data publicly available (whenever possible). The worst case example when it comes to data sharing is the American Psychological Association. In the ‘Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct’ of this professional organization that supported torture, point 8.14 says that psychologists only have to share data when asked to by ‘competent professionals’ for the goal to ‘verify claims’, and that these researchers can charge money to compensate any costs that are made when they have to respond to a request for data. Despite empirical proof that most scientists do not share their data when asked, the APA considers this ‘ethical conduct’. It is not. It’s an insult to science. But it’s the standard that many relatively low quality scientific journals, such as the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, hide behind to practice closed science.

On blogs, the norm is to provide access to the underlying data, code, and materials. For example, here is Hanne Watkins, who uses data she collected to answer some questions about the attitudes of early career researchers and researchers with tenure towards replications. She links to the data and materials, which are all available on the OSF. Most blogs on statistics will link to the underlying code, such as this blog by Will Gervais on whether you should run well-powered studies or many small-powered studies. On average, it seems to me almost all blogs practice open science to a much higher extent than scientific journals.

2. Blogs have Open Peer Review

Scientific journal articles use peer review as quality control. The quality of the peer review process is as high as the quality of the peers that were involved in the review process. The peer review process was as biased as the biases of the peers that were involved in the review process. For most scientific journal articles, I can not see who reviewed a paper, or check the quality, or the presence of bias, because the reviews are not open. Some of the highest quality journals in science, such as PeerJ and Royal Society Open Science, have Open Peer Review, and journals like Frontiers at least specify the names of the reviewers of a publication. Most low quality journals (e.g., Science, Nature) have 100% closed peer review, and we don’t even know the name the handling editor of a publication. It is often impossible to know whether articles were peer reviewed to begin with, and what the quality of the peer review process was.

Some blogs have Open pre-publication Peer Review. If you read the latest DataColada blog post, you can see the two reviews of the post by experts in the field (Tom Stanley and Joe Hilgard) and several other people who shared thoughts before the post went online. On my blog, I sometimes ask people for feedback before I put a blog post online (and these people are thanked in the blog if they provided feedback), but I also have a comment section. This allows people to point out errors and add comments, and you can see how much support or criticism a blog has received. For example, in this blog on why omega squared is a better effect size to use than eta-squared, you can see why Casper Albers disagreed by following a link to a blog post he wrote in response. Overall, the peer review process in blog posts is much more transparent. If you see no comments on a blog post, you have the same information about the quality of the peer review process as you’d have for the average Science article. Sure, you may have subjective priors about the quality of the review process at Science (ranging from ‘you get in if your friend is an editor’ to ‘it’s very rigorous’) but you don’t have any data. But if a blog has comments, at least you can see what peers thought about a blog post, giving you some data, and often very important insights and alternative viewpoints.

3. Blogs have no Eminence Filter

Everyone can say anything they want on a blog, as long as it does not violate laws regarding freedom of speech. It is an egalitarian and democratic medium. This aligns with the norms in science. As Merton (1942) writes: “The acceptance or rejection of claims entering the lists of science is not to depend on the personal or social attributes of their protagonist; his race, nationality, religion, class, and personal qualities are as such irrelevant.” We see even Merton was a child of his times – he of course meant that his *or her* race, etcetera, is irrelevant.

Everyone can write a blog, but not everyone is allowed to publish in a scientific journal. As one example, criticism recently arose about a special section in Perspectives on Psychological Science about ‘eminence’ in which the only contribution from a woman was about gender and eminence. It was then pointed out that this special section only included the perspectives on eminence by old American men, and that there might be an issue with diversity in viewpoints in this outlet.

I was personally not very impressed by the published articles in this special section, probably because the views on how to do science as expressed by this generation of old American men does not align with my views on science. I have nothing against old (or dead) American men in general (Meehl be praised), but I was glad to hear some of the most important voices in my scientific life submitted responses to this special issue. Regrettably, all these responses were rejected. Editors can make those choices, but I am worried about the presence of an Eminence Filter in science, especially one that in this specific case filters out some of the voices that have been most important in shaping me as a scientist. Blogs allows these voices to be heard, which I think is closer to the desired scientific norms discussed by Merton.

4. Blogs have Better Error Correction

In a 2014 article, we published a Table 1 of sample sizes required to design informative studies for different statistical approaches. We stated these are sample sizes per condition, but for 2 columns, these are actually the total sample sizes you need. We corrected this in an erratum. I know this erratum was published, and I would love to link to it, but honest to Meehl, I can not find it. I just spend 15 minutes searching for it in any way I can think of, but there is no link to it on the journal website, and I can’t find it in Google scholar. I don’t see how anyone will become aware of this error when they download our article.

When I make an error in a blog post, I can go in and update it. I am pretty confident that I make approximately as many errors in my published articles as I make in my blog posts, but the latter are much easier to fix, and thus, I would consider my blogs more error-free, and of higher quality. There are some reasons why you can not just update scientific articles (we need a stable scientific record), and there might be arguments for better and more transparent version control of blog posts, but for the consumer, it’s just very convenient that mistakes can easily be fixed in blogs, and that you will always read the best version.

5. Blogs are Open Access (and might be read more).

It’s obvious that blogs are open access. This is a desirable property of high quality science. It makes the content more widely available, and I would not be surprised (but I have no data) that blog posts are *on average* read more than scientific articles because they are more accessible. Getting page views is not, per se, an indication of scientific quality. A video on Pen Pineapple Apple Pen gets close to 8 million views, and we don’t consider that high quality music (I hope). But views are one way to measure how much impact blogs have on what scientists think.

I only have data for page views from my own blog. I’ve made a .csv file with the page views of all my blog posts publicly available (so you can check my claims below about page views of specific blog posts below, cf. point 1 above). There is very little research on the impact of blogs on science. They are not cited a lot (even though you can formally cite them) but they can have clear impact, and it would be interesting to study how big their impact is. I think it would be a fun project to compare the impact of blogs with the impact of scientific articles more formally. Should be a fun thesis project for someone studying scientometrics.

Some blog posts that I wrote get more views than the articles I comment on. One commentary blog post I wrote on a paper which suggested there was ‘A surge of p-values between 0.041 and 0.049 in recent decades’. The paper received 7147 view at the time of writing. My blog post received 11285 views so far. But it is not universally true that my blogs get more pageviews than the articles I comment on. A commentary I wrote on a horribly flawed paper by Gilbert and colleagues in Science, where they misunderstood how confidence intervals work, has only received 12190 hits so far, but the article info of their Science article tells me their article received three times as many views for the abstract, 36334, and also more views for the full text (19124). On the other hand, I do have blog posts that have gotten more views than this specific Science article (e.g., this post on Welch’s t-test which has 38127 hits so far). I guess the main point of these anecdotes is not surprising, but nevertheless worthwhile to point out: Blog are read, sometimes a lot.


I’ve tried to measure blogs and journal articles on some dimensions that, I think, determine their scientific quality. It is my opinion that blogs, on average, score better on some core scientific values, such as open data and code, transparency of the peer review process, egalitarianism, error correction, and open access. It is clear blogs impact the way we think and how science works. For example, Sanjay Srivastava’s pottery barn rule, proposed in a 2012 blog, will be implemented in the journal Royal Society Open Science. This shows blogs can be an important source of scientific communication. If the field agrees with me, we might want to more seriously consider the curation of blogs, to make sure they won’t disappear in the future, and maybe even facilitate assigning DOI’s to blogs, and the citation of blog posts.

Before this turns into a ‘we who write blogs recommend blogs’ post, I want to make clear that there is no intrinsic reason why blogs should have higher scientific quality than journal articles. It’s just that the authors of most blogs I read put some core scientific values into practice to a greater extent than editorial boards at journals. I am not recommending we stop publishing in journals, but I want to challenge the idea that journal publications are the gold standard of scientific output. They fall short on some important dimensions of scientific quality, where they are outperformed by blog posts. Pointing this out might inspire some journals to improve their current standards.