Reader Comments on Science Sites (Popular Science Ends Them)

Thanks to Gerrit for pointing out an article  which explains that Popular Science magazine has decided to no longer allow readers to comment about articles posted on their web site. I read the article with much interest because I was curious to find out what led them to make such a far-reaching decision.

In the reader survey I recently posted here (thanks to all who responded!) one of the most common reasons given by readers for coming to the site so regularly was because they enjoyed reading the comments posted here by readers. I concur. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy running this site so much. The contribution of commenters here has enriched the site far beyond what would be possible from just having my own posts available.

So why would Popular Science cut off such a potentially valuable asset to their site? The site’s online content director, Suzanne Labarre, explains in an editorial that, “As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”

I can understand the problem of trolls and spambots. While I am sure that ECW gets only a fraction of the traffic of PS, I have to deal with a our share of them here on E-Cat World — but I don’t find it too onerous of a task. There are effective technological solutions to stopping most spam comments these days, so I don’t have to deal with much of that.

Trolls are a different matter. Labarre describes trolls as a ‘fractious minority’ that is able to skew readers’ perceptions of a given topic — and that this minority can have a far-reaching effect on the quality of science. She writes:

“commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch”

I understand this point of view, and see some truth in it — but I’m not sure that blocking comments altogether is the best response to the troll option. Furthermore, what constitutes a troll is up for debate. One person’s troll is another person’s prophet — depending on one’s personal view on a given topic.

My feeling on the matter is that because reader comments are such an asset to a web site, they deserve the time and attention of a human moderator, and I take my moderating responsibility very seriously. I don’t believe that science bloggers and journalists are the smartest people in the room (I know I’m not!), and I think the internet provides an extremely valuable function in scientific discourse in allowing articles to be challenged and positions to be debated.

Having said that, I understand that publications have editorial policies and perspectives. ECW operates from the perspective that LENR/E-Cat/Cold Fusion is a promising and potentially very useful technology and because of that, I usually don’t allow posts here that seem to blindly deny its validity. Also I don’t want this site to be a place where commenters insult one another or descend into vulgarity — and I moderate accordingly.

My commitment is to keep user comments here — it would be a much poorer place without them. I am far better educated in science and technology because of the readers who post here. Thanks to all for that!