Are Comments Bad for Science?

Popular Science recently declared that it is shutting off comments because "comments can be bad for science." The logic driving this decision is that less informed, quick-to-react readers may dominate the discussion and lead others astray. "Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story," states Popular Science's Online Editor Suzanne LaBarre. The claim is supported by Dominique Brossard's study on how reader perceptions about science are affected by online comments: 

The Internet has the potential to foster discussion and deliberation among far-reaching audiences in spaces such as the comments section of news items and blog posts. However, such discussions are not always rational. Discussions on the Internet can take an uncivil route, with offensive comments or replies impeding the democratic ideal of healthy, heated discussion (Papacharissi, 2004; Shils, 1992).

The question remains as to whether online incivility affects the opinions of “lurkers,” or people who read online discussions without participating in them. Smith and his colleagues (2009) argue that lurkers are in fact participating in deliberation when reading others' comments because a large part of rational discussion consists of reflecting on others' opinions, which may or may not coincide with lurkers' own opinions. In other words, audiences reading uncivil language in blog comments may find the messages hostile and make judgments about the issue based on their own preexisting values rather than on the information at hand. This may develop polarized perceptions on issues among different audience segments that hold different values.

While a few of Brossard's hypotheses were debunked by the study, she did discover that reader's perceptions towards science are shaped in the online blog setting not only by top-down information, but by civil or uncivil viewpoints, as well. 

Most community managers are aware of the power of influence. Couldn't these same principles of social influence be applied by moderators to encourage proactive, meaningful conversation? And where these efforts fail, PopSci moderators could block or remove detractors. While the Internet opens doors for public deliberation of emerging concepts and technologies, it also gives a new voice to non-expert, and sometimes rude, individuals. But this is the beauty of the Internet, no?

Instead of removing the opportunity to debate and add context to a thought-provoking scientific article, I would have liked to see PopSci either go the community management route and/or replace open comments with a click-to-load commenting system. At least this way casual readers could absorb the content and move on without noticing or engaging with the comments. The community would remain whole.

PopSci invites us to voice our opinions and commentary on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, and via email, but surely they understand the limitations of these mediums?

How do you think this decision will impact readership? Will more websites follow Popular Science's lead and remove commenting?

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