Not to anthropomorphize a government agency or anything, but NASA is really confused in their social media actions.
I’m the millionth person to point this out but it seems worthwhile for me to do so if for no other reason than to be able to find the information later by searching my blog.
NASA has had the policy and practice (and mandate?) to share their science with “the public.” The public being US taxpayers, but also related scientists worldwide, children, and lots of other groups. They do this through websites and tv shows and more recently podcasts, blogs, and twitter. They publish scientific findings in scholarly journals, present them at meetings, and share scientific data freely through many different archives. Organizations that receive funding from NASA are required to do the same.* NASA typically does a pretty good job of this – partly because their stuff is so very fascinating that it would be hard not to have a cool and interesting message about it but mostly because they have lots of professional communicators, outreach professionals, and experienced scientists who work hard at it.
With that said, what on earth (or in space, ha!) are they thinking in this reaction to Dr. Redfield’s evaluation of their recent microbiology/arsenic research? David Dobbs has a good blog post describing this. Dobbs quotes
From “NASA’s arsenic microbe science slammed,” at CBC News:
When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications.
My immediate concern isn’t whether the science is good or that the criticisms are valid, but certainly if NASA intends to engage with the “public” and not just broadcast to us, they need to respond to these criticisms. Further, these responses should be in an appropriate manner – a blog post or a comment on Dr. Redfield’s blog. Dr Redfield’s blog is well known and well-respected and she registered the post with ResearchBlogging. Her comments section is also very informative. I agree that NASA shouldn’t necessarily be expected to engage on all fronts with people linking to their work, but as Dobbs says, this blog is different.
Moreover, this paper is being reviewed on many blogs by scientists who are expert in this field and adjacent fields, and has been reviewed on F1000 (some links from Code for Life blog). If you have a press release on a paper, then you should be prepared to continue the engagement after you have broadcast your message.
The paper’s author has also stated that replies should be in a “scientific venue.”** My dear scientist, the web is a scientific venue! Haven’t you heard? This is the #altmetrics or post-publication peer review we’ve been talking about for quite a while.
Interestingly, some of the comments on the original post by Redfield basically indicate that responding on blogs is only for those who don’t have standing or who are not qualified. Grrr. That person needs to be educated! (I do hope that the technical comment or whatever that is eventually sent to Science attributes some credit to the commenters of that thread – a lot of good stuff there).
Update: Randy left a nice comment (thank you) which caused me to go and look at updates on the Guardian site. This caught my eye:
"'Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,' wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner."
So the proper way to engage in scientific discourse is to hold press conferences (2 now)? Gosh, maybe I should toss my entire dissertation because I've been witnessing scientific discourse at conferences, in conference hallways, on twitter, in blogs, on wikis, on post-publication peer review sites... Hrumph.
* One more time for the record. My place of work of course (google me) gets money from NASA. This post is my opinion only and does not reflect that of my place of work or any of the employees there. This post is purely from the point of view of an observer of scholarly communication.
** Do note that I am American. I put my . in my “” Canadians, Australians, and Brits for some crazy reason put it outside.