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Journals such as AMTD and ACPD contain an open discussion where anybody can comment on papers under review. The peer-reviewers are still anonymous, but other people commenting are not. If I'm reading a paper and have questions about it, what are the pros and cons on posting them as public comments versus writing an e-mail to the author directly? On the one hand my comments may improve the paper; on the other hand, if I write something stupid or step on somebody's toe, that may harm my future career.

What do others think?

(Edit: I might add that in the case I have in mind, I am already in contact with the author)

3

As I pointed out recently in http://nuit-blanche.blogspot.com/2012/07/problem-with-pre-publication-peer.html , the problem with the current peer review system is not the rejection and all the horror stories that go with it, it is the secrecy that goes with the process. Make anonymous the reviews but hold the reviewers accountable is the surest way reviews can be both effective and provide some "currency" as +David Ketcheson points out.

In short If I were you, I would send the author some questions, then (after her/his approval) make the whole discussion available on the interwebs (after you have edited the parts that are sensitive or the ones that make you look really clueless). I do this often on Nuit Blanche with good results. Make sure you run the whole thing you are going to publish through the person you talked to as you are not a journalist. If you ask questions, you surely are not the first or the last one and remember what you publish must enlight both the people of your community and your future self.

  • What I finally did was simply proposing the questions to the author and asking his opinion if he would prefer private or public, and following his preference. – gerrit Aug 2 '12 at 9:30
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I would try to answer this from the standpoint of a cost-benefit analysis.

A private conversation with the author will benefit you in that you now know the answer, and can harm you in that if your question is completely boneheaded the author will think you're an idiot.

A public conversation has the added benefit that you and other people both benefit. This is somewhat of a questionable added benefit, as oftentimes the question being asked isn't relevant to most people, but still, added discourse is often a good thing. Public discussion also has the added cost that more people can see your boneheadedness. While typically this wouldn't be a problem, as most people wouldn't ever encounter the discussion, anything on the internet can go viral, even if only within a smaller community (such as your research field). Personally, that cost strongly outweights the potential benefit. I would definitely stick with personal correspondence.

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The first advantage that comes to my mind is that emailing the author and getting an answer will only help you, while commenting on the paper and getting an answer in the open discussions might help other readers as well.

But I really understand your concerns. One does not want to embarrass oneself or the author.

Which leads me to the inconclusive result of +1 for both methods.

4

By openly and intelligently commenting on many new papers in your subfield, you might gain respect among your peers, which is the currency of the academic world. I can give at least one example: http://nuit-blanche.blogspot.co.uk/.

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