Time to move scientific debate into the open?

A few months ago, I got a routine request to review a paper about the fate of the plume formed during the 2011 eruption of Nabro volcano, Eritrea. The topic looked interesting, and so I agreed and duly reported. A few weeks later, the journal asked if I might write a commentary to introduce the paper, essentially as a bit of advertising. It wasn’t too hard to agree to that either; after all, you don’t often get the chance to write short opinion pieces for journals, and this was an area where I had a few things to say. So I duly wrote a short piece on ‘small volcanic eruptions and stratospheric aerosol‘ and it went live a few days later.

Within a matter of days, the journal editor emailed again. Someone had submitted a comment on my piece, and the editor wished it to be corrected. My first instinct was  surprise – I had written an opinion piece and I thought I had been quite careful in checking the facts.  But the comment picked up on a single throwaway statement in the discussion. In my original article I had widened the discussion about the Nabro plume to bring in the interpretation from a recent paper in Science which had suggested that atmospheric circulation, related to the Asian monsoon, may have helped to loft the initial volcanic plume from the upper levels of the troposphere into the stratosphere. I perhaps gave way when I should not have done, but duly wrote a correction (corrigendum) to clarify the point, and that was eventually published. Now even though my commentary and correction are all in the public domain, there is no record of the discussion that went on behind the scenes. The originator of the comment is not identified, and the comment that prompted the correction was not published. This week, however, it has all become a little clearer: a pair of formal comments to the original Science paper, and a reply, have now been published in Science. The comments were submitted in August, about the time that my original piece came out – which explains why the rebuke arrived so quickly. But of course, as is usual with these things the comments and reply illuminate the problem (did the Nabro plume reach the stratosphere of its own accord, or not?) but not the solution.

The whole process  of writing the response, checking the proofs and signing the copyright forms to write a one paragraph response to an anonymous comment on what was only ever intended as an opinion piece took a few weeks of to-and-fro. This seems both rather archaic, and unneccessarily formal, compared to the ease with which one can have civilised and informed debate in blogs and other social media. Is it time for journals to move this sort of  ‘comment’ and ‘reply’ out of the constraints of formal ‘publication’, and into the public domain?


Bourassa A E et al., 2012 Large volcanic aerosol load in the stratosphere linked to Asian monsoon transport Science 337 78–81

Sawamura P et al 2012 Stratospheric AOD after the 2011 eruption of Nabro volcano measured by lidars over the Northern Hemisphere Environ. Res. Lett. 7 034013

David Pyle is a volcanologist, and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford. His first encounter with volcanoes was at the age of 7, when he visited Villarrica, Chile, shortly after an eruption. David studied geological sciences at the University of Cambridge, and later completed a PhD on the 'older' eruptions of Santorini, Greece. After a short post-doc at the California Institute of Technology, David returned to a lectureship in Cambridge. In 2006, he moved to his current post in Oxford. David tweets at @davidmpyle

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