Why Are You Publishing a Comment, Anyway?

I tagged Steinn’s post on publishing a comment a few days ago, because I thought it was pretty funny. In the interim, it’s been picked up by the usual suspects as more evidence of the need to completely discard the current publishing model in favor of something more blog-like.

None of the subsequent discussion has answered what, to me, seems like the most obvious problem with the original story. Namely, why the insistence on publishing this as a Comment in the first place? I mean, here’s the start of the saga:

1. Read a paper in the most prestigious journal in your field that “proves” that your entire life’s work is wrong.”

2. Realize that the paper is completely wong, its conclusions based entirely on several misconceptions. It also claims that an approach you showed to be fundamentally impossible is preferrably to one that you pioneered in its place and that actually works. And among other errors, it also includes a serious miscalculation – a number wrong by a factor of about 1000 – a fact that’s obvious from a a glance at the paper’s main figure.

To me, this doesn’t sound like something that demands a short Comment in reply. This sounds like an excuse to write a full-length debunking paper in “the most prestigious journal in your field.” Cha-ching!

I mean, obviously the subfield, whatever it was, is important enough for a post on the subject to make it into TMPJIYF, so that’s a factor on your side. Your response paper would be directly contradicting something previously published in TMPJIYF, which is another clear indication of the importance of the work. If it’s “your life’s work,” you ought to have plenty of supporting material to back up your version of things, and possibly even extending the basic idea in a way that would make the paper even more attractive to TMPJIYF.

And given the 120-odd steps following those two, it clearly wouldn’t be any more work to publish the thing as a full-blown paper rather than a Comment, which would avoid the fifty-odd steps concerned with the length limit for Comments.

Plus, it would look better on the CV than a Comment. And probably would be read by more people– I have a tendency to forget that the Phys. Rev. journals even publish comments in the first place, and it never occurs to me to scroll all the way to the bottom to see what comments have been published in the latest PRL.

It may be that there’s some discipline-specific reason why this would be totally inappropriate– they’re clearly not working in my corner of the physical sciences, in which the most prestigious journals limit full papers to around four pages, basically the same length that the original author wants Comments to be. But, really, I don’t see why, other than sheer bloody-minded stubbornness, this should be a Comment rather than a full paper.