Hoisted from the comments: our best off-topic comment threads

Many blog readers don’t bother to read the comments; our readers are no exception. Which, while totally understandable, is kind of too bad because our posts often spark quite interesting discussions that go far beyond and greatly enrich the original post. Brian, Meg, and I really are far from the only ones with interesting things to say around here!

But just exhorting everyone to read the comments would be futile (if that would work, you’d all be reading the comments already!) So I’ve decided to try an experiment. Economist and long time blogger Brad DeLong does occasional posts called “hoisted from the comments”, where he takes what he thinks are particularly good comments and turns them into posts. I’m going to try the same thing. I hope this will encourage people to read the comments and perhaps even comment themselves. It also seems like a nice way to say thanks to our many excellent commenters. And it’s an easy way to put up “new” content during those periods when otherwise I wouldn’t have time to post anything at all.*

And while this does amount to “recycling”, my hope is that most readers won’t mind, because most don’t read the comments. Plus, in future posts I’ll make clear in the post title and intro what the “hoisted” comments are about, so if they sound familiar to you, you can easily skip reading the post.

So for the first one, I decided not to hoist particular comments, but particular comment threads, specifically off-topic ones. I don’t mind off-topic discussions in the comments as long as they’re productive. Often, the natural flow of the conversation in the comments is away from the topic of the post towards related but different topics. But off-topic comment threads seem particularly likely to be missed by readers. So without further ado, here are some of our best off-topic comment threads, all of which I recommend checking out:

  • Margaret Kosmala, Brian, and I had a good discussion of when (if ever) to ask a colleague for a pre-submission review of a draft ms you’ve written. Starts here.
  • Several commenters combined on a useful technical discussion about when and how to correct for spatial autocorrelation in species distribution modeling. Starts here.
  • Margaret Kosmala kicked off an interesting discussion between me, Terry McGlynn, Jim Bouldin, Eric Larson, and others on the differences between “ecology” and “natural history”, the history of how they developed, whether ecology today “devalues” natural history, where one can publish “natural history” so it will be widely noticed, and more. Starts here.
  • In the comments on a humorous post a while back, Florian Schneider and I had a brief serious discussion of body size “constraints” on food web structure. I argued that body size constraints appear far more common than they actually are because the systems in which they operate just happen to be the ones we’ve studied the most. I also pushed back against Florian’s suggestion that body size constraints are somehow “primary”, even in systems in which prey are larger than their predators. Starts here.
  • And finally, in my recent post on alternative ways of filtering the rapidly-growing literature and deciding what to read, Carl Boettiger had a great comment suggesting that the issue eventually will become moot–because we’ll eventually have to give up on the idea of reading the literature at all! (“the whole idea of reading papers itself doesn’t scale indefinitely.”) Go here.

In the comments on this post, I’d welcome your feedback on this experiment.

*Being a good blogger is not mutually exclusive with being lazy.πŸ˜‰

9 thoughts on “Hoisted from the comments: our best off-topic comment threads

  1. As one of those readers who, unfortunately, tends to not read the comments I think this is a great idea, especially for those of us who tend to check our reader as often as our email (must procrastinate!). More often than not I check out your posts soon after they come out and before the fun commenting begins. So this would be a nice way to remind me to go back to some of those posts I really liked to check out the discussion.

  2. Like it. I hadn’t realized so much conversation resulted after reading the initial reply or two to my posts.

    • And if you’re missing some of the responses to your own comments, many others surely are too!πŸ˜‰

      Haven’t decided exactly how we’ll implement this yet. Ideas welcome.

      Could take an occasional lengthy comment and turn it into a guest post. That’s what Brad DeLong does.

      On a regular basis (say, once/month), could do a post where we briefly quote from and link to the best comments of the past month.

      Other ideas…?

      • Hmm… I went back and read a lot of those comments and felt like commenting on them, but didn’t. I think because it felt like disrupting something that was already pointed to (and trying to figure out where exactly to insert a comment). So I think I’d vote for summarizing the major points that were made in a blog post (perhaps with background/context when needed), which might facilitate additional commenting, without requiring the original commenters to necessarily weigh in.

      • Hmm, never thought of that!

        My first reaction is to say don’t worry about it, just go ahead and comment if you want. I’m sure any further comments you make won’t detract from what’s already there! They’re comment threads, they’re not the sort of thing one wants to preserve untouched.πŸ™‚ And your comment will show up as a recent comment in the sidebar, encouraging others to join you, which I think is a good thing.

        Probably I’ll only turn single comments or threads into whole new standalone posts when they really would function well as new posts. Meaning (in part) that I think they’d generate substantial additional commentary. Some of the threads I highlighted here might have worked well for that (particularly the “does ecology devalue natural history?” thread). But others (like the “should you correct for spatial autocorrelation in species distribution modeling?” thread) wouldn’t, I don’t think.

  3. Oh dear, I feel I have been taken out of context. I meant only that reading papers as a filter will not work forever; I have no doubt we will always read papers.

    The spirit of my comment was to draw attention to other scientific contributions that do not experience this problem. Meg hits the nail on the head with her post: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/prioritizing-manuscripts-and-having-data-go-unpublished-for-lack-of-time/ Because papers do not inherently scale but require filtering, she laments the time trying to get papers into the most exclusive filters where they can reach a broad community. Meanwhile the sharing data, which does not have this issue and scales far more immediately to the whole community, particularly when it recieves the time and care to have proper metadata, etc, is neglected.

    Back to topic — the comment threads are an enjoyable forum; but this is a nice reminder of how useful it is that you frequently update posts themselves to reflect the comment threads.

  4. Great idea. I usually miss the comments as I read the posts from my RSS reader. I enjoyed and learned from the two discussions started by Margaret.

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