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Comments affect perception of research, study says

More frequent negative comments posted to scholarly research articles online might influence readers’ perceptions of the research itself, according to a recent study.

The study, outlined Feb. 14 at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, found, overall, polite comments caused supporters and skeptics to be split fairly evenly, while rude and negative comments caused readers to adopt a critical view on the academic arguments.

“Humans are so influenced by our peers and what other people say,” said Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a Boston University professor of psychology. “So especially if we’re not certain or if we’re looking for a reason to go in a different direction and other people start voicing criticisms, we get swept up with them.”

Readers were presented a scientific article discussing the risks of nanotechnology, and after reading respectful comments, 43 percent of readers found the risks to be low and 46 percent found them to be high. With the addition of negative feedback, 32 percent found the risks to be low and 52 percent found the risks to be high.

Caldwell-Harris said she found her students expressing reluctance at posting in particularly negative sections of comments. Students told her after they posted their findings, negative feedback increased exponentially.

“First of all, you get people who don’t read the articles and they just read the headlines and they sound off on whatever they think the article is probably about,” said Connor Wood, a third-year Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Ph.D. student. “And if you’ve got an article that’s really gone viral and you’re getting comments from all over the place, you’ll get some people who will just be insulting.”

Wood said he is researching the relationship between religion and science. He writes for the website ScienceOnReligion.org and the blog Patheos.com, which centers on conversation about religion.

He said he often gets hostile comments and believes there is no better topic to incite rude remarks.

“I got one person who called me a ‘closeted atheist’ because he or she thought that my article was actually saying negative things about religion,” he said. “They were insulting me directly.”

Aliza Stein, a research assistant at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, said feedback submission would be better off if it were completely confidential with the comments only visible to the author of the article.

“You would get a more honest response, because people wouldn’t be impacted by their peers a lot,” Stein, a College of Arts and Sciences junior, said.

CAS senior Belva Dibert said even with negative feedback, she does not believe non-experts should be withheld from commenting on the blogs.

“It’s important that non-experts get into the debate because they often have different motivations than, say, the researchers,” she said. “A non-expert may consider the application of the study in his or her life beyond just the theoretical boundaries.”

Allison Borges, a CAS senior majoring in psychology and neuroscience, said she is neither worried about, nor opposed to receiving negative feedback.

“While the results of the study are a little disheartening in that readers were biased by other comments, I still think comments are valuable,” she said. “This study makes me excited about my future career and the challenge of making my research matter to myself as well as others.”

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