Support Now
December 2, 2020 10:07 pm

Ethics of “Comments and Replies” Section

Why I comment on scientific papers on the earthquake geology of Kashmir region

MANY standard journals and newspapers offer “Comments and Replies” sections that allow scholarly discussions on a recent publication. Such short discussions are often very useful to understand the details on data, methodology, and results etc. of a newly published article. However, if authors, editors and reviewers fail to understand the nature and importance of forum communications by not performing the editorial duties responsibly, they could endanger and damage the integrity of such discussions. Usually, comments raise some of the serious problems, which have somehow gone undetected by the otherwise routine rigorous editorial procedures. For example, I commented on one of the published scientific papers that showed a major fault in the center of the Kashmir basin, and demonstrated that there was absolutely no evidence for such a fault. As you have seen from the above example, a typical comment raises a serious problem not minor problems, which are not worth a discussion.

Once I asked one of my teachers and now a colleague from India that I would like to comment on a publication. He categorically said no, “Don’t do this because you will make enemies, and your research progress will be unnecessarily hindered”. I took that piece of advance lightly, because it was beyond my understanding to accept that scientific researchers, who I thought are full of wisdom, would prefer arrogance over wisdom, and fact over fiction.

Therefore, I started commenting on some of the publications that interest me. And since I have worked on the earthquake geology of the Kashmir region, therefore, my comments are mostly on publications related to that region. My initial thought was, and I am still on it, that in a scholarly world people should not use negative emotions to answer professional comments when someone asks for clarifications etc. And instead, they should be grateful to the commentator for raising some of the critical concerns that would have otherwise remained unanswered. The “Comment and Reply” section is designed to engage in a coordinal and professional manner to communicate a problem so that readers are benefited and all of the serious concerns are nicely discussed and communicated. And this whole exercise would ultimately improve publications, science, and authenticity of data etc., which is what a typical and a decent researcher would like the most.

However, immediately after I started receiving replies I came to realize that my professor was partly right. Because sometimes the replies from authors are derogatory, inflammatory, and often abusive: tactics to hide the deficiencies in the published work. Interestingly, these authors would largely highlight some minor mistakes of commentators to shield the actual problem that was the focus of the discussion in the commentary. But the problem is not just about the unprofessional attitudes of authors in their reply but more about their mind-set, which seems to have strong streaks of arrogance and jealousy that would hinder a decent scientific communication. And how would editors and reviewers not realize the unprofessionalism and abusive response in a reply.

Ideally, reviewers and editors should thoroughly read all the comments and replies, and then decide the merit of what has been claimed by both the parties. However, often this is not the case (of what I have experienced), and by allowing an unprofessional language they are part of the problem because it exploits the commentators, who may not comment again because it would mean to indulge in extremely non-scientific discourse, which often discourages important and timely discussions. It is a pure nuisance, and harassment and who would like to live with it?

I strongly believe that in any sensible society one could discuss anything if it is backed by evidence, and therefore, a typically publishable work should produce evidence based science etc. And normally reviewers and editors would decide the fate of a submitted work, it is their job to do it efficiently. And if they are not doing their job properly the problem can multiply, and instead of reaching a plausible solution it could create more serious problems, which is not why a commentator comments. Because the purpose of any scientific discourse (comment etc.) is to ultimately improve the contents of a publication rather than to involve in personal gains by indulging in writing of an emotionally charged reply etc. When we work, we agree or disagree with people, which is perfectly fine. But, making it a personal animosity is not science, and such language should be thoroughly moderated to make discussions fruitful, and ethically appealing. And if an editorial board allows unhealthy and abusive discussions they are simply helping such authors, and suppressing any future commentary, probably, one of the reasons why comments are uncommon among the scientific community.  And this partly proves what my professor advised me a few years ago.


Therefore, the question remains about what should be done if a serious problem is detected in a newly published report, research etc. Should one just wait and write a new research paper by raising questions on the previously published works, or should we continue to comment so that timely and focused discussions are allowed to solve the problem. I would say: comments are better because they allow commentators and authors to timely discuss a focused problem or a set of problems. Universities are places of wisdom, and when students would read what gets published from a university they will surely feel embarrassed to be part of such a system. I was told by one of my colleagues that Shah is very famous at the University of Kashmir because everyone hates him as he only comments on papers published by the Kashmiri researchers and that suggests he is using his scientific power to defame the earthquake related science that gets published from the university. I would say such allegations are not only false but contradictory to itself, and speaks volumes about the scientific and humane temper that they harbor. As I said above, the motivation of a typical scientific discussion is to grow science and not to distort it. The world of Science is beyond the personal and emotional worlds and it is based on evidence. If we fail to produce credible evidence, it ought to be rejected or retracted. All that glitters is not gold, and by extension I would say that all that gets published does not mean that the data are good it could mean the editorial procedures were weak, and that is when I comment.

Making a herd of researchers to not cite previously published works on the science of earthquakes in Kashmir region is nothing but dishonesty to science, and by indulging in such an act is itself an explanation of personal problems, which would mostly be based on arrogance.

Views expressed are author’s own and do not necessarily represent that of Kashmir Observer

Follow this link to join our WhatsApp group: Join Now

Be Part of Quality Journalism

Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.



Dr Afroz Ahmad Shah

Author is Assistant Professor in Structural Geology, Physical & Geological Sciences at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam. He can be reached at: