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Reddit and the Power of Review

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Reddit/r/science is a wonderful internet location for sorting through the latest fascinating findings from science. For those of you who are unfamiliar with how Reddit works, basically users submit “stuff” that falls in to certain categories (and there are hundreds if not thousands of categories from which to choose) and other users “upvote” or “downvote” that stuff. Upvotes rise to the top of the lists, downvotes sink to the bottom.

On r/science, users submit, as you likely guessed, science-related stuff, often from academic journals.

Yesterday an article was posted regarding a very large discovery of Old Stone Age (Middle Paleolithic) tools at a site in South Africa. The post linked to a website called Sci-News and the headline said, “1-Million-Year-Old Artifacts Found in South Africa.” The article made the front page of r/science and generated quite a large number of upvotes. The comments and actions that followed provided a very interesting illustration of the power of review.

The lead comment from Reddit users under that original link was, “Misleading Title: Artifacts found at 1,000,000 year old archaeological site.” A criticism. Why?  Because the original paper published in PLOS spent very little time talking about the age of the artifacts. And frankly, even as the top comment suggested, it didn’t spend a lot of time on the age of the archaeological site either.  It turns out that finding a 1,000,000 year old artifact in this part of South Africa is fairly unremarkable in archaeology circles.

What the paper actually was highlighting was the sheer volume of artifacts found, not dozens but tens of thousands, as well as the fact that the site is in danger of being further destroyed by encroaching real estate development.

With that backdrop, what happened next is truly fascinating. The lead author of the paper, PhD candidate Steven Walker, found out that the story had been linked to Reddit, so he actually got online and placed this comment under the top comment:

[–]s_j_walker 539 points 14 hours ago

Lead author of the published paper here.

The site described in this blog post is Kathu Townlands. They are describing research we published in PLOS one here

The dating of the site is based on a variety of indicators. The artefacts at the site were made sometime between 1,000,000 and 700,000 years ago (see our article for our reasoning).

I’ll happily answer any questions at this post over here:

Please see the following news article for a much better description of our findings

He actually spent some time answering reader questions about his research! And the headline from the “popular” science article in IOL Scitech that the Mr. Walker pointed to was, “Ancient treasure chest under threat.”  This is a much more accurate yet still attention-grabbing headline.

And for the purists out there who would rather read the original paper, this is what Reddit looks like today. Notice what’s nestled just below the original post.  Here’s to the power of review and getting to the most accurate representation of the truth.



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