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On the Net, snark can trump depth. But bans are no solution.

Fed up of trolls derailing conversation on its boards, the online version of the venerable science magazine, Popular Science, has officially turned off its comments section. It has cited research that concludes that the general musings of pot-stirrers and spambots adversely affect reader comprehension. Comment sections are particularly unsuited to science articles, the argument goes, as they polarise opinion and reduce understanding of the issues under discussion.

But one of the great advantages of digital publishing is the immediacy and interactivity created between writer and reader. Instead of curated and edited letters' sections in print, which can only address a handful of articles, the internet affords readers the opportunity to engage with writers and each other on any number of issues at length. Comment threads can add perspective to articles and foster a sense of community. It is not unheard of for erudite commentators to receive offers to contribute to the websites they frequent.

Of course, threads are frequently hijacked by haters and trolls and spammers, baiting other commentators into vitriolic back-and-forths that often bear little relation to the article itself. Nor does the immediacy of response always provoke a thoughtful discussion. Snark often triumphs at the cost of depth. But there are a range of options available to publishers without them having to resort to banning comments altogether, from heavy moderation to authenticated commentator accounts via Google, Facebook or even Twitter. Some sites rely on other commentators to report offensive comments. Publishers can continue to experiment with methods with which they can curb the worst impulses on the internet. But surely, total elimination strikes at the very notions of openness and interactivity the Web is supposedly built on.

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