October 3, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Peer Review Goes Public

A scientific revolution for the internet age is taking place: peer review is coming out of its secrecy into public light.  Tired of the dominance of big-name journals and their editorial policies, independent-minded researchers are taking their publications to the web.  The revolution is explained by AP reporter Alicia Chang (see Yahoo News), and by the editors of The New Atlantis.
    The new methods of bringing scientific research to visibility has problems of its own.  It’s too early to say if it will succeed.  But with scandals in its closet and complaints of plagiarism, favoritism and stifling of non-traditional ideas, traditional peer review has come under growing criticism.  The freedom of the internet is making open-access sites like arXiv and PLoS a growth industry, while the big-name journals are having to crack open their inner sanctums with blogs, open-access articles and other internet-savvy innovations.

This is a trend to watch.  We don’t know yet if the problems will outweigh the benefits.  It might become comparable to how cable and the web ended the dominance of the mainline news broadcast networks.  Did you know that peer review is a relatively recent phenomenon?  Though early modern scientists stressed the need for sharing and verifying experimental results, peer review as practiced today did not become common till after World War II.  Now, it has too often hindered the very quality it set out to establish.  Authors fear giving away their life work to rivals who might wind up on the review committees.  Journals tend to look for ground-breaking and sensational works, downplaying ordinary but important work.  And worst of all, ideas outside the mainstream are often silently dropped from view.
    Competition is good for ideas; Darwinism has for too long been a stifling orthodoxy.  There will be problems.  Mavericks might get carried away in this new wild west.  Readers might consider an online paper authoritative without sufficient warrant.  The potential benefits look strong, though.  This might stimulate more student interest in science, and the new freedom may lead to more bold exploration of new promising leads (like intelligent design).  Wikis and blogs will permit rapid validation and falsification, and lively debate among scholars.  With the new “multitude of counselors” there may be more safety than the few secret reviewers of the past provided.  Welcome to Web 2.0; hang on.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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