November 14, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Transparency Is Changing Scientific Practice

Secret peer review, paper journals and exclusive scientific clubs may become things of the past.

“Open access” is one aspect of a scientific revolution in progress: a revolution of science, not just about science.  The old-fashioned peer review process, in which papers were judged by a secret panel unknown to the author, has seen numerous problems.  For instance, a paper might be specialized that there are only a few researchers in the world able to judge its merits, and one of those reviewers might be a rival to the author.  Then, journal editors have held sway over which papers they deem worthy of print, a costly process.  These practices have tended to hide scientific research from the public eye and make peer review seem like a kind of mumbo-jumbo in smoke-filled rooms.  Furthermore, it wastes time.  Often many months go by from the time a paper is submitted to the time it gets printed.  Many scientists don’t like peer review as practiced, and the public is prevented from hearing ideas that editors reject.

Add “open evaluation,” another new trend: letting scientists around the world vote on the merits of research.  In a new ebook, Nikolaus Kriegeskorte argues that scientists themselves are in a best position to develop a fair evaluation process, according to PhysOrg.  This may serve to liberate researchers from the tyranny of journals.  A key word to the movement is “transparency” let there be nothing to hide.  Kriegeskorte sees the emerging process as a kind of neural network:

Yet unlike the richly interactive and ongoing activity in a neural network, the current peer review process is typically limited to 2-4 reviewers and remains fossilized in pre-publication phase. According to Kriegeskorte, secretive and time-limited pre-publication peer review is no longer the optimal system. He writes, “Open evaluation, an ongoing post-publication process of transparent peer review and rating of papers, promises to address the problems of the current system. However, it is unclear how exactly such a system should be designed.”

The vast resources of the internet, and its speed, can create a whole new way of thinking about scientific review.  Ideas can get posted much sooner, and be reviewed by a much wider community after – not before – submittal.  This would be transparent and ongoing.  Other scientists agreed on these ideas: “the evaluation of papers should be completely transparent, post-publication, perpetually ongoing, and backed by modern statistical methods for inferring the quality of papers; and the system should provide a plurality of perspectives on the literature.”

Another fundamental change to science provided by internet collaboration is the expansion of “citizen science,” where large numbers of non-specialists join in data collection and analysis.  PhysOrg posted another short piece on this: “You can be a star – on science’s edge.”  Bouncing off an article on Chemical & Engineering News, the article began, “The rapid growth in ‘citizen science’ projects during the past decade is enabling more and more science enthusiasts, hobbyists, students and other ordinary people to participate in the excitement of real-world scientific research and help solve serious scientific mysteries.”

For those who have seen the practice of science as settled and reliable, these movements show that science can still change in fundamental ways.  Imagine if scientists could criticize Darwinism without the filters of doctrinaire editors.  Imagine if knowledgeable non-specialists could gain a hearing in the debates on controversial topics, or if they could break through the glass ceiling to propose fruitful ideas.  Will science become a wild west?  Or will new kinds of tyranny emerge to shut out mavericks?

These developments are interesting; a sea change is underway.  It may not all be good.  We have seen “open access” sites like Wikipedia provide good information in some subjects, but get used by ideologues to shut out opposing points of view.  Some famous persons, for instance, have been frustrated at their inability to correct false statements about themselves on Wikipedia.  As soon as they correct the falsehoods, internet censors change them back almost instantly, and there is no recourse.

We’ll have to see how these movements shake out for good or ill.  Transparency, however, sounds like a great idea.  There are topics that need to handled with care, such as technologies that could threaten national security because of the potential for “dual use” in military applications.  In general, though, sunlight is the best disinfectant.


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