January 25, 2007

An end to peer review?

I just read an interesting article in the csmonitor. It essentially describes avenues by which scientists can publish their findings on the internet (by blogs, e-books, online journals, personal websites) and begs the question, "Is the scholarly journal coming to an end?"

Well, I don't think so . . . not yet anyways. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of positives for online publishing. For one, you can bypass that pesky peer-reveiw system if you publish your experimental findings on your own blog. Anyone in the world can then search and find it . . . for free, no subscription needed. It will extend the reach of science and help create a genuine informed public. Anyone can read, critique and comment on an entry.

The article describes two such new sources of free science that look quite promising:

"Two new scientific publications, both available only online, may signal what's ahead. The PLoS ONE (plosone.org), a journal begun by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) last month, aims to put as many new scientific articles as possible on the Internet to be read by anyone, free of charge. The Journal of Visualized Experiments, or JoVE (myjove.com), is a kind of YouTube for researchers. It operates on the theory that a short video showing how an experiment is done is better than thousands of words that attempt to describe it."
It makes it easier for researchers to publish. While a peer reviewed journal may only publish 10% of it's submissions, PLoS expects to publish 2/3's of its submissions.
"While articles receive a basic screening, they don't have to attain the standard of representing groundbreaking work in order to be published. An article only has to be based on solid science. The idea is that the more valid research is published, the better, as it contributes to an online database."
(As far as JoVE is concerned, the article didn't really make it clear whether there were any sort of restrictions concerning what can be published.)

I definitely like the concept of a free journal. And I embrace the idea of an informed public, who at least have a general understanding of important and basic scientific principles. Journal subscriptions can often be so pricy that it seems like the information is priveledged knowledge.

Though possible negatives to the movement in online publishing might be:

1. A greater likelihood for crap to get published - Like it or not, the peer-review system is the best thing that science has got. Sure, one might run into some bias at one point or another. A lot of good research has missed out on publication, while, in rare cases, fraudulent work has been passed off as good science. And I do think that it's silly to drop a study, because the findings were statistically nonsignificant. You can often learn a lot from these investigations. But I do feel on the overall, the peer-review system fulfills its purpose. I think that if your research can't hold up to the critique of three experts in your own field, then it doesn't need to be in your flagship journal. Science through peer-review is, at the present time, the best way to distribute good quality work. The system is what keeps science from being persuaded by ideology. So I think that some type of peer-review system is warranted, but this doesn't mean that the information cannot be published in an online format and provided to the public at no charge. For instance, one good online scholarly journal that is both peer-reviewed and free/open to the public is Evolutionary Psychology.

2. Lay-persons might not even understand what they are reading or commenting on - I don't think that this is a major issue, but a lot of research is written with so much technical jargon, that even experts in the field have a hard time reading it. I believe that a lot of patience and willingness to look up/learn terminology will keep this from being a problem for the lay public. And I think that anyone really interested in reading online science journals would not really have a problem with it. But I think that people who don't have the patience, are lazy, or are even hostile towards certain topics are more likely to misunderstand the procedures. They shouldn't necessarily have the power to leave permanent comments on the posts. So maybe some type of safeguard could be used if commenting is going to be allowed. Perhaps they should be screened before posted? I don't know.

3. Really great research might not even get noticed - I know that I am very new to blogging, but from what I do know already . . . promoting your blog is really hard. Especially with school going on (with teaching and taking classes), and doing your research. Blogging feels like it needs to be a full time job. If you don't properly promote your online publishing, then you can't build traffic. If you don't build traffic, people aren't going to be reading your research . . . and you may even give up posting online. I don't really think this is a serious issue. I think you'll eventually learn what works and what doesn't. And I think online journals will have an easier time promoting themselves than a single researcher with a personal website.

Lastly, there's an item that could be a positive or a negative toward online publishing. I'm not really sure what I would label it as of right now:
". . . readers also will be able to rate papers on their quality, such as how surprising or groundbreaking the results were – much in the way Netflix subscribers rate movies they rent using one- to five-star ratings."
Can you imagine what it would be like if papers really were rated by users? What if researchers, themselves, were rated by the public on a 5-star system, as if they were getting Amazon.com customer reviews? It would be interesting, I'm not really sure how to think about it yet. It could potentially serve in place of the traditional peer-review, but on the other hand it could be abused. For example, creationists might search for biology articles and give 1 star to any article that mentions evolution. You know, something like that.

I guess all in all, I think that the online posting of scientific research is the future. There's really just no way around that fact. You can already view many scientfic journals online, some for free, some for the price of a subscription. But as far as the traditional "scholarly journal" disappearing in the future. I think it's a slim chance. I think rather that the internet will help more than hinder academic journals. And I think the peer-review system is here to stay. Besides, so much in hiring and promotions is due to the number of publications in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals that an applicant might have, that a researcher will always be looking for an extra line to put on his or her vita.

No comments: