Technology Bringing the End of the Peer Review?

Higher education is steeped in tradition. School colors are proudly displayed during commencement ceremonies and school songs and slogans are lovingly vocalized during sporting events. But tradition in academia is not only limited to displays of school pride. In fact, most scholarly proceedings that take place within the classrooms are products of time-honored tradition as well, such as the notion of professors speaking in lecture halls and the merits of a good essay project. But few other things are more traditional than the process of peer review when it comes to scholarly papers. That is, until the day comes when a tenacious doctoral student’s vision of the future of scholarly articles comes true – one that nixes the age-old peer review process altogether.

Joe Pickrell, a doctoral biology student at the University of Chicago, suggested in an article published on Inside Higher Ed that all of the steps and barriers that peer review puts in the way of scientific articles does more harm than good. "Why do we publish scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals to begin with? What value does the existence of these journals add?" Pickrell wrote in a Genomes Unzipped blog post.

Simplified, the peer review process works like this – A scholar conducts research and writes his or her article based on the findings of this research. The scholar submits this paper to a journal for publication consideration. If the editor of the journal thinks the topic and writing is interesting and relevant, the article is passed on to a peer review committee, which is typically made up of two to four people in the same field as the journal’s subject. This committee looks over the research to ensure it is valid and determines whether or not it should be published, or if the article’s author should conduct more research and submit the paper again. The entire process takes months, and even if the research is thorough, the article may never be published.

"To summarize, peer review is costly (in terms of time and money), random (the correlation in perceived ‘publishability’ of a paper between two groups of reviewers is little better than zero), ineffective at detecting errors, biased towards established groups and against originality, and sometimes abused (in that reviewers can steal ideas from papers they review or block the publication of competitors)," Pickrell wrote.

Instead, Pickrell suggests that cutting the entire peer review process is the best way to advance science publications, and to accomplish this, a currently non-existent "killer app" could be the key. The app would allow scholars to upload their own articles immediately, and just as with bookmarking sites like Reddit, users – who will likely be other scholars experts in the field – will have the opportunity to vote the articles up or down, depending on the article’s quality, research, and relevance. In addition, this large community of experts could easily catch research, factual, or other errors, thereby ensuring every article’s accuracy.

Out of all of this, the best articles will naturally do the best as other scholars share it with one another, meeting the goal of taking the control of an article out of the hands of a few potentially biased peer reviewers and placing it in control of the larger scientific community. After all, as Pickrell wrote, "Certainly the best judge of the interest of a paper to the community is, well, the community itself. Ditto for the best judge of the quality and reproducibility of a paper."

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