Monday, October 02, 2006

Peer-review update This came across the EEF list:
Web journals threaten peer-review system
Scientists frustrated by the iron grip that academic journals hold over their research can now pursue another path to fame by taking their research straight to the public online.

Instead of having a group of hand-picked scholars review research in secret before publication, a growing number of Internet-based journals are publishing studies with little or no scrutiny by the authors’ peers. It’s then up to rank-and-file researchers to debate the value of the work in cyberspace.

It's part of the Public Library of Science project. Called PLoS ONE, articles will be reviewed by an editor, but no peer review; instead, comments will be accepted, but no anonymous ones, and the article (apparently in the form it was originally posted) will then be archived. I.e., the author can provide additional commentary (and comments on the comments), but can't revise the paper further. The two main pros and cons:

Not all studies are useful and flooding the Web with essentially unfiltered research could create a deluge of junk science. There’s also the potential for online abuse as rogue researchers could unfairly ridicule a rival’s work.

Supporters point out that rushing research to the public could accelerate scientific discovery, while online critiques may help detect mistakes or fraud more quickly.

That first point may be moot because there is still a gatekeeper in the editor(s) who, presumably, will maintain some standards and (should) have at least some expertise in the field (though from the article, it appears it's going to be a mishmash of biomedical stuff). I don't see the second part (rogue researchers trashing others' work) as a major problem, because they will be ratted out as quickly as the bad science will be; that's more or less the modus operandi of the blogosphere. OTOH, that might end up confusing the heck out of non-specialists who may not have the time or expertise to go fully into the comments.

One great thing this might do is encourage the publication of negative results. This isn't so much of an issue in archaeology, but elsewhere it can be a serious problem (known as publication bias). It might also encourage the publication of smaller studies that may not be definitive in and of themselves but possibly point to areas where more research is needed.