Monday, May 16, 2016

The value-added case for open peer reviews

Last post, I talked about the benefits a manuscript enjoys in the process of scientific publication. To me, it seems that the main benefits are that an editor and some number of peer reviewers read it and give edits. Somehow despite this part coming from volunteer labor, it still manages to cost $1500 an article.

And yet, as researchers, we can't afford to try to do without the journals. When the paper appears with a sagepub.com URL on it, readers now assume it to be broadly correct. The journal publication is part of the scientific canon, whereas the preprint was not.

Since the peer reviews are what really elevates the research from preprint to publication, I think the peer reviews should be made public, as part of the article's record. This will open the black box and encourage readers to consider: Who thinks this article is sound? What do they think are the strengths and weaknesses of the research? Why?

By comparison, the current system provides only the stamp of approval. But we readers and researchers know that the stamp of approval is imperfect. The process is capricious. Sometimes duds get published. Sometimes worthy studies are discarded. If we're going to place our trust in the journals, we need to be able to check up on the content and process of peer review.

Neuroskeptic points out that, peer review being what it is, perhaps there should be fewer journals and more blogs. The only difference between the two, in Neuro's view, is that a journal implies peer review, which implies the assent of the community. If journal publication implies peer approval, shouldn't journals show the peer reviews to back that up? And if peer approval is all it takes to make something scientific canon, couldn't a blogpost supported by peer reviews and revisions be equivalent to a journal publication?

Since peer review is all that separates blogging from journal publishing, I often fantasize about sidestepping the journals and self-publishing my science. Ideally, I would just upload a preprint to OSF. Alongside the preprint there would be the traditional 2-5 uploaded peer reviews.

Arguably, this would provide an even higher standard of peer review, in that readers could see the reviews. This would compare favorably with the current system, in which howlers are met with unanswerable questions like "Who the heck reviewed this thing?" and "Did nobody ask about this serious flaw?"

Maybe one day we'll get there. In the meantime, so long as hiring committees, tenure committees, and granting agencies are willing to accept only journal publications as legitimate, scientists will remain powerless to self-publish. In the meantime, the peer reviews should really be open. The peer reviews are what separates preprint from article, and we pay millions of dollars a year to maintain that boundary, so we might as well place greater emphasis and transparency on that piece of the product.

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