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Can The Internet Cure What Ails Peer Review?


by Eric RauchwayGlitches in the peer review process sprout like dandelions in the groves of academe, and now some scholars appear to believe technology will prevent their seasonal recurrence. But it's hard for me to believe that, of all institutions, the blogosphere is the one to solve the problems of peer review. (Thanks to Metafilter for the pointer.)

Peer review, or refereeing, is the mechanism churning away behind every scholarly journal or university press--editors take article or book manuscripts submitted for publication and send them out to experts in the field for evaluation. Usually these expert evaluations are stripped of letterheads and signatures and tendered to the original author, who's asked to revise the article to account for substantial criticism in the reports. The author may then revise and resubmit; the article may get sent out for review again, may be revised again, and so on.

Often people, even academics, take the process to be a form of quality control. It isn't, really: it's a way of ensuring that the publication conforms to professional norms and speaks to professional concerns. It's easily subject to abuse: referees, knowing they won't be identified to the writer, can throw spurious critiques at an article, or simply write rude and poor criticism, for motives of their own. Even when it works properly, it can grate, as for example Timothy Burke writes:

The peer review that instructs me to come inside a canon so that I can be understood by an audience of comparable specialists quickly becomes the peer review that cracks the whip to force me inside a political orthodoxy.

Or, as a commission of the Royal Society (which claims to have invented peer review) noted, the process is criticized

for delaying or even preventing the disclosure of research results that may have a bearing on the public interest.

Now, it's the Internets to the rescue, and publication of findings prior to peer review, with blog-like comment sections, and, rather than publish on a schedule, "continuous publication." Could there be any downside?

it is worth remembering that gates and gatekeepers serve the important function of keeping out barbarians; it would be regrettable if the world of science journals came to suffer the sort of "trolling" and "flaming" so common today in comments on blogs and Internet discussion boards. It would be unfortunate if the deliberate, measured character of scientific research and discourse were lost to a culture of speed, hype, and quick-hit comments.

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