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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Peer review - Pitfalls, possibilities, perils, promises *: #scio13

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At this year’s ScienceOnline (un)conference, Jarrett Byrnes from the University of Massachusetts, Boston and I will be moderating a session on open science and peer review. Peer review clearly faces new and urgent challenges with the advent of online science journalism and writing that can criticize and even bypass the process. Can the traditional model of peer review survive these challenges? Can it be integrated within the new framework or would it be supplanted? How can journals best modify or implement new policies for peer review in this increasingly expanding universe of open and citizen science? These are all key questions facing not just authors, journal editors and reviewers but also the taxpaying public at large whose contributions often fund peer-reviewed research. Join us on Thursday at 4 PM in Room 7 to discuss these and other issues.

With all its merits, the traditional model of anonymous peer review clearly has flaws; reviewers under the convenient cloak of anonymity can use the system to settle scores, old boys’ clubs can conspire to prevent research from seeing the light of day, and established orthodox reviewers and editors can potentially squelch speculative, groundbreaking work. In the world of open science and science blogging, all these flaws can be - and have been - potentially addressed. The question, "How on earth did the reviewers and editors allow this paper to be published?" has appeared in blogs on more than one occasion. On the other hand, research that is consistently rejected by journals can be self-published on blogs. Since bandwidth is (almost) free, nothing can stop ideas – no matter how speculative or controversial – from seeing the light of day. In addition, responses from reviewers that seem unscrupulous or conspiratorial can also be aired out into the open.

Such easy access to publishing potentially confidential and damning material poses significant challenges to journal editors, so we would especially like to hear from them. The topic of peer review is vast and multifaceted and we can only touch upon a few topics; we are hoping that the rest of the discussion will spill over into the hallways, restaurants and bars. This being an ‘unconference’, all Jarrett and I will do is kick off the discussion with one or two topics that are our personal favorites. The floor then belongs to the audience who should feel free to hold forth on their favorite topics.

On my part I would like to focus on two aspects of peer review, both illustrated with examples that I have previously blogged about. One asks if peer review has become too conservative. The other asks how transparent the process can be made. It demonstrates one of the major problems with academic reviewing – the ability of reviewers to liberally criticize and reject legitimate research under the cover of anonymity - by way of a remarkable story in which a professor could not get legitimate criticism of existing research published in a leading journal for the better part of a year.

Jarrett is part of NEACS OpenPub a blog created by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis which is discussing a framework for open research in the field of ecology. The blog has a productive discussion going on about standards and requirements for publishing open research in the field. Be sure to check it out; Jarrett will provide much more information during the session.

As always, this discussion can only benefit from a variety of views from the entire spectrum of people who are affected by the peer review process; certainly authors, editors and reviewers but also interested bloggers, 'whistleblowers' and members of the public. So we hope to see a diverse representation of people during this session and we look forward to an engaging and productive discussion. See y’all on Thursday!

* With due apologies to Doc Brown.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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