Crowdsourcing science

Peer review is the way things get done in science. Authors submit write-ups of their experiments to journals for publication. The journals send the articles to independent, unpaid referees who are experts in the field. Referees check that the experiment’s methodology is sound, that the conclusions follow from the data, and provide comments on any weaknesses in the study. Their comments are the major deciding factor in what gets published.

Critics have argued the system is inefficient and unreliable. Articles can be in the review pipeline for weeks. Long periods of time are spent waiting, and projects can be put on hold indefinitely while an article is up for review. The system is plagued by accusations of incompetence or malice in referees — referees are anonymous, in many cases authors are not.

This trouble is in part due to the nearly unfathomable volume of research papers produced. About 1.4 million articles are submitted each year for publication. The prestigious journal Nature has received 140,000 articles since 1997, and was able to publish around 13,000 of them. However, every article received has to be properly vetted. At Nature, each article must go through at least one round of peer review. Most go through at least two or three rounds. An article rejected from a journal has to repeat the same process all over again at the next one.

A new project founded by scientists at Finland’s University of Jyväskylä could change all that. It’s called “Peerage of Science,” an online social network for scientists intended to centralize and streamline the peer-review process. The system is closed to the public. Membership is by invitation from current members. An article submitted to Peerage of Science would be reviewed by members with expertise in the relevant field. Editors of partnered journals receive notifications about new, well-reviewed articles in their field, and they can offer to publish articles that interest them.

This process is intended to benefit everyone involved in publishing a scientific article. Editors are relieved of the pressure of coordinating reviewers, who are usually unpaid volunteers. Authors, who get to set deadlines for review and publication, get to see their articles processed on a predictable timetable. And reviewers are given an incentive to produce high quality reviews: in order to submit an article, members are obligated to do a certain number of reviews. Reviews are ranked, and scientists can build up a reputation as good reviewers.

Mike Fowler, an ecologist and science writer, commented on Peerage of Science on a Nature blog: “As an author, there are attractions to having a single set of review(er)s follow your article until publication. If you can successfully address any concerns the initial reviewers have, there is no need to worry about the lottery that a new set of reviewers might raise when submitting to a new journal.”

However, he points out several potential flaws in the system. Authors could game the system by making side deals or exchanging favourable reviews. He also warns that, with no editors actively seeking reviewers, “some manuscripts may just sink without trace.” And editors, while relieved of some of their workload, would have difficulty determining the value of a review if they do not know who wrote it.

Still, Fowler calls Peerage of Science “an interesting concept” and looks forward to seeing how it affects the academic publishing world. So far, Peerage of Science is partnered with at least one publication, the ecological journal Ecography. Over 500 scientists, representing more than 200 institutions around the world, have become members of the service.