Thinking about peer review of online material: The Peer Reviewed Journal of Open Science Online
I hold no particular candle for traditional peer review. I think it is inefficient, poorly selective, self reinforcing, often poorly done, and above all, far too slow. However I also agree that it is the least worst system we have available to us. Thus far, no other approaches have worked terribly well, at least in the communication of science research. And as the incumbent for the past fifty years or so in the post of ‘generic filter’ it is owed some respect for seniority alone.
So I am considering writing a fellowship proposal that would be based around the idea of delivering on the Open Science Agenda via three independent projects, one focussed on policy and standards development, one on delivering a shareable data analysis pipeline for small angle scattering as an exemplar of how a data analysis process can be shared, and a third project based around building the infrastructure for embedding real science projects involving chemistry and drug discovery in educational and public outreach settings. I think I can write a pretty compelling case around these three themes and I think I would be well placed to deliver on them, particularly given the collaborative support networks we are already building in these areas.
The thing is I have no conventional track record in these areas. There are a bunch of papers currently being written but none that will be out in print by the time the application is supposed to go in. My recorded contribution in this area is in blog posts, blog comments, presentations and other material, all of which are available online. But none of which are peer-reviewed in the conventional sense.
One possibility is to make a virtue of this – stating that this is a rapidly moving field – that while papers are in hand and starting to come out that the natural medium for communication with the specific community is online through blogs and other media. There is an argument that conventional peer review simply does not map on to the web of data, tools, and knowledge that is starting to come together and that measuring a contribution in this area by conventional means is simply misguided. All of which I agree with in many ways.
I just don’t think the referees will buy it.
Which got me thinking. It’s not just me, many of the seminal works for the Open Science community are not peer reviewed papers. Bill Hooker‘s three parter [1, 2, 3] at Three Quarks Daily comes to mind, as does Jean-Claude’s presentation on Nature Precedings on Open Notebook Science, Michael Nielsen’s essay The Future of Science, and Shirley Wu’s Envisioning the scientific community as One Big Lab (along with many others). It seems to me that these ought to have the status of peer reviewed papers which raises the question. We are a community of peers, we can referee, we can adopt some sort of standard of signficance and decide to apply that selectively to specific works online. So why can’t we make them peer reviewed?
What would be required? Well a stable citation obviously, so probably a DOI and some reasonably strong archival approach, probably using WebCite. There would need to be a clear process of peer review, which need not be anonymous, but there would have to be a clear probity trail to show that an independent editor or group of referees made a decision and that appropriate revisions had been made and accepted. The bar for acceptance would also need to be set pretty high to avoid the charge of simply rubber stamping a bunch of online material. I don’t think open peer review is a problem for this community so many of the probity questions can be handled by simply having the whole process out in the open.
One model would be for an item to be submitted by posting a link on a new page on an independent Wiki . This would then be open to peer review. Once three (five?) independent reviewers had left comments and suggestions – and a version of the document created that satisfied them posted – then the new version could be re-posted at the author’s site, in a specified format which would include the DOI and arhival links, along with a badge that would be automatically aggregated to create the index a la researchblogging.org. There would need to be a charge, either for submission or acceptance – submission would keep volume down and (hopefully) quality up.
How does this differ from setting up a journal? Well two major things – one is that the author remains the publisher so the costs of publication per se are taken out of the equation. This is important as it keeps costs down – not zero, there is still the cost of the DOI and (even if it is donated) the time of editors and referees in managing the process and giving a stamp of authority. The main cost is in maintaining some sort of central index and server pointing out at the approved items. It would also be appropriate to support WebCite if that is the backstop archive. But the big costs for journals are in providing storage that is stable in the long term and managing peer review. If the costs of storage are offloaded and the peer review process can be self organised then the costs drop significantly.
The second major advantage is that, as a community we already do a lot of this, looking over blog posts, linking to presentations, writing commentary or promoting them on FriendFeed. The reason why ArXiv worked was that there was already a culture of preprints amongst that community. The reason why commenting, rating, and open peer review trials have not been as successful as people had hoped is because there is no pre-existing culture of doing these things. We already have a culture of open peer review in our community. Is it worth formalising it for the really high quality material that’s already out there?
I am aware that this goes against many of the principles of open and continuous review that many of you hold dear but I think it could serve two useful purposes. First it means that members of the community, particularly younger members, can bolster their CV with peer reviewed papers. Come the revolution this won’t matter but we’re not there yet. Making these contributions tangible for people could be quite powerful. Secondly it takes the important material out of the constant stream of objects flitting past on our screens and gives them a static (I won’t say permanent) priviledged place as part of the record of this field. Many of them perhaps already have this but I think there is a value in formalising it. Is it worth considering? This proposal is out for review.