An analysis of the present system of scientific publishing: What’s wrong and where to go from here

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Peer Review

The peer review process, existing in its present form really only since World War II51, has been coming under fire for many of its failings52 for quite some time. Some of the issues with the peer review process include: (i) falsified data has gotten past reviewers53;(ii) reviewers have been suspected of holding up the review process either out of spite or while they themselves published similar results54; (iii) plagiarism55 ;(iv) sharing confidential data with others56; (v) researchers are overwhelmed by their reviewing responsibilities and either do not do a thorough job or do so very slowly; (vi) the anonymity of the review process does not give the reviewer the feeling of accountability 51; (Although contrast this with Steven Harnad’s comments in 57); (vii) the lack of credit given to the unpaid labor force of reviewers; (viii) reviewers are given too much power in (and their biases may be affect) the dissemination of scientific information; and (ix) the review process is a large portion of the cost of publishing costing anywhere between 500 and 1000 dollars per article58.
However, with all of its faults, the peer review process is integral for scientific research. It provides assurance to the authors, general public and the publisher that the submitted work is of a minimum quality. At the very least, it provides a process wherein works are improved by the incorporation of outside ideas.
The transformation of scientific data from paper to the internet can help democratize the review process, make it more efficient, and more discriminating. The present peer review process requires the editors of a journal to select reviewers based on their perceived fields of expertise, contact these reviewers and request them to review a paper. Often reviewers are slow to respond and may not have the time or desire to review. We propose a system wherein reviewers would be notified automatically via email if a new paper was submitted in their field. Moreover, in addition to the present incentives to review, (e.g. the desire to keep bad science out of the field, or a feeling of responsibility) journals could provide monetary incentives to review in the form of some sort of credit towards the publication of the reviewer’s next piece. In addition to providing an incentive, this method will also result in a situation wherein the more prestigious journals (where more people would like to publish and would be more appreciative of the credit) will have more people reviewing the submissions, in essence, providing more substantiation for the work in better journals.
Addressing the issue of anonymity, reviewers will have to register to access these presubmission pieces, and their access to the papers will be logged, thus allowing for a paper trail in a case where a reviewer is suspected of stealing information. Moreover, authors of papers will no longer be held up by the procrastination of individual reviewers. The review process will be for a finite period of time, after which the editor for the piece will review the comments.
Of course there will be cases where the editor may feel that the paper is not garnering enough attention for a comprehensive review. At this point she may step in and actually assign reviewers for the piece or reject the piece outright. Still, as the success of sties such as shows, people are more than willing to give their opinion on anything.
This system also allows for the authors to collect a wide range of comments on their piece from a significantly larger audience; reviewers will not be limited to a small cadre of researchers that are selected by the journal, rather anyone can register and include their opinion.
Reviewers will also be able to increase their ‘street cred’, and the credit towards future publishing in the journal. Akin to the system already in place on, readers of reviewers’ comments will be able to evaluate the comments and note whether or not they were helpful, helping to highlight the important comments and weed out the inane comments often seen when the reviewer does not truly understand the paper. A reviewer who consistently presents strong comments will receive more credit for their review (bad reviewers could be barred from the forum), in essence also providing an incentive for people to put in well thought out comments.
The review process can also be simplified by requiring reviewers to stick to a specific syntax and format, answering a list of directed questions. Given the automation of the system there can be significant cost savings in this step of publishing.
Finally, to prevent frivolous submissions from overwhelming the reviewers, there can be some sort of automated check to determine an author’s authors previous publication record, institutional affiliation , research grant status and other background information that can act as an automatic first level of discrimination to at least determine that the paper is of ‘refereeable quality’. New authors could resort to alternate paths of entry, i.e. referrals from other credentialed authors59.
Although it might be argued that such a peer reviewing system is faulty in that it relies on fellow authors volunteering to review articles instead of journals requesting experts in that field, this system rewards reviewers by giving them the opportunity to become known to the journal, whether they are or are not already well-known for their research accomplishments. This system of peer review allows for a greater breadth of response to each article, allowing all kinds of perspectives, from many related to provide feedback and possibly even create future collaborations.

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