Journal Peer Review

D Forsdyke forsdyke1 at home.com
Wed Dec 22 14:12:22 EST 1999


Published in "University Affairs" (Association   
      of Universities and Colleges of Canada), 
         Vol. 41 (#1), January 2000, page 5.   

           PEER REVIEW OR PUBLIC REVIEW?

     In heated discussions on the recent initiative of 
the National Institutes of Health to launch free access 
through PubMed ("NIH plan attracts praise and criticism",
University Affairs, November 1999), the concerns about 
the alleged quality of peer review of electronic 
publications appear to be grossly overstated. In fact, 
electronic format allows for a relatively easy offset of 
the deficiencies of the traditional pre-publication peer 
review. 

     Among the most serious flaws of the peer review 
system is the anonymity of the reviewers (and hence lack 
of any real accountability on their part), ample 
possibilities for the formation of "editorial cabals" 
which seize control of key research journals, and the 
general conservatism of the peer review system.

     In the Internet age, printed research journals 
have lost their major purpose of being vehicles of 
information. Their prime role is now to buttress the 
prestige structure of the scientific community. In 
opposing the transition from paper-bound to electronic 
journals, the argument that peer review is needed to 
maintain quality is primarily put forward to divert 
attention from the true fear of the power-controlling 
research elite.

     That fear is a forthcoming collapse (or at the 
very least, radical adjustment) of the fictitious 
prestige system of the existing "established" journals. 
We all know that modern science is largely not what you 
publish, but on what paper you manage to get it printed. 
This trend becomes more and more pronounced. The rat 
race to publish in a few top research tabloids has 
reached pathological proportions. Recent multimillion 
dollar litigation between Immunex and Cistron biomedical 
research groups on the matter of the alleged theft of 
ideas during peer review of an article submitted to 
Nature magazine is just one of many exhibits demonstrating 
how easily anonymous peer review can get corrupted.   

     In contrast to this, replacement of paper journals 
by electronic repositories allows for the fast and 
interactive monitoring of the quality, importance and 
originality of posted articles through the system of 
added comments from the readership. This is a much more 
efficient system for detecting erroneous, trivial or 
plagiarized work than the pre-publication peer review. 
What we need is a "publish all" strategy, with only the 
most basic check on obscene and gratuitous material.

     The argument that publishing without peer review 
will result in a flood of garbage does not hold water. 
The opposite is likely to happen. Without the game of 
"journal prestige", scientists will likely publish less, 
not more: only when they really have something new to say, 
not to score points for publication in "prestigious" 
journals. 

     The calibre of researchers would then be determined, 
not by how many papers they have published in this-or-
that prestigious journal, but by what they have ACTUALLY
DISCOVERED. Any electronically published article can be 
openly criticized and questioned. With the exception of
fraudulent researchers, a system of free added comments 
threatens no one. 

     Free and uncontrolled access to science journals 
is technically possible and its costs are insignificant 
in comparison with the prime research expenses. Full 
texts of all posted (hence, published) scientific 
articles should be available for free to anyone, anytime,
anyplace. Period. And as for the costs, one can easily 
estimate that free electronic access to all scientific 
articles for the next 100 years will amount to only a 
tiny fraction of the cost of the recent war in Kosovo. 
Go for it.    

Alexander A. Berezin.
Dr. Berezin is a professor of engineering physics 
at McMaster University.
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