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
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
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"
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.