Getting published in the illustrious British scientific journal Nature is, frankly, a bitch. It’s not just the years you spend designing the perfect experiment, or the hustling for grant money to collect the data. It’s not even the long nights of trying to figure out how to express all that work elegantly in the cold language of scientific communication. No – the real trick is getting the editors at Nature to like it.
But that’s still just the beginning: Those editors pick three or so relevant experts – from a list Nature requires you to submit – to anonymously assess your work’s technical accuracy and overall merit. Those experts bounce it back to the editors, who add their own comments and send it to you asking for more work. If you decide it’s worth the time and effort, you do it. And revise. And send it back to the reviewers. In the end, if everyone’s satisfied, the article runs. If not, you submit it to another journal, one tier down, and do it all again. The process takes about four months.
That rigmarole is called peer review. Almost every journal does it, from marquee pubs like Nature to highly specialized periodicals like International Journal of Chemical Reactor Engineering. (No offense to IJCRE – you guys are a helluva read.) When it works, it’s genius – quality control that ensures the best papers get into the appropriate pages, lubricating communication and debate. It’s the quiet soul of the scientific method: After forming hypotheses, collecting data, and crunching numbers, you report the results to learned colleagues and ask, “What do you folks think?”
But science is done by humans, and humans occasionally screw up. They plagiarize, fake data, take incorrect readings. And when they do? Oy! Somebody always blames peer review. The process is lousy at policing research. Bad papers get published, and work that’s merely competent (boring) or wildly speculative (maverick) often gets rejected, enforcing a plodding conservatism. It seems silly to say this about a system that’s been in development since the mid-1700s, but the whole thing seems kind of antiquated. “Peer review was brilliant when distribution was a problem and you had to be selective about what you could publish,” says Chris Surridge, managing editor of the online interdisciplinary journal PLoS ONE. But the Web has remapped the universe of scientific publishing – and as a result, peer review may finally get fixed.
The proof: In June, Nature began experimenting with a new method online. Authors submitting papers can choose a two-track process. While the work goes through the usual peer review drill, a preprint version gets posted on the Web. Anyone – even you – can comment, as long as you attach your name, affiliation, and email address. As of July, 25 articles had undergone this process, and the journal plans to issue a report late this year on how the test went. (Full disclosure: Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson participated in the project.) “The whole point of peer review is to help the editors select papers that are going to move science forward,” says Linda Miller, US executive editor of Nature and the Nature research journals (Nature Biotechnology, Nature Genetics, et cetera). “If there’s a better way, then why not? How could I say no?”
In other quarters, traditional peer review has already been abandoned. Physicists and mathematicians today mainly communicate via a Web site called arXiv. (The X is supposed to be the Greek letter chi; it’s pronounced “archive.” If you were a physicist, you’d find that hilarious.) Since 1991, arXiv has been allowing researchers to post prepublication papers for their colleagues to read. The online journal Biology Direct publishes any article for which the author can find three members of its editorial board to write reviews. (The journal also posts the reviews – author names attached.) And when PLoS ONE launches later this year, the papers on its site will have been evaluated only for technical merit – do the work right and acceptance is guaranteed. “Data becomes useful only if it’s shared,” Surridge says. “At the moment, our mechanisms for sharing information are the traditional journals, and if they’re hard to get into, data is completely lost.”
No one’s sure which of these ideas, if any, will prevail. Sure, discarding anonymity will go a long way toward breaking up the old-boys’ network, and open comments are great for nailing fakes and plagiarists. (The online community, not peer review, helped bust the South Korean stem cell fraud Woo Suk Hwang.) But Nature is an elite journal that accepts few submissions, a kind of exclusivity that lets universities use publication as a proxy for worth in hiring and promotion decisions. How can they assess papers published online and “reviewed” by an honors physics teacher? Have papers that went through an open process and got rejected been essentially published already? Plus, the idea of all these articles online, free for the Googling, terrifies the lucrative journal-publishing industry.
But seriously: Who cares? An up-and-coming researcher can get more attention from the right experts by publishing something earthshaking on arXiv than by pushing it through the usual channels. Crazy ideas will get batted around in moderated forums, which is pretty much what the Internet is for. Eventually, printed journal articles will be quaint artifacts. Scientific papers will be living documents with data published on Web pages – commented on, linked to, and mirrored by labs doing the same work 6,000 miles away. Every research effort will have thousands of reviewers working in real time. Today’s undergrads have never thought about the world any differently – they’ve never functioned without IM and Wikipedia and arXiv, and they’re going to demand different kinds of review for different kinds of papers. It’s in their nature.
– Adam Rogers