by Denyse O'Leary
In 1999 British Medical Journal discontinued anonymous peer reviews, and now prints the names of reviewers. Transparency and accountability may result, as hoped. But some question whether juniors would dare openly criticize established scientists' work - whether the established scientist's work deserves criticism or not. However, on balance, most people prefer to actually know who their opponents are.
Two recent developments that may signal deeper changes are:
1. Dynamic open access journals that publish on the Internet. "Dynamic" and "open" are not mere terms of praise. Such journals invite comment from a wide range of responsible parties (open), and opinion can change over time (dynamic). San Francisco-based Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) uses only cursory peer review.
Alicia Chang, writing for Associated Press, captures the mood:
"If we publish a vast number of papers, some of which are mediocre and some of which are stellar, Nobel Prize-winning work — I will be happy," said Chris Surridge, the journal’s managing editor.
He should be happy, too. Early reviews like Annalen der Physic made do with that, as Tipler notes. At Annalen,
... none of the papers were sent to referees. Instead the editors—either the editor in chief, Max Planck, or the editor for theoretical physics, Wilhelm Wien - made the decision to publish. It is unlikely that whoever made the decision spent much time on whether to publish. Almost every paper submitted was published. So few people wanted to publish in any physics journal that editors rarely rejected submitted papers. Only papers that were clearly "crackpot" papers - papers that any professional physicist could recognize as written by someone completely unfamiliar with the elementary laws of physics - were rejected.
Everything old is new again."Publish and be whammed" seems to be back in fashion, and so far it is catching on. Chang notes:
In 2002, the reclusive Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman created a buzz when he bypassed the peer-review system and posted a landmark paper to the online repository, arXiv. Perelman later won the Fields Medal this year for his contribution to the Poincare conjecture, one of mathematics’ oldest and puzzling problems.
New Atlantis describes the proposed new system:
Only weeks (not months) will go by before a submitted article is published, since instead of coming out periodically issue-by-issue, PLoS ONE will be in a state of continuous publication. A more public review process will continue after publication, as readers will be able to rate, annotate, and comment on papers, and authors can respond to their comments. The original paper will remain as such, but comments, revisions, and updates will orbit nearby, an electronic Talmud on every article of significance.
2. Historic science journals such as Nature are currently experimenting with more open systems of review. That is no surprise. They must give the more open system a try because, if they drag their feet and quality findings start appearing in the new electronic journals, the newbies will simply gain an edge over the historic ones.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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