Somewhere in the UK’s Palace of Westminster, where members of Parliament and their lordships, the Peers of the Upper House, will be recalled to discuss Britain’s urban conflagration, a tiny group of MPs have until recently been locked in solemn conclave in a Committee Room to finalize a report on… (no, not the economic disasters, or the future of communication with the Murdochs, but…) …the future of peer review in scholarly research publishing in science. To the profound relief of traditional science journal publishers everywhere, the report concludes that nothing much needs to be done by anyone to anything at any great rate, especially if change requires investment ( Yet some far-seeing and radical publishers are beginning to change traditional rules – so why do they see the need for action while others crave only for the status quo?

It may well be the case that the largest long term impact of Open Access on scientific research reporting is not on business models or usage rights but, as this report goes to great lengths to deny, on peer review. We now have a situation where growing volumes of articles, waiting at the gate for time consuming single or double blind reviewing by unpaid armies of academics, are increasingly able to move past the “does it have an impact on the study of this subject?” test and pass only the essential but simpler technical surveillance implied in a test which asks “is this good scientific method and is it reproducible?”. This is the revolution wrought by Plos One and which is now being followed widely (Nature Communications and elsewhere). The Select Committee enquiry, while paying lip service to this, never brought itself to the point of quite grasping what has happened, and the evidence of publishers allowed them to happily luxuriate in that innocence.

The title of this piece is a quote from an American commentator given in evidence. It is one of the few peripheral signs of a widespread fear that the game is up for peer review where that means journals that clique-ishly track one school of thought and exclude others, where originality and innovation may fail at the barrier of even double blind reviewing (in niche sub-disciplines of some life sciences, everyone knows everyone’s research areas, or can look them up, anyway). No more than passing reference was made to gender prejudice, or indeed the craving of some journals to deter BRIC-based research – and others to artificially encourage it.

Having taken its evidence from those on both sides anxious for the status quo to be preserved, it is not surprising that the Parliamentary Committee drew a blank. While it noted that the BMJ followed an Open Peer Review methodology, it did not appear to feel it necessary to recommend this to others. Yet an increasing body of opinion seems to be saying that while a simple set of technical tests may be all that is needed to get into the database, all of these processes must be completely open. Peers should be brave enough to stand behind their views, review notes and correspondence should be published, evidential data supporting the experiments should be available, and, post-publication, notes and correspondence relating to reproducibility of the experiment should appear alongside the article. At the same time bibliometrics relating to citation and to actual usage must also be maintained. It seems to some observers that Publishers might have to dismantle the cozy editorial relationships that surround current practice in favour of appointing some paid-for fulltime investigators to give a thorough and documented public technical report on whether the paper applies recognizable scientific method which aligns with accepted good practice, and then track and publish reactions to the work within the community. In other words, a different way of spending the £1.9 bn said in RIN’s 2008 report to be the cost of peer review.

And then you see publishers with a real sense of community ownership beginning to build the tools that will allow them to do this. This week the American Institute of Physics ( launched its iPeerReview tool, allowing authors and reviewers to download an app to their iPhone/iPad enabling them to review  status and do work on articles submitted and in work in progress. This extends AIP’s existing workflow environments, Scitation and Peer X-Press. The day is not long off when this type of workflow tool will not only be omnipresent but also transparent, and while some competitive issues, especially around patents applied for, will need careful handling, so much of this research is pre-competitive that this may be less of a problem than first appears. Publishing evidential data may be more of an issue . Publishers and academic administrators currently chorus that the cost would be excessive, but surely they cannot be talking, as they did to the Parliamentary Committee, about the costs of storage, since those are a fraction of what they were a decade ago, and anyway the evidence is already stored by the research project – it just needs to be linked and accessible, and transparently available for other researchers, with permission, to use their own tools to search it and other experimental data with the range of mining and extraction tools now open to them. Publishers should perhaps be in the forefront of extending this service base to their communities of users: those giving evidence to the committee seemed more anxious to defend the journal, as if it were a craft skill like dry stone walling, hedge laying or wattle hurdle making.

And then I came across GSE, a new project in beta which will launch in the fall. It aims to provide an effective Open Access platform for research into Governance, Environmental Science  and Sustainability, importantly relating research to practice and allowing users a full community participation alongside researchers and professionals. But it was not the built-digital features (how much easier without a print legacy!), or the social investment fund or even the Research Exchange that first attracted me.  It was the emphasis on putting in, alongside the option for a traditional review model, a fast publication Open Peer Review system, in which the Editor makes the first decision, and the community is able to comment, build and improve the result. “We need to learn to include, not exclude, and give the peer community a chance to decide what is relevant, (not just a handful of individuals.” This is a project to watch, but also a trend to be noted. ( )

So should we be surprised or disappointed with the result of the Commons deliberations? As a UK taxpayer, I feel like asking for my money back, but as an observer of Parliamentary Committees, noting the number of times the Murdochs and their executives appeared before them before the Great Hacking Scandal broke, surprise would hardly be in the range of available emotional responses.


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1 Comment so far

  1. Amanda Briggs on August 29, 2011 14:13

    It is interesting to note how the terms ‘quality’ and ‘exclusivity’ have become coterminous in academic publishing. When a publisher wishes to emphasize the quality of the material in their journals, they quote rejection rates rather than any inherent value of the material itself. And rejection rates are, of course, the measurable consequence of the peer review system, as applied in traditional academic journals. There is no deeper logic to the idea that exclusivity equates to quality, though, other than the snob value of exclusivity itself. (The House of Commons Committee whose work is quoted here is doubtless a terribly select and exclusive body but David is far from alone in his cynicism as to its worth!)

    The new technologies of the past decade allow us to move to a new publishing model based on inclusivity and on trusting the judgment of readers (the true peer community) to determine whether the work under consideration adds to the field of research.

    It’s about time publishers step away from their self-appointed role as gate-keepers at the doors of knowledge and embrace a bigger one as enablers and transmitters of all kinds of information, from wherever it may arise.