Thursday, August 24, 2006

Wired 14.09: Get Wiki With It

Wired 14.09: Get Wiki With It:

Peer review – the unsung hero and convenient villain of science – gets an online makeover.

"....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.

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