A couple of weeks ago I began writing a grant to get money to fund my trip to ScienceOnline 2012. The funding agency (UNM GPSA) specified that I write no more than 700 words and right around word 350 I hit kind of a writing block. I felt I had said everything there was to be said and I just couldn’t think on how to expand on that.
I didn’t want to just stop writing though. I put the article in Google Docs so I could share it and then I asked for feedback. First I asked some friends, but I quickly realized they wouldn’t be able to read it right away. So I did what I thought was the next best thing (but turned out to be the very best thing), I asked my Twitter followers for feedback.
Then the most amazing experience of my young scientific career happened. Within 20 minutes I had about 15 viewers and several of them had left comments on how to amend the grant. I was so excited. I evaluated the comments and made the changes that I thought were for the best (which turned out to be most of them). I even had a few ideas to expand on my original thoughts.
I followed this procedure again about a week later (a few days before the grant deadline) and got even more feedback. After implementing those changes and adding some of my own, I had a complete grant for submission. I’m now awaiting a decision.
I had just had an experience with peer review, it was anonymous peer review, but it was peer review nonetheless. Anyone who came across my article was a Twitter Follower (and all who follow me are either scientists, science writers, or involved in science in some way) or a follower of those followers. And it was normal peer review. This was real-time peer review, and it was SPECTACULAR!
Fast forward to yesterday.
I was having an email conversation with Mark Hahnel (FigShare founder) where I told him that story above. It had right then and there occurred to me… Why would anyone want to publish via the traditional peer review method when they could have the same amazing experience I had just a week ago? Why spend days, weeks, months to write a paper for it to sit in obscurity for months while someone else devalues all the hard work you put into the paper? Why deal with publishing cost and editorial staff when you can do it all yourself for free?
Why bother publishing in a journal at all?
How would peer review work without bothering with publishers? Would it even work? I think the answer is a resounding yes. Scientists don’t get paid to peer review an article. They sacrifice their time and contribute their effort to review articles for submission. Take out the middle man and you still have the exact same system, only in the case without journals the writer would have to hand pick peer reviewers to do the job.
Not only could you opt to pick your own peer reviewers, but you could also do what I did. Ask Twitter! In the case of Google Docs, any person not on the shared document list (ie those who show up to a public file) appear as “anonymoususer###.” To fix that issue, just ask that any potential commenters leave their name attached to their comments. This way you can judge the credibility of the comments. After all you don’t want a CEO of McDonalds to comment about the diffusion constants of GFP in differing viscous solutions, unless they have a background dealing with such problems.
The beauty of the Google Docs example is that your document, once made public, should get indexed by Google (search results!) so people can find your article. You won’t have to deal with editorial standards of peer review journals, if you want to discuss your topic for 1 page or 30 pages it makes no difference to Google Docs. The peer review process is much faster now (days or weeks vs months or even years). And finally, it’s free! No more paying publishers or worrying about the publisher’s sustainability (if you even do that anyway).
This is obviously not a perfect solution (yet), but with all the complaints I’ve heard about the peer review process and for-profit publishers, this seems quite ideal.
I’d also like to extend this notion to those of us in open notebook science.
I work really hard every day to compile all the scientific information I’ve accumulated all day and publish it in an easy to read format. Why should I have to do all that work again just to make the information more concise and less usable? As long as I make my information easy to navigate then I think the notebook is a much better publication platform than journals.
Not only that, but online tools like FigShare and BenchFly make it really easy to compile supporting information on the web. With BenchFly I can make videos that show exactly what my methods are, which may make my method posts even more clear. With FigShare I can post data sets that are citable(!) and link those sets to my notebook and link my notebook to those sets.
In my email conversation with Mark, I said:
FigShare has changed the way I think about publishing. Now I see endless possibilities… I can publish stuff in my notebook and organize the data on FigShare get a handle, cite the data, link to the methods, and write some conclusions and voila free publication in my notebook! Why would anyone want to do it any other way?
Seriously, why would they?
The point of peer reviewed publications is to get scientific information out to the world, but today that isn’t happening fast enough, nor is it simple enough. Why should anyone have to dig into an article to discover their real methods and reinterpret their data? I don’t think anyone should have to.
With an open notebook, someone could just follow the trail from their FigShare data (or whatever they decide to use to host their data), to their conclusions about that data, to their methods on how they came about the data, all the way to the ideas that led to the experiment in the first place. There is no interpretation, just a step-by-step guide to the science that led to your discoveries.
And with most online technology working to incorporate social media like aspects, peer review can happen in a notebook as well.
I’ve received comments on data, methods, brainstorming, etc posts asking me to clarify statements I’ve made, to elaborate on topics, give me insight, provide fresh ideas or to just praise my ideas.
Isn’t that what peer review is all about anyway?
So with all that said, why would anyone want to go back to the way things were? There is so much more in front of us.