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Incentivizing Peer Review: The Last Obstacle for Open Access Science

Written by Jeffrey Marlow, wired.com

The Galapagos Islands’ Charles Darwin Foundation runs on an annual operating budget of about $3.5 million. With this money, the center conducts conservation research, enacts species-saving interventions, and provides educational resources about the fragile island ecosystems.  lab analysisAs a science-based enterprise whose work would benefit greatly from the latest research findings on ecological management, evolution, and invasive species, there’s one glaring hole in the Foundation’s budget: the $800,000 it would cost per year for subscriptions to leading academic journals.

According to Richard Price, founder and CEO of Academia.edu, this episode is symptomatic of a larger problem. “A lot of research centers” – NGOs, academic institutions in the developing world – “are just out in the cold as far as access to top journals is concerned,” says Price. “Research is being commoditized, and it’s just another aspect of the digital divide between the haves and have-nots.”

Academia.edu is a key player in the movement toward open access scientific publishing, with over 11 million participants who have uploaded nearly 3 million scientific papers to the site. It’s easy to understand Price’s frustration with the current model, in which academics donate their time to review articles, pay for the right to publish articles, and pay for access to articles.   According to Price, journals charge an average of $4000 per article: $1500 for production costs (reformatting, designing), $1500 to orchestrate peer review (labor costs for hiring editors, administrators), and $1000 of profit.

“If there were no legacy in the scientific publishing industry, and we were looking at the best way to disseminate and view scientific results,” proposes Price, “things would look very different. Our vision is to build a complete replacement for scientific publishing,” one that would allow budget-constrained organizations like the CDF full access to information that directly impacts their work.

But getting to a sustainable new world order requires a thorough overhaul of academic publishing industry. The alternative vision – of “open science” – has two key properties: the uninhibited sharing of research findings, and a new peer review system that incorporates the best of the scientific community’s feedback. Several groups have made progress on the former, but the latter has proven particularly difficult given the current incentive structure. The currency of scientific research is the number of papers you’ve published and their citation counts – the number of times other researchers have referred to your work in their own publications. The emphasis is on creation of new knowledge – a worthy goal, to be sure – but substantial contributions to the quality, packaging, and contextualization of that knowledge in the form of peer review goes largely unrecognized. As a result, researchers view their role as reviewers as a chore, a time-consuming task required to sustain the ecosystem of research dissemination.

“Several experiments in this space have tried to incorporate online comment systems,” explains Price, “and the result is that putting a comment box online and expecting high quality comments to flood in is just unrealistic. My preference is to come up with a system where you’re just as motivated to share your feedback on a paper as you are to share your own findings.” In order to make this lofty aim a reality, reviewers’ contributions would need to be recognized. “You need something more nuanced, and more qualitative,” says Price. “For example, maybe you gather reputation points from your community online.” Translating such metrics into tangible benefits up the food chain – hirings, tenure decisions, awards – is a broader community shift that will no doubt take time.

A more iterative peer review process could allow the community to better police faulty methods by crowdsourcing their evaluation. “90% of scientific studies are not reproducible,” claims Price; a problem that is exacerbated by the strong bias toward positive results. Journals may be unlikely to publish methodological refutations, but a flurry of well-supported comments attached to a paper online could convince the researchers to marshal more convincing evidence. Typically, this sort of feedback cycle takes years.

Despite the large Academia.edu subscriber base, the cultural shift has been slow to materialize, but Price remains optimistic. “The open access movement is growing,” he says; “key organizations from governments to universities are behind it, and there are a lot of groups trying out a lot of good ideas.”

“If we let a thousand experiments bloom, hopefully we’ll get to where we want to be.”

Read more at www.wired.com