Why Don't They Just Start A Wikipedia For Scientific Papers?

from the the-next-step dept

There’s been a long, ongoing debate in the academic world for a while concerning the changing nature of peer reviewed academic journals. It started a few years ago when a few new peer reviewed journals felt it made sense to put their content online for free. Traditionally, academic journals were extremely expensive (becoming big money makers for their owners), but there were questions about how this limited advancement of science, since not everyone could afford those journals. At the same time, there were questions about whether or not this limited progress, since many who might challenge or be inspired by certain research could never read about it. It looks like some online journals are now taking the concept of openness to a new level. Rather than just making the content free online, one online journal is taking out the peer review part — and letting anyone act as the peers. Basically, it’s a recognition that there are some problems with the traditional peer review system, where two or three anonymous reviewers (picked by the journal) have incredible power over whether or not a paper sent to them ever sees the light of day in a journal. It’s definitely a small sample size, and it can lead to plenty of good research never getting published. At the same time, even peer reviewers make some big mistakes, as various cases of academic fraud have shown in the past few years. The idea with the new journal is admitting that the published papers may certainly be questionable, but it’s much better to get them out there so that anyone can review them and express their opinion on whether the research is solid or not. The hope is to generate a lot more conversation and spur additional research early on, rather than waiting until it’s gone through the longer, formal process. Of course, things change slowly in academia, and some may worry that people who publish in such a journal will only do so if they don’t think they can make it through the old peer review system. Still, it’s an interesting experiment that hopefully will get some usage. In the meantime, we can’t wait for the next iteration on the idea, when someone (the Wikipedia folks, perhaps?) decide to set up an online scientific journal that’s in wiki format. Not only will people be able to critique a paper, they’ll be able to fix the parts of the research that are wrong, or add to it with supporting research.

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Comments on “Why Don't They Just Start A Wikipedia For Scientific Papers?”

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dorpus says:

False Dilemmas

There are already plenty of less prestigious journals where researchers can publish questionable papers. The exclusive journals do weed out a lot of crackpot papers that claim to have found “proof of alien abductions” or whatever.

The trouble with lowering the barriers to scientific publication is that the crystal-swinging hippies will be able to claim published references for their work, furthering their fraudulent activities. The legitimate papers will become harder to distinguish.

RantMax says:


Thus, the scientific paper mod system was born! Mod them alien conspiracies down as Trolls!

There’s a simple rule: bullshit grows faster than the grow rate of information as a whole.

So you’re right, dorpus, the more reviews, the more crap reviewers.

But I suppose it doesn’t require a lot of thinking there’s more possibilities in front of us than “1-2 reviewers” and “let anyone take a piss at any paper”.

Miguel says:


The problem is also one of incentive. One of the most significant measures for how well a resaercher is doing, which drives their ability to get grants, positions and/or promotions, is how many artciles he/she has in high-quality peer-reviewed journals. Lowering the bar for publication would alter the “ranking” criteria for academics world-wide.

Ian H says:

Re: Incentive

Incentives are not always valuable. Perverse incentives can be extremely damaging, more damaging than having no incentives at all. In many respects the incentives provided by the current publication system are perverse. If you are going to provide incentives, you had better be absolutely certain that they point in the correct direction.

Furthermore even if incentives are accurately focussed on valuable outcomes, applying them with excessive force is usually counterproductive. The academic world is so cut-throat and the pressure to publish so strong that it essentially forces all young researchers into the same narrow mould, weeding out those who fail to conform. Many of those weeded out would have provided much needed healthy diversity to the research ecosystem. Innovators are often non-conformists.

Unfortunately it is often only late in your academic career that you are sufficiently secure and immune from the pressure to continually publish that you can afford to take a few years to work on a really hard problem; or think deep thoughts about fundamental simple underlying concepts; or play with something highly risky and very different that might not go anywhere but which just might turn into a paradigm changing breakthrough. Sadly that is the time of life when your creative powers are often in decline.

RantMax says:


“Yes, who will govern the reviewers?”

The Internet is just a different communication medium, not an alternate space-time continuum, where basic reasoning skills are yet to be discovered.

If one can filter most of the crap in real life and end up with decent results, he can do so online too.

Reviews can be peer-based, and still the perrs to be kept to a pool of experts who are known to have a clue, even if their opinions on a subject matter may not be the commonly accepted one.

A real life example: if you wanna review a paper on RFID chip implants in people for ID, and one of your reviewers demands that this is a masonic conspiracy to control our minds, he’s out of the pool.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: @dorpus

“The Internet is just a different communication medium, not an alternate space-time continuum, where basic reasoning skills are yet to be discovered.

If one can filter most of the crap in real life and end up with decent results, he can do so online too.”

The whole point of journals is to have the crap filtered in advance. Researchers don’t have time to wade through all the crap on the internet to be able to get to important research. It’s also helpful to know that a few of your peers spent a few hours poring over a paper (theoretically) looking for holes. That’s what peer review is for.

Also, like it or not, the current journal heirarchy works as a ratings system for research. I have a good idea that an article in Nature is probably more important than one published in some crappy online-only journal.

Put it this way – online journals exist now, and scientists don’t trust them because they’re filled with crap.

Craig (user link) says:

It _could_ work, but the biggest hurdle would be authentication of the individuals doing the reviewing. Right now, it’s easy to be a dog on the Internet, but if you’re going to trust the contents of a scientific paper to drive research or do something else costly/dangerous/important, then you have to know that the people who have given that paper a “thumbs up” are qualified, dedicated intellectuals, not some random dude from Peoria who thinks he knows more than he actually does.

So, a Wikipedia-like system _could_ be possible, but you’d need to greatly restrict, control, and monitor who has access to publishing and reviewing, which kind of defeats many of that model’s advantages.

In the end, we (academia) need a new publishing model, but I think it will be more journal-like than Wikipedia-like, at least for a decade or several (we’re fairly slow to change).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Craig, I like your point. A wiki-like system with a strong identification to tie it into the real world would work better. The downside to any such notion is that it discourages the views of those considered a harassed minority, but I think this is more of a concern in politics than in science. The system stands to gain quite a bit from the scheme under consideration here, even if it is esoteric and limited to to well-identified contributors.

Basically it could amount to an extremely well-moderated forum for academics, with its authenticity granted by its being chartered for the collaborative development of papers. That infrastructure can be the starting point.

presumedhuman says:

Having peer reviews by those possessing “lesser” or diverse qualifications force the authors to respond at the level of their audience – thereby forcing the authors to re-think their explanation in a manner that brings about increased subject matter self-realization for the “superior intellect” when having to express information in alternate terms. It’s like displaying a vanity plate on your automobile that only you understand – no one else cares about your little secret and ignores you.

In this suggested forum (wiki-scientific-pubs or whatever) designated (certified & qualified) editors could receive comments from the general audience and apply as necessary appropriate & genuine editorial corrections. Of course, the superior peers would also be subject to scrutiny by the masses – can the academic aristocracy handle being under the world wide microscope or do we stay in the dark ages?

Honky-Tonk Dragon (user link) says:

Re: Responding at the level of the audience

There are many good observations here.

But this one, for me defines why this could really help open up the potential of the “intar-web.” I’m sure we all remember the “gee-whiz” techno-geeks and futurists who predicted that the internet would be akin to the printing press in catalyzing a new age of enlightenment. And while, yes we have basically achieved the equivilent of allowing a gifted kid in Toad Suck, Arkansas access to the Libraries of Alexandria and Congress at the same time, he also has access to the entire backcatalogue of the Weekly World News and Enquirer.
While there are some fields (just about anything having to do with coding or programming) that have really blossomed and taken advantage of the internet’s inherent gifts to “open-sourcing” knowledge, there are others that are still bottle-necked by ivory tower mentalities. Just becoming fluent in the linguistic masonic hand-shakes of some fields, the ever increasing jargons of specialization requires years of institutionalized education, and has become one of the great bottlenecks in the aforementioned open-sourcing of knowledge.
Fortunately, many of those pie-eyed futurists and techno-geeks have already developed theoretical systems to help deal with the “tragedy of the commons” that those who favor anonymous peer-review over public review and editing are espousing here. Cory Doctrow’s concept of whuffies or “reputation points” may not be the end all be all answer to this dilemma, but it is a start. And we see this type thing becoming more and more prevalent as Web 2.0 descends on us. Maybe we need wikis with accountability, where you can see who made an addition or edit, and with a click see their history, other edits they have made, other postings to online forums.
The answers are out there. But keeping knowledge locked in ivory towers will only impede their discovery.

A_Researcher says:

presumedhuman said: “Of course, the superior peers would also be subject to scrutiny by the masses – can the academic aristocracy handle being under the world wide microscope or do we stay in the dark ages?”

Huh? “The masses” have been free to scrutinize academic research for as long as it’s been published (hundreds of years). The fact that “the masses” don’t isn’t because we’re hiding it, it’s because “the masses” either don’t understand it (e.g., people still think evolution is some crazy idea put forth by a few demonic scientists) or aren’t interested enough in it to want to try (just take a look at what are the “most popular” news stories on CNN.com…if it’s not Britney Spears’ driving habits, it’s a car chase on I-90…NEVER is it something from the Tech or Science categories).

In the end, opening up the process isn’t going to be useful if all you do is bring in more people who have no idea what the paper is about or how to review it. I’d be curious to find out exactly how much experience you have publishing in scientific journals. If none (or very little), then your comments are just a great example of the type of valueless commentary such “opening up” would generate (which doesn’t really help science advance).

My_two_Cents says:

Availability, not Quality

Just for some perspective from another researcher who readily takes part in the peer review process, let’s be clear about a few things. The current peer review system is by no means ideal. With limited reviewers, good papers can be dismissed, and poor papers passed through with less rigorous reviews. However, reviewing a scientific paper requires a level of understanding in a particular field that only a limited number of people possess, and hence why those opinions are trusted. Therefore, I only review papers in an area extremely close to what I’m an expert in. That is why everyone an their brother reviewing papers would just lead to excessive waste. I think that point was lost in the previous discussion.

However, I do think the web should drastically reduce the cost of publishing, and allow for all journal articles after a certain time become freely available on the web to everyone and anyone who’s intersted. Furthermore, discussions could be had at any level, whether expert or novice, about the data, methods, or interpretation therein. The high cost of aquiring print journals is even too much for the biggest university libraries that can’t afford to make much of the literature available to the reasearchers in their school. So in that respect, I do hope the web increases the rate at which publications reach the masses and decreases the cost of making them available to everyone, not just the elite universities.

Anonymous Coward says:

presumedhuman – “Having peer reviews by those possessing “lesser” or diverse qualifications force the authors to respond at the level of their audience – thereby forcing the authors to re-think their explanation in a manner that brings about increased subject matter self-realization for the “superior intellect” when having to express information in alternate terms.”

This isn’t about snobbery. If a long mathematical proof of a mindbending physics concept were to be peer reviewed by Albert the unknown patent clerk. He may understand it but why should I trust any comments he has to make.

The publishing costs are minimal. Critisism is cheap too (look at what we are doing here). Journals shouldn’t cost hundreds to subscribe to. But in doing so they are creating a large artifical barrier to entry, keeping the competition down.

Jebelbryan says:

Another consideration

While publishing scientific papers through a wiki may sound like a great idea to those not involved in scientific research and writing, there are more problems with this than the ones stated by My_two_Cents. Publishing is something by which nearly all colleges and universities use as official proof of achievement. Even the USGS uses PUBLISHED scientific research as bar to measure achievement and distinguishing those who have more achievements than others. There are problems with this idea too, but in order to get paid in science, you need to have credible peer-reviewed research that is known to the scientific community. A wiki cannot really provide a solid reliable standard.

I do fully support the publishing of peer-reviewed scientific papers on the web though, and this is something I think more journals should really be more concerned with to aid scientific progress as a whole.

Jimbo PhD says:

Re: Negative results

Joe Smith said “What we really need is an online journal of negative results – things that people have tried and either could not make work or found was wrong. Now that might actually make the whole process more efficient by cutting down on people trying to re-invent (for example) square wheels.”

Hey, you should read my paper: Harkin, J. 2004. “An Empirical Assessment of the Transportive Qualities of Square Wheels: Methodology and Results,” Journal of Alternative Transportation 15(3) 289-306.

Another_Researcher says:

As a researcher with over a hundred publications and a reviewer of the same, it is my opinion that scientists are no more objective or ethical than the general population. Thus peer-review while in theory is a good, in practice it fails. In practice reviewers are busy with their own activities and seldom provide reviews of any substance. Whether or not they recommend accepting the work depends on whether they recognize the author of the work or their mood that day. Journals usually send manuscripts for review to scientists that have published similar work, almost ensuring a conflict of interest.
For further debate on the topic see http://blogs.nature.com/nature/peerreview/debate/comments/

The idea of wiki-type publication would be better than our current peer-review system, assuming all the issues surrounding publication date, copyright, archiving etc are resolved.

To control unqualified reviews, require all reviewers to post their resumés. “Papers” could be rated by hit rate, # of links etc.

M says:

I think this is an excellent idea. Peer reviewers have questioned the ideas of many that prooved to be superior scientists and that changed the route of science. Though I have not understood all the sematics of the way it would work it seems to me that it creates a system similar with the recognition of a work’s value through the frequency of citations. The number of citations has always been a good indicator of the importance of a study or theory.

Patrick Amon says:

The idea of “open publishing” may in fact work – in the same way as does EBay (or in fact Google).

The idea is that papers can be refereed by anyone – but the quality of the referees itself becomes an object of scrutiny. Having lots of referees from hotmail.com claiming the greatness of a paper while having a dozen from mit.edu claiming otherwise will likely make readers cautious of the “lesser” reviewers’ claims.

Ultimately what becomes necessary is therefore the loss of “relative anonymity” of the referees (to the author and to the public), as the trustworthiness of those reviewers’ identification becomes a decision factor. What then matters is what each “reviewer” gets to publish about himself or herself, and the verifiability of this information.

I am welcome to write down I am the pope, but a casual verification will likely disprove this claim.

An easy-to-use interface allowing to “drill down” on the characteristics of the referee pool makes it then all workable. Anyone can cast their ballot, but the reader only gets to search on those comments satisfying certain criteria (such as for example a number of publications having in turns received a sufficiently high rating from the .edu pool of critics.)

Clearly this puts a significant onus on the reader, but it does make the system quite democratic i.e. less subject to a small self-appointed elite.

Likewise the author’s reputation itself can be measured by the ratio of papers whose rating was found to be high by some metric (e.g. again those found to be “credible” in the .edu domain) relative to those that have been found to be crap.

Those who prefer the “old-fashioned” system of anonymous referrals can continue to use it as they see fit.

From personal experience I can confidently state that papers with significant and easy-to-spot errors have make it through the old-fashioned formal system – referees seldom have the time or the inclination to check all calculations in all of the papers they get to review. But then again many pieces of garbage published on the archives have indeed been rejected by “legitimate” journals. So to be relatively safe stick to established journals, to be more adventurous use a public system, but if you’re going to use it at least give the reader as much information as possible on the credibility of the paper (and its author). Ultimately the point is to create new metrics and to open up publishing subject to those open metrics, instead of just choosing one metric and restricting publishing subject to that single metric (as the current system does).

SailorAlphaCentauri says:

Sounds good...

but citation on an article that is constantly updated will be a nightmare. The online system has to have some way of preserving what was originally published with addendums fo any and all changes and corrections made to the original work.

Other than that, I don’t see the problem with using something other than the peer reviewed system…but universities may take issue with articles published in this manner when it comes to reviewing articles for tenure candidates.

Bubba Nicholson (profile) says:

Journal access

I elucidated the etiology of atherosclerosis, but no one would review the article or comment as to why it was rejected. Electrodeposition accounted for juxtaposition of crystals in plaques of substances with different temperatures of crystalization (at 98.6 degrees F, anyway), experimental results already published, deposits in turbulence, etc. Atherosclerosis kills 55% of Americans, more than from any other cause, obviously, so there is nothing more important than bringing out all the evidence, but no. Ten traditional journals on the subject rejected my article without comment or explanation.
So, SOMETHING has to be done or we will just have to wait for all the old imbeciles to die off, provided of course they don’t choose their idiot sons to follow them.
But Wikipaedia is not the answer either. I authored the HOPE Scholarship proposal that became law and was emulated in 23 other US states, but generic Wikipaedians decided I had no standing to comment on my own creation. Can there be a more egregious example of ineptitude?
With the current system, at least some of my articles have been published, so something is better than nothing.

Dan (user link) says:

Mr Aldo Leopold

I seem to recall reading a paper by the famous Aldo Leopold (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldo_Leopold) where he argued that an ‘Encyclopaedia of life’ be created to store all known data on every organism.

At the time he wrote the paper, the technological barriers for such a system were huge, but now those barriers are virtually non existent, and this idea has become a very real possibility. This Idea could be expanded from an ‘encyclopaedia of life’ to an encyclopaedia of everything.

I do not believe this encyclopaedia should follow wikipedia model, that allows anyone to edit an entry, but rather to get information published in the encyclopaedia you must submit it for peer review (just like in current journals). The history and discussion pages from wikipedia however should remain as they are a great source of information.

Reed says:

Pounds of Peers

Of course things will go this way. It doesn’t take a genius to see that everything soon will be running through the nets. Already half my professors use mostly “e-reserves” which are online articles you download. How long until all books are downloaded?

Now take everything on the NET and make it free for everyone. Maybe someone doesn’t agree with the word free, but I do. I like the ring of everyones voice having its chance to be heard

The Open Source mentality will change our world for the better because it is an idea so good it just can’t be stopped. If you allow complete freedom of information and break down the walls of mass media perhaps we could find a better place together.

Glaurung says:

Not all academic journals charge outrageous subscription fees in order to make a profit. That’s true only of the 1000 pound gorillas of academic journals, like Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Many (actually most) journals are quite specialized and have very small circulations. They have to pay for editing, proofing, and paper/printing/postage, but their circulation is only a few thousand (or less). Thus, their costs are quite high per dead-tree copy. Most journals just barely break even, or they operate at a loss and are subsidised by the organization or institution that publishes them.

sgroclkc says:

There is explanation for this motion sickness caus

The present medicine expert on the one hand had bdlieved that the carsickness,seasickness,airsickness gets sick or motion sickness caused by motion ,but on the other hand had believed the definitive cause of that the motion sickness also donot know.Because this would not explain the no matter how motion can not caused carsickness ,when the people by all these Train, Tnuck,Motorcycle,Tractor .Because,of the Infrasonic sound or the noise of low frequency is extremely small.
But in reality all these carsickness,seasickness,airsickness gets sick or motion sickness caused by Infrasonic sound or the noise of low frequency.Of instance,(1)this would explainthe no matter how motion can not caused carsickness ,when the people by all these Train, Tnuck,Motorcycle,Tractor .Because,of the Infrasonic sound or the noise of low frequency is extremely small.(2) The Seasickness disease incidence rate is highest,too,The noise is biggest in speed boat of among all sorts of ships.(3) Airsickness disease incidence rate is highest,too,The noise is biggest in Jet of among all sorts of Planes. (4)The more human is hearing is poor ,the more motion sickness is low incidence of illness , Of instance,The mon is low incidence of illness of motion sickness than woman,the man is inferior to the woman in hearing.(5) The old people is low incidence of illness of motion sickness than young,the old people is inferior to the young in hearing .(6)The deaf mute can not results in motion sickness,the deaf mute can not hear.
But it was most important to scientists had confirmed motion sickness caused by Infrasonic sound or the noise of low frequency(reference: http://www.vibrostop.it/support/basic.html)

sgroclkc says:

Re: There is explanation for this motion sickness

Moreover this theory about motion sickness caused by all kinds of acceleration of different directions and size or Coriolis acceleration (,reference: http://www.remarkablemedicine.com/Clinical/clinicaluses/otherdisorders/motion.html),Overthrow Newton’s second law of motion.Because,Newton’s second law of motion says anly by calculate a man or an object is influenced by size of the resultant force can know a man or an object is influenced by the size of the in reality acceleration.of instance, the astronaut affected by Gravitation acceleration and centrifugal force acceleration in space,But the in reahty affected by acceleration equal for zero.
So,this idea not only was a fraud but it was maximum jest in human scientific history.

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