Will Twitter replace peer review?

January 22, 2011, 8:25 pm

A very interesting article on the Nature.com web site reports on a phenomenon we’ve noted before: Web 2.0 and social media commentary are beginning to replace — or at least supplement — pre-publication peer review as a way to evaluate the scientific literature. The old model of “filter, then publish” is rather rapidly becoming “publish, then filter”.

And that’s a damn good thing, I say.  In my opinion, traditional peer review has been an abject failure: slow, expensive and — at times — corrupt, often giving the imprimatur of scientific authority to even the most nonsensical publications.  Until the web — and especially Twitter — came along, there was no mechanism for criticizing scientific literature on a scale large enough to compete with the strength of major journals.

From the article:

Papers are increasingly being taken apart in blogs, on Twitter and on other social media within hours rather than years, and in public, rather than at small conferences or in private conversation.

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To many researchers, such rapid response is all to the good, because it weeds out sloppy work faster. “When some of these things sit around in the scientific literature for a long time, they can do damage: they can influence what people work on, they can influence whole fields,” says [researcher David] Goldstein.

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For many researchers, the pace and tone of this online review can be intimidating — and can sometimes feel like an attack. How are authors supposed to respond to critiques coming from all directions? Should they even respond at all? Or should they confine their replies to the conventional, more deliberative realm of conferences and journals? “The speed of communication is ahead of the sheer time needed to think and get in the lab and work,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a postdoctoral fellow at the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Mountain View, California, and the lead author on the arsenic paper. Aptly enough, she circulated that comment as a tweet on Twitter, which is used by many scientists to call attention to longer articles and blog posts.

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“It makes much more sense in fact to publish everything and filter after the fact,” says Cameron Neylon, a senior scientist at the Science & Technology Facilities Council, a UK funding body.

The article does raise the issue of potential problems with using social media to filter just-published literature.  It’s certainly possible that the pace of critique by Twitter might be faster than the time needed to think through a paper’s strengths and weaknesses.  Another concern is that herd mentality might promote piling on a publication that deserves better.  But rapid response is here to stay, and from here on in authors can’t say they didn’t expect it.

Tip o’ the hat to Gary Schwitzer’s HealthNewsReview Blog, from which I learned about the Nature column.

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