Ran into a few very interesting (and very different) articles last week, which I wanted to comment on (more posts to follow).
First up is a blog posting on Sciencebase that quotes chemist (and blogger) Joerg Kurt Wegner, with a proposal that the solution for information overload is to do away with editorial oversight and instead rely on social software. Now, obviously, I’m heavily biased here, and I admit that up front. I’m an editor, it’s what I do for a living, and if I didn’t think I made valuable contributions, I would do something else. That said, there are several problems with Wegner’s proposal.
Web 2.0 encourages people to publish quickly, then work to make it better. This may not be the best route for many scientific endeavors, particularly biological ones.
Editors and peer reviewers perform a vital task – they make sure that the science is done right. It requires special training and a firm understanding of the topic to do this well. Even then there are some important mistakes, as recently happened in Proteomics, where a misleading and plagiarized article was published in February.
The editors/reviewers made a mistake in allowing publication. But the errors and plagiarism were discovered by well-educated people (mostly other scientists and interested individuals) on the web. And this information spread rapidly, forcing the journal to publish a retraction and pull the paper.
Science will need editors and peer reviewers from some time, since good science does require careful scrutiny by experts. But, of necessity, this will be a small group of people, who may not see the forest for the trees.
Perhaps some middle ground will be found between the old approaches and the Wikipedia’s of the world. I am sure that the editors of Proteomics, whose reputation was hurt by this, would have liked to have some way for a larger group to review before publication.
Preprints have been the standard way of sending a draft around to colleagues in order to get comments. Web 2.0 approaches using Open Science may hold similar appeal. Many hard science papers (physics, math, etc.) are online at very early points in the process.
The journal Nature is doing something similar with Precedings. These will be important adjuncts to the old way.
They will enhance but never replace. At least for scientists.