Peer review is a cornerstone of scientific publications. Prior to the publication of a work in a journal, it is sent to an independent expert, who quickly and anonymously evaluates its quality. In fact, peer review is the best option for evaluating scientific papers.
However, open evaluation of papers is a new trend. Open evaluation is the ongoing post-publication process of transparent peer review and assessment of papers, with a promise to address the problems in the current system of scientific publishing. In an open peer-review system, writing a review is equivalent to starting a discussion similar to an online forum.
Journals seem to have little interest in validating the papers they have published. This is justifiable because, in some situations, such validation may invite the risk of questioning the process of pre-publication peer review.
It is rare for scientific conversations to be published on mainstream media. However, dedicated websites like Pub-Peer allow users to discuss and review scientific researches completed by authors across the globe. This site encourages academicians and readers to engage in post-publication peer reviews and offers a platform to highlight the shortcomings in several high-profile papers.
In a recent case, the high-profile retraction of a paper on stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) by Nature in July, five months after publication, caught the headlines. This is one of many cases where post-publication peer reviews are triggering retractions and allegations of scientific fraud.
However, taking such discussions to social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs have also enabled researchers to share their comments openly on papers. This trend is adopting the concept of trial-by-the-Internet, which seems to be gathering attention and pace in several fields. However, it cannot be ignored that in some ways it questions the traditional peer review process.
Philip Moriarty from the University of Nottingham in the UK, who has been involved for years in the post-publication debate on striped nanoparticles, recently raised the point of critiquing authors in a public forum. As he rightly points out, ‘There are cases where the authors have got back and very comprehensively addressed comments, and that’s improved the situation, but of course when you’re critiquing somebody in a public forum like that it can turn nasty very, very quickly.’
Even as publishers look at post-publication peer reviews as a threat, it remains to be seen whether more critics will embrace the idea in the future.