Tuesday, January 17, 2017

PubPeer: Changing the face of peer review

The scientific community holds the peer review process in high-esteem, citing it as the means by which faulty science is weeded out and only the most accurate scientific data is published.  However there is a growing recognition that, given the sheer volume of work produced, and the competitive nature of our field, this process is no longer functioning as intended.  Brandon Stell, who only very recently revealed his identity, along with several colleagues developed a website with the aim of putting the peer review process back into the hands of all scientists, rather than a select few.  An article published on Vox.com describes Stell and colleagues' website, PubPeer.com, where virtually any researcher can comment on already published articles.  This forum, while certainly not without pitfalls, puts the scientific screening process into the hands of thousands of individuals.  In this way scientists of vastly different backgrounds, approaches, and viewpoints can begin an open discussion about the validity and impact of a published article.  The article's authors can view these comments and respond in turn, allowing for a level of world-wide scientific discourse not previously seen.  The problem with this method, however, is that the articles have already been published.  They have already been made available to the media and the public, two venues which all too often misinterpret accurate studies, or worse, take inaccurate ones as truth.  While the comments on PubPeer may occasionally garner wider recognition this is often not the case.  Perhaps when knowledge of the site and recognition of it's value becomes widespread it can begin to have a higher impact on scientific review and validity.  One of the strengths of PubPeer is that it relies on any and all individuals in the scientific community to post their critiques, however this may also prove to be a drawback. In order for a community-wide peer review process to be successful it must receive input from a representative portion of the population.  Scientists are often already over-worked and strapped for time.  Reading through an article and beginning a discussion regarding the validity of the work simply may not be a top priority, much less be a regular portion of their job.  Perhaps in order to encourage a larger majority of voices scientific training at institutions around the globe could encourage participation in this type of forum.  Perhaps as younger scientists are trained with the mindset of post-publication review by the world-wide scientific community, the trend of faulty science will begin to turn around.

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