Peer Review is ideal system for sharing knowledge only “if you’re stuck with 17th-century technology.”

January 17th, 2012

For centuries, this is how science has operated — through research done in private, then submitted to science and medical journals to be reviewed by peers and published for the benefit of other researchers and the public at large. But to many scientists, the longevity of that process is nothing to celebrate.

The system is hidebound, expensive and elitist, they say. Peer review can take months, journal subscriptions can be prohibitively costly, and a handful of gatekeepers limit the flow of information. It is an ideal system for sharing knowledge, said the quantum physicist Michael Nielsen, only “if you’re stuck with 17th-century technology.”

Dr. Nielsen and other advocates for “open science” say science can accomplish much more, much faster, in an environment of friction-free collaboration over the Internet. And despite a host of obstacles, including the skepticism of many established scientists, their ideas are gaining traction.

Open-access archives and journals like arXiv and thePublic Library of Science (PLoS) have sprung up in recent years. GalaxyZoo, a citizen-science site, has classified millions of objects in space, discovering characteristics that have led to a raft of scientific papers.

On the collaborative blog MathOverflow, mathematicians earn reputation points for contributing to solutions; in another math experiment dubbed the Polymath Project, mathematicians commenting on the Fields medalistTimothy Gower’s blog in 2009 found a new proof for a particularly complicated theorem in just six weeks.

And a social networking site called ResearchGate — where scientists can answer one another’s questions, share papers and find collaborators — is rapidly gaining popularity.

Not everyone is persuaded:

Editors of traditional journals say open science sounds good, in theory. In practice, “the scientific community itself is quite conservative,” said Maxine Clarke, executive editor of the commercial journal Nature, who added that the traditional published paper is still viewed as “a unit to award grants or assess jobs and tenure.”

Could the move in the sciences towards “open science” portend changes for legal publications?