- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Scientists frustrated by the iron grip that academic journals hold over their research can now pursue another path to fame by taking their research straight to the public online.

Instead of having a group of hand-picked scholars review research in secret before publication, a growing number of Internet-based journals are publishing studies with little or no scrutiny by the authors’ peers. It’s then up to rank-and-file researchers to debate the value of the work in cyberspace.

Next month, the San Francisco-based nonprofit Public Library of Science will release its first open peer-reviewed journal, called PLoS ONE and focusing on science and medicine. Like its sister publications, it will make research articles available for free online by charging authors to publish.

“If we publish a vast number of papers, some of which are mediocre and some of which are stellar, Nobel Prize-winning work — I will be happy,” said Chris Surridge, the journal’s managing editor.

Democratizing the peer-review process raises sticky questions. Not all studies are useful, and flooding the Web with essentially unfiltered research could create a deluge of junk science. There also is the potential for online abuse as rogue researchers could unfairly ridicule a rival’s work. Supporters point out that rushing research to the public could accelerate scientific discovery, while online critiques may help detect mistakes or fraud more quickly.

The open peer-review movement stems from dissatisfaction with the status quo, which gives reviewers great power and can cause long publication delays. In 2002, the reclusive Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman created a buzz when he bypassed the peer-review system and posted a landmark paper to the online repository arXiv.

Mr. Perelman later won the Fields Medal this year for his contribution to the Poincare conjecture, one of mathematics’ oldest and most puzzling problems.

Editors of traditional, subscription-based journals say the peer-review system weeds out sloppy science. But the traditional process isn’t designed to detect fraud — referees rarely look at a researcher’s raw data — and prestigious journals have unwittingly published bogus work. Last year, for example, Science retracted papers on embryonic stem-cell research by a South Korean cloning scientist, who had falsified his results.

Work submitted to PLoS ONE, for instance, is debated after publication by colleagues who rate the research based on quality, originality and other factors. Those who comment cannot alter the paper, which becomes part of the public record. If there is disagreement, authors can respond to comments. To prevent abuse, the site is monitored, and postings can’t be anonymous.

“The fact that you get published in PLoS ONE isn’t going to tell you whether it’s a brilliant paper. What it’s going to say is that this is something worth being in the scientific literature, but you need to look at it more closely,” Mr. Surridge said.

Another open peer-reviewed journal, Philica, which was started earlier this year, takes a more radical approach, allowing anonymous comments, though users whose identities have not been verified by site administrators are flagged with a question mark next to their comments.

“Imagine if somebody puts up absolute garbage, you will have plenty of reviews that will say, ‘This is terrible, terrible, terrible,’” said Philica co-founder and University of Bath psychology professor Ian Walker.

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