Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Future of Peer Review

This guest post was written by Richard Price, founder and CEO of — a site that serves as a platform for academics to share their research papers and to interact with each other

Instant distribution

Many academics are excited about the future of instant distribution of research. Right now the time lag between finishing a paper, and the relevant worldwide research community seeing it, is between 6 months and 2 years. [snip].

Many platforms are springing up which enable research distribution to be instant, ,,, . [snip]. Some of the strong platforms are, arXiv, Mendeley, ResearchGate and SSRN.

What about peer review?

One question many academics have is: in a future where research is distributed instantly, what happens to peer review? [snip].

Content discovery on the web

Instant distribution is a characteristic of web content, and the web has thrived without a system of formal peer review in place. [snip].

The web has thrived because powerful discovery systems have sprung up that separate the wheat from the chaff for users. The main two systems that people use to discover content on the web are:

  • Search engines (Google, Bing)
  • Social platforms (mainly sites like Facebook and Twitter, but also generic communication platforms like email, IM etc)

Both search engines and social platforms are peer review systems in different ways. One can think of these two systems as “Crowd Review” and “Social Review” respectively:

  • Crowd Review: Google’s PageRank algorithm looks at the link structure of the entire web, and extracts a number (PageRank) that represents how positively the web thinks about a particular website.
  • Social Review: Twitter and Facebook show you links that have been shared explicitly by your friends, and people you follow.

One can think of the peer review system in the journal industry as “two person review”:

  • Two Person review: Two people are selected to review the paper on behalf of the entire possible audience for that paper.

 The drawbacks of the Two Person review process are that it is:

  • expensive [snip].
  • slow: [snip].
  • of questionable quality [snip].
  • unchanging [snip].
  • a lot of work for the reviewers: [snip].

More and more, academics are discovering research papers nowadays via the web, and in particular, via search engines and social platforms:

  • Search engines: Google, Google Scholar, Pubmed
  • Social platforms:, arXiv, Mendeley, ResearchGate, blogs, conversations with colleagues over email or IM, Facebook and Twitter.

As research distribution has moved to the web mostly, so the discovery engines for research content are the same as those for general web content. The peer review mechanism is evolving from The Two Person review process to the Crowd Review process, and the Social Review process.

But has the research been done to a high standard?

People often say that the formal peer review process helps ensure that all the accessible research is above a certain minimum quality. [snip].

The experience of the web is that this fear is over-blown. There is no quality floor for content on the web. There is bad content on the web, and there is great content. The job of search engines and social platforms is to ensure that the content that you discover, either via Google or Facebook, is of the good kind. [snip]

Discovery and credit systems are powered by the same metrics

Peer review in the journal industry has historically played another interesting role, other than powering research discovery. [snip]..

The peer review system has historically played this dual role, in powering both the discovery system and the credit system, because ultimately research discovery and research credit are about the same issue: which is the good research? [snip].

One new metric of academic credit that has emerged over the last few years is the citation count. Google Scholar makes citation counts public for papers, and so now everyone can see them easily. Citations between papers are like links between websites, and citation counts are an instance of the Crowd Review process.

Legend has it that Larry Page came up with the idea of PageRank after reflecting on the analogy between citations and links. Citation counts nowadays play the dual role of driving discovery on Google Scholar, as they determine the ordering of the search results, and help to determine academic credit.

Academic credit from social platforms

In the case of social platforms, the metric that drives discovery is how much interaction there is with your content on the social platform in question. Examples of such interaction include:

  • numbers of followers you have
  • the number of times your content is shared, liked, commented on, viewed.

These metrics show how much interest there is in your papers, and how widely they are read right now, and thus provide a sense of their level of impact.

One drawback of citation counts as a metric of academic credit is that they are a lagging indicator, in that they take a while to build up. [snip]..

The advantage of the kinds of metrics that social platforms like, Mendeley, and SSRN provide is that they are real time, and they fill this credit gap. Academics are increasingly including these real time metrics in their applications for jobs and for grants. [snip].


Instant Distribution and Peer Review

The prospect of instant distribution of research is tremendously exciting. If you can tap the global brain of your research community in effectively close to real time, as opposed to waiting 6 months to 24 months to distribute your ideas, there could be a wonderful acceleration in the rate of idea generation.


The web is also an incredible place for new ideas to be invented and to take hold. No doubt new peer review mechanisms will emerge in the future that will advance beyond Crowd Review and Social Review.

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