May 21, 2012

If Peer Review Did Not Exist, We Would Have to Invent Something Very Like It to Serve Highly Similar Ends

Attention conservation notice: 1400 words on a friend's proposal to do away with peer review, written many weeks ago when there was actually some debate about this.

Larry is writing about peer review (again), this time to advocate "A World Without Referees". Every scientist, of course, has day-dreamed about this, in a first-lets-kill-all-the-lawyers way, but Larry is serious, so let's treat this seriously. I'm not going to summarize his argument; it's short and you can and should go read it yourself.

I think it helps, when thinking about this, to separate two functions peer-reviewed journals and conferences have traditionally served. One is spreading claims (dissemination), and the other is letting readers know about claims worthy of their attention (certification).

Arxiv, or something like it, can take over dissemination handily. Making copies of papers is now very cheap and very fast, so we no longer have to be choosy about which ones we disseminate. In physics, this use of Arxiv is just as well-established as Larry says. In fact, one reason Arxiv was able to establish itself so rapidly and thoroughly among physicists was that they already had a well-entrenched culture of circulating preprints long before journal publication. What Arxiv did was make this public and universally accessible.

But physicists still rely on journals for certification. People pay more attention to papers which come out in Physical Review Letters, or even just Physical Review E, than ones which are only on Arxiv. "Could it make it past peer review?" is used by many people as a filter to weed out the stuff which is too wrong or too unimportant to bother with. This doesn't work so well for those directly concerned with a particular research topic, but if something is only peripherally of interest, it makes a lot of sense.

Even within a specialized research community, consisting entirely of experts who can evaluate new contributions on their own, there is a rankling inefficiency to the world without referees. Larry talks about spending a minute or two looking at new stats. papers on Arxiv every day. But everyone filtering Arxiv for themselves is going to get harder and harder as more potentially-relevant stuff gets put on it. I'm interested in information theory, so I've long looked at cs.IT, and it's become notably more time-consuming as that community has embraced the Arxiv. Yet within any given epistemic community, lots of people are going to be applying very similar filters. So the world-without-referees has an increasing amount of work being done by individuals, but a lot of that work is redundant. Efficiency, the division of labor, points to having a few people put their time into filtering, and the rest of us relying on it, even when in principle we could do the filtering ourselves. To be fair, of course, we should probably take this job in turns...

So: if all papers get put on Arxiv, filtering becomes a big job, so efficiency pushes us towards having only some members of the research community do the filtering for the rest. We have re-invented something very much like peer review, purely so that our lives are not completely consumed by evaluating new papers, and we can actually get some work done.

Larry's proposal for a world without referees also doesn't seem to take into account the needs of researchers to rely on findings in fields in which they are not experts, and so can't act as their own filters. (Or they could if they put in a few years in something else first.) If I need some result from neuroscience, or for that matter from topology, I do not have the time to spend becoming a neuroscientist or topologist, and it is an immense benefit to have institutions I can trust to tell me "these claims about cortical columns, or locally compact Hausdorff spaces, are at least not crazy". This is also a kind of filtering, and there is the same push, based on the division of labor, to rely on only some neuroscientists or topologists to do the filtering for outsiders (or all of them only some of the time), and again we have re-created something very much like refereeing.

So: some form or forms of filtering is inevitable, and the forces pushing for a division of labor in filtering are very strong. I don't know of any reason to think that the current, historically-evolved peer review system is the best way of organizing this cognitive triage, but we're not going to avoid having some such system, nor should we want to. Different ways of organizing the work of filtering will have different costs and benefits, but we should be talking about those and those trade-offs, not hoping that we can just wish the problem away now that making copies is cheap1. It's not at all obvious, for instance, that attention-filtering for the internal benefit of members of a research community should be done in the same way as reliability-filtering for outsiders. But, to repeat, we are going to have filters and they are almost certainly going to involve a division of labor.

Lenin, supposedly, said that "small production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie daily, hourly, spontaneously and on a mass scale" (Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited, p. 46). Whether he was right about the bourgeoisie or not, the rate of production of the scientific literature, the similarity of interests and standards with a community, and the need to rely on other field's findings are all doing to engender refereeing-like institutions, "daily, hourly, spontaneously and on a mass scale". I don't think Larry would go to the same lengths to get rid of referees that Lenin went to get rid of the bourgeoisie, but in any case the truly progressive course is not to suppress the old system by force, but to provide a superior alternative.

Speaking personally, I am attracted to a scenario we might call "peer review among consenting adults". Let anyone put anything on Arxiv (modulo the usual crank-screen). But then let others create filtered versions, applying such standards of topic, rigor, applicability, writing quality, etc., as they please --- and be explicit about what those standards are. These can be layered as deep as their audience can support. Presumably the later filters would be intended for those further from active research in the area, and so would be less tolerant of false alarms, and more tolerant of missing possible discoveries, than the filters for those close to the work. But this could be an area for experiment, and for seeing what people actually find useful. This is, I take it, more or less what Paul Ginsparg proposes, and it has a lot to recommend it. Every contribution is available if anyone wants to read it, but no one is compelled to try to filter the whole flow of the scholarly literature unaided, and human intelligence can still be used to amplify interesting signals, or even to improve papers.

Attractive as I find this idea, I am not saying it is historically inevitable, or even the best possible way of ordering these matters. The main point is that peer review does some very important jobs for the community of inquirers (whether or not it evolved to do them), and that if we want to get rid of it, it would be a good idea to have something else ready to do those jobs.

[1]: For instance, many people have suggested that referees should have to take responsibility, in some way, for their reports, so that those who do sloppy or ignorant or merely-partisan work will be at least shamed. There is genuinely a lot to be said for this. But it does run into the conflicting demand that science should not be a respecter of persons --- if Grand Poo-Bah X writes a crappy paper, people should be able to call X on it, without fear of retribution or considering the (inevitable) internal politics of the discipline and the job-market. I do not know if there is a way to reconcile these, but that's one of the kind of trade-offs we have to consider as we try to re-design this institution. ^

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