Fixing Peer Review, Freeing Knowledge Creation

In my last post I vented some frustration about the inefficiencies of academia: how current standards for intellectual property, peer review, and tenure are actually limiting academia’s avowed goal of creating and disseminating knowledge, not only in the field of digital activism, but in others as well.

In this post I’d like to dig into one element of that problem: peer review. As the dysfunctional cornerstone of tenure, academic publication, and the validation of truth, peer review clearly has problems. Let’s start by looking at the current process. The graphic below is from the web site, created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology. It shows a rational system of academic self-regulation in which ideas are filtered through a process of expert analysis before publication, ensuring that the final public product is accurate and useful:

Yet this diagram glosses over some key stages in the process in order to draw its picture of a rational system. It implies a single step between “studying something” and writing an academic article. In reality, scientists and scholars (a broader term) often start by collecting data. After they collect the data they analyze it and from that they draw conclusions. Once they have those conclusions they can choose to write an academic article about it.

Assuming the process, which can take years, goes well, the result is a single academic journal article, which can be used by other scholars studying similar problems and which can be used by the scholars who wrote it to gain the employment security of tenure.

From this perspective it is pretty easy to see areas for improvement:

  1. Scholars Collect Data: Why just two guys at a telescope? Why not hundreds of guys (and women) at hundreds of telescopes, compiling data in the cloud?
  2. Data Analysis: Why are these two guys analyzing their data alone? Why don’t they share it so other scholars can bring their unique perspective, leading not to one set of conclusion but dozens or hundreds?
  3. Writing About It: Peer-reviewed journals clearly have their place, but there are many other options. Conclusions can be easily blogged, even during the analysis process, creating linkages and dialogue between the different scholars studying the data and engaging new scholars in processes of inquiry by offering multiple opportunities for public engagement and discussion.
  4. Peer Review Process: Assuming that an article is written for peer review, this process continues uninterrupted, except that, with proper coordination, there might be multiple articles, on multiple aspects of the data, that are also in this process. In addition, peer review is not slowing publication. Much of the research has already been made public informally through blogging, open data sets, listservs, and other forms of sharing.
  5. More Than One Article: Not one but several sets of conclusions are made public. There may be a few journal articles in addition to dozens of blog posts and hundreds of discussions. In addition, the data and discussion of conclusions has been in the public domain throughout the formal peer review process, removing the delay of analysis by others.

By opening the process, data has been accessible by more people and has been processed by more minds, more quickly. The final knowledge created is greater by almost any measure, be it by total publications, awareness of the issue, or individual insights generated.

Why make these changes now? Because publication, mass collaboration, and remote coordination have never been easier or cheaper. In fact, at the moment it is much harder to keep information secret than to let it be free (just ask the State Department or Stewart Brand). Quick and broad transfer of information is the new normal. When the goal is knowledge creation, why fight it?

Why haven’t these changes been made yet? Because there are institutional disincentives to sharing. First of all, tenure largely rides on publication of books and peer reviewed journal articles. If a scholar must publish in this manner in order to secure his livelihood, he is going to ensure that it is he who publishes the analysis of the data he collected.

Secretiveness about intellectual property (in industry even more than in academia) is often based on the supposition that someone smarter, with better insight, might take the information and turn it into a consumable product more quickly that the person who made the initial investment to collect the data. In business, where each firm has an individual profit motive, this might make sense. But in academia, where the goal should be to create knowledge, preventing someone with greater insight from using available data makes no sense at all.

Does any of this matter? Peer review, tenure, the ivory tower – sounds like pretty dry stuff. I suppose in a field like art history or literary criticism, where the findings of research are of most interest to the scholarly community of that particular field, the current slow process of peer review might not have a grave effect. However, in fields like medicine, environmental science, and digital activism new insights can affect the lives of millions of people. (For a rare dramatization of how current academic processes cost lives, rent And The Band Played On, which addresses the deleterious affects of academic competition and secrecy in the race to fight AIDS.)

What is the role of organizations like the Meta-Activism-Project? One of the roles of the Meta-Activism Project and other research projects outside of academia is to test-drive these new methods of knowledge creation, showing that more open processes do work. Beyond the knowledge gained about digital activism through the Global Digital Activism Data Set, we hope that the project will have demonstration value in proving the merit of open and digital methods of knowledge creation. Humanity today is beset by a range of complex and existential challenges. We do ourselves a disservice when we throttle our own efforts to study these phenomena and find solutions.


8 thoughts on “Fixing Peer Review, Freeing Knowledge Creation

  1. ty for this interesting article. This is indeed one of the major challenge that a new generation of researchers is facing. But the question is, if the method of research which you outline is applicable to the university as an institutional body? The problem is that the difference you describe between business and academia is continuously vanishing. It is i.e. the amount of publications, no. of peer reviews, even the number of pages, quotes etc. which become the measure for funding, posts, projects etc., which is of course contradicting the ideals of academia while common interest, sharing, collaborating does decreasingly correspond with the logic of the institution. I find it quite interesting that academia itself (at least in humanities) remains largely isolated from the discussions on how digital technolgies change cultural techniques (like writing, reading, publishing etc.) because it is actually a discussion that it has itself initiated. We mirgt face a similar development as the tension between professional journalism and (so-called) citizen-journalism. Instutionalized research as a profession and its high quality standards might get old-school and unflexible while individuals start to act in their place. As in journalism we might see alternative funding, publishing, sharing, collaborating methods will challenge the old institutions. It is not clear whether this will lead to a transformation or separation.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Moritz. I think this prediction is particularly interesting:

    “We [might] face a similar development as the tension between professional journalism and (so-called) citizen-journalism. Instutionalized research as a profession and its high quality standards might get old-school and unflexible while individuals start to act in their place.”

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