The analysis of scientific articles by peers has changed throughout the centuries, evolving from occasional external opinion in the science journals of the mid-seventeenth century to the lengthy, anonymous and formal peer review procedure of current journals. Until the beginning of the 1970s, prestigious European journals such as Nature did not use the peer review methodology as a requirement for screening manuscripts for publication (Baldwin, 2015). The editor's sole opinion seemed to be much more relevant for deciding the fate of manuscripts than the expert’s comments and critiques. If this is entirely correct, then there was a time when the publication of scientific results was a kind of "single person decision". In any case, one thing is still prevalent in the peer review method for certifying research results: it is not completely open or transparent. Whether performed by one person alone or by many people, the readers of the resulting scientific article would never know about what had actually happened during the critical review of the manuscript, which sometimes ends in closed negotiations among editors, reviewers and authors. This closed feature of scientific peer reviewing has endured for at least 300 years.
Is now the time to change this practice? We think so! At the least, we should revisit this reviewing method. Fundamentally, the critical review of scientific manuscripts by a very few anonymous researchers was a typical praxis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the technological apparatus available to publishers and researchers (authors and reviewers) were of very limited reach and, most importantly, were very expensive and time consuming to use on a large scale. We now face a completely different scenario: digital technology has wiped out all the limitations of the old methods, creating a new world of highly interconnected people in every part of the world. It is currently difficult to be ignored by or out of reach of the digital revolution (except for those whose personal situations cause them to remain outside the network).
The "condition sine qua non" for developing a better scaling of peer-collaborative review is already around us: the preprint initiative. The open and immediate dissemination of scientific information is the first step towards "community wisdom", when peers from all branches of science gain access to the latest research results and the process of evaluating, commenting, correcting, suggesting and, in some cases (which we would normally not expect to happen frequently!), identifying either the misuse or attempted corruption of standard scientific practices. This analysis is what the scientific community and society in general expect to happen in the current practice of publishing scientific information. The science in preprint allows immediate access to information that may have a strong impact for decision and policy makers. Furthermore, the preprint process assures the proper recognition of scientists who first explain phenomena and propose new mechanisms, solutions, findings and innovations.
Nonetheless, a brief survey for the keywords "notice of concern", "corrections" and “retractions” in the scientific journals database tell us that the current practice is far from what we imagine would happen on the "not so open" road to publishing scientific articles. Why not transfer this important decision to a multitude of scientists from all fields? Why not collect views and critiques from thousands of individuals from multiple institutions and organizations around the globe? The iterative and critical insight of many skilled, qualified and scattered individuals (exactly what the “scientific community” is in today's world) appears to be much wiser than the biased opinion of 2-3 individuals under the control of the selective view of an editor. Most of the time, conflicts of interest are either partially or never disclosed!
If not already in the final stage of development, a technological platform for this task can be easily implemented by digital innovators because the raw matter to fuel it is right in the corner: the growing body of preprint servers in all scientific fields. Using such a platform, a preprint article could be extensively disseminated through peer networks in the major scientific fields to obtain feedback from readers who are scientists themselves and thus potential voluntary reviewers of the article. At the end of each critical round in the peer network, a new version of this article might be uploaded by the author(s) containing all the suggestions, comments and corrections. This iterative process of critical review is at first glance an endless process, but the authors (or preprint editorial policy) might stipulate a limit for review according to the extent of critiques, comments and suggestions available to improve it. The important point here is the "decentralized" nature of this process: every reader is a potential reviewer of the article, which is permanently open to comments and critiques and continuously prone to new versions as long as it complies with the "good practices of scientific publishing".
If this scenario becomes a reality, we may anticipate one question: are the current scientific journals (and their sometimes-profitable business) doomed to disappear? Well, if they do not adapt to the new environment and challenges, they most likely will!
Baldwin, M. Credibility, peer review, and Nature, 1945–1990. Notes Rec. (2015) 69, 337–352 doi:10.1098/rsnr.2015.0029