Social Peer Review: The IJMI Breaks New Ground

With an innovative move to have open peer review of submissions to the IJMI on the G+ community (closed and available only to the members of the group, who are invited by the Moderator/Editor of the Group), they have broken new ground. Now open peer review is nothing new. The BMJ has, amongst many other journals, been clamoring for this to be the standard practice in scholarly publication. Now while in a broad field like Public Health or General Medicine or Medical Education it might not be a problem, in many niche research areas, where everyone knows one another, it might be a bit of an issue. But anyway, the demerits of open peer review is not the issue for today… maybe later.

The Indian Journal of Medical Informatics is presently edited by Dr. Arindam Basu (better known as Dr. Arin Basu to us web-crawlers), and is the flagship publication of the Indian Academy of Medical Informatics. Dr. Basu has previously experimented with the Annotum+Wordpress base as the Journal home and now has launched the G+ initiative.

The idea is to de-identify the authors and then put up the paper on the group page (after initial editorial review) for open discussion. This is not divorced from the original peer review system in place, and nor is it meant  to substitute good, ol’ peer review of papers. This is a measure to complement the already-existing instruments of quality control in place.

While this is a great idea, I have been wondering whether this is going to succeed or not, and the main reason for this skepticism is the relative lack of popularity of Google+ as a social networking site of choice in India. And my fears are not unsubstantiated, as has been adequately proved by the number of reviews posted on the only paper that has been put up there for social review: ZERO!

Truth be told, any such new intervention needs a little time to catch on, but I wonder whether there would be more responses if the IJMI group was to be placed on Facebook. It would actually make a nice little comparative study if my belief that people would be more actively reviewing the paper had it been on Facebook comes true.

One worry that I have had with this is that if, after intense criticism, the paper gets rejected, with Google and text-searching engines thronging about, how would it impact future submission of the paper in other journals? So far, in a very small, hard core open access cohort of journals, we have seen accepted papers’ editorial comments or peer review come out into the open. But there has been never any such measure for the ones that get rejected. It is an accepted truth that once a journal rejects a paper, the authors start looking for another prospective journal to publish the paper. Would the existing paper (and its criticism) on the Google servers not become a deterrent for the future publishers? Another problem will arise for small, niche research areas (or if the group becomes too large and includes all the major players in a particular subject). Then, since the comments and criticism shall be open for all the major scholars to notice (who might be Editors or Peer Reviewers for other journals, competing in the same field), would not the chances of the paper getting published after rejection by the primary journal go down manifolds?

There is also the question whether or not the scholars will muster up the time and effort to review a paper that they have not specifically been asked to review. As it is, review times are abysmally large as reviewing is seen largely as an unpaid, voluntary and often, cumbersome job… and no one would want to stay accountable for a poorly made review (for, in an open review system, the reviewer himself is also under constant scrutiny!) for a job that was optional for them in the first place!

Finally, it seems a little unfair that the names of the authors are hidden while the reviewers have to put their names to the comments they leave on the paper they reviewed. In the true spirit of openness, both the parties would be aware of each others’ identities, and yet, turn in impartial and true judgments, based on nothing but the quality of the paper. But ideal stuff rarely happen to us… and hence, I find interesting, the warning shot the Editor fired prophylactically at the probably-rude reviewers when, with the posting of the first paper for review, he wrote:

Finally, note that the authors of this article (at least one or more authors) are members of this community, and so please be civil in your remarks, and discussions. We shall collate all responses and comments and give the authors opportunities to revise their work. Now, over to you.

It truly is over to us now… do we overcome the hurdles we see in our minds and embrace an innovation that leads to more transparency in academic publishing, or do we cling to our insecurities or perceived fears and maintain the status quo?

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