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December 16, 2013 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD

Open post-publication scientific peer review is here. Almost. Now we need to ask whether or not that is a good thing. Some are trumpeting this as a game-changing innovation which will improve the quality of scientific publication. Others are concerned that scientific publication will become more like Twitter and Facebook.

The site Pubmed Commons allows one to comment on any Pubmed indexed publication. Although the system now permits access in a limited way for testing, it will be open to essentially all who have Pubmed indexed papers in the relatively near future. Just as there are sites to review movies, restaurants, and contractors one will soon be able to include their insights and feelings about scientific papers. The advocates of this system believe that post-publication will open the peer review system to all qualified and can allow science to be communicated in a more transparent and less biased manner.

Advocates of post-publication peer review have been very critical of conventional pre-publication peer review

They view it a closed and biased entity which does little to improve the quality of science. They cite, as evidence for this viewpoint the fact that the findings in peer reviewed papers have been proved to be wrong.

It is notable that post-publication peer review is not really new.

Post-publication peer review has long taken place in the form of letters to the editor. However, the critics also consider this to be a closed, biased method controlled by the editors. Post-publication peer review has now expanded to the world of blogs and social media where we are all free to comment on anyone’s papers in any way they wish. I, trained in physiology, cell biology, and biochemistry, would be free to jump into cognitive psychology papers and offer my critique. Those working in medical physics could critique my publications. At some level it will become very difficult to separate the signal from the noise.

As a scientist I have always been partial to a particular type of post-publication peer review which is predicated on the nature of science itself as well as the norms of scientific communication. Science produces results which are subject to verification when studies can be repeated and revision where results suggest an alternative interpretation. The most robust form of post-publication review will always be to propose and complete studies which will verify or refute. They will be able to critique science with science.

In my opinion what the advocates of both pre- and post-publication critique are missing is science and data. While many have studied peer review there is little data to support that it increases the quality of science. This is a position many hold based the experience and scientific norms. What is surprising to me is that the advocates of post-publication review support its implementation without an accompanying plan for studies to determine if it does any good. Without such study it may just produce a bunch of words. We already have a lot of those.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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