The scientific journal Nature is conducting a fascinating experiment in "open peer review", which it describes this way:
In Nature's peer review trial, lasting for three months, authors can choose to have their submissions posted on a preprint server for open comments, in parallel with the conventional peer review process. Anyone in the field may then post comments, provided they are prepared to identify themselves. Once the usual confidential peer review process is complete, the public 'open peer review' process will be closed. Nature will report on the results after the trial period is over.
In parallel, it's conducting a online debate about the future of scientific peer review in the web age, and has asked various scientists and writers to contribute their thoughts. Mine was on how the online definition of "peer" (basically anyone, as in "peer-production" and "peer-to-peer") can help us rethink the academic definition of "peer" (usually a tenured PhD professor) for the purpose of identifying the most important scientific work. Here's an excerpt:
The free online Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals are planning to extend the open peer review model by adopting conventions from the blogosphere: an open comment area for each paper, 'trackbacks' that show which sites are linking to it, and perhaps a reader ratings scheme. Michael Eisen, a genomics researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and one of PloS's founders, says the hope is to capture some of the post-publication wisdom already found in academia, but rarely accessible to others.
PLoS still uses expert researchers to review papers before publication, but the editors realize that these scientists often have little time to really dig into a paper. By contrast, readers of a paper after publication may also have an opinion, and many (especially graduate students) have the time to evaluate the paper in depth. The online environment means there’s no reason not to record it.
Such a record would have the effect not only of continuing peer review after publication, but also of making it easier to find important work in a blizzard of papers – they’re the ones that are being buzzed about. It is also easier to ignore poor work that slipped through peer review – these are the papers with the withering comments and poor ratings.
Best of all, such an open peer-review process taps into something that already exists: journal clubs. Every day, thousands of researchers and students are discussing the latest papers, but their insights and opinions are not recorded and shared widely. This information needs only to be collected, organized and distributed to become far more useful. It's now possible to tap such collective intelligence online by doing to scientific publishing what the web has already done to mainstream media: democratizing it.