Recently, an interesting article appeared from Nikolai Slavov, assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University and an academic editor at PeerJ.
Dr. Slavov rightfully complains that the current peer review process is too opaque. There is no way to really know whether peer review has actually taken place if you sit external to the process. There is no public evidence for the quality of peer review and editorial oversight is even weaker. Which is worrying in light of the fact that, as Slavov rightfully observes, peer review is the most important function of journals. Slavov suggests that at the very least, all journals should publish anonymized peer review reports. In this way, the public can establish the existence and quality of peer review at journals.
But the question is whether this is the right solution. For one, there can be reasons why publishing peer reviews might not be a good idea. Even in the case of anonymization, the tone in a confidential conversation between editors and reviewers will be different than the tone – and possibly the content – in a report that is published alongside the article. Naturally, these concerns are even graver in the case of signed peer review reports. Even more importantly, publishing anonymized peer review reports does not solve the other problems that peer review is suffering from, for example around reviewer recognition. It also does not address fraud and unethical behavior, an equally important issue.
It is our vision that to fundamentally address issues around recognition, transparency, and fraud, we have to take the following steps:
- We have to collect information around peer review information in a structural way. Transparency starts with having data, and at present information about peer review activities is simply not collected structurally.
- We have to store this information in a safe and trustworthy way. The datastore has to be authoritative and be trusted by publishers, reviewers, editors, and by the academic community.
- We have to fully comply with demands around confidentiality and privacy. Completely open peer review might be the solution in some areas, but not in all. Which means that we have to support all review models, including single and double-blind.
When these conditions are met, we can start feeding platforms that aim to recognize reviewers with complete and reliable data, independently verifying the review process (which as Nikolai Slavov rightfully argues is currently not possible). Also by building better reviewer finder tools, we hope to make the peer review process more transparent, recognizable, and efficient.
So why the blockchain?
Because many of its characteristics promise to make it the natural technology to achieve these goals:
- Its decentralized nature allows us to create a datastore that is not centrally owned and controlled by a single (commercial) entity. This will hopefully lower the threshold for publishers to store and share this information.
- Decentralization also means it will be much more difficult to hack the database, and access confidential information.
- Encryption techniques allow us to protect identities whenever needed. Blockchain allows us to be transparent, but pseudonymous: everyone will have access to the same data store which will allow us to verify peer review processes at journals, but real identities and other confidential information can be protected by means of encryption whenever needed.
As with any pilot project, no one knows what the eventual outcome will be, and to what extent blockchain will have a lasting impact on science and research. But its potential in combination with the challenges we are facing in one of the cornerstones of scholarly communication certainly makes us very excited about this initiative.
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