Journal tries crowdsourcing peer reviews, sees excellent results

Chris Lee at ArsTechnica: “Peer review is supposed to act as a sanity check on science. A few learned scientists take a look at your work, and if it withstands their objective and entirely neutral scrutiny, a journal will happily publish your work. As those links indicate, however, there are some issues with peer review as it is currently practiced. Recently, Benjamin List, a researcher and journal editor in Germany, and his graduate assistant, Denis Höfler, have come up with a genius idea for improving matters: something called selected crowd-sourced peer review….

My central point: peer review is burdensome and sometimes barely functional. So how do we improve it? The main way is to experiment with different approaches to the reviewing process, which many journals have tried, albeit with limited success. Post-publication peer review, when scientists look over papers after they’ve been published, is also an option but depends on community engagement.

But if your paper is uninteresting, no one will comment on it after it is published. Pre-publication peer review is the only moment where we can be certain that someone will read the paper.

So, List (an editor for Synlett) and Höfler recruited 100 referees. For their trial, a forum-style commenting system was set up that allowed referees to comment anonymously on submitted papers but also on each other’s comments as well. To provide a comparison, the papers that went through this process also went through the traditional peer review process. The authors and editors compared comments and (subjectively) evaluated the pros and cons. The 100-person crowd of researchers was deemed the more effective of the two.

The editors found that it took a bit more time to read and collate all the comments into a reviewers’ report. But it was still faster, which the authors loved. Typically, it took the crowd just a few days to complete their review, which compares very nicely to the usual four to six weeks of the traditional route (I’ve had papers languish for six months in peer review). And, perhaps most important, the responses were more substantive and useful compared to the typical two-to-four-person review.

So far, List has not published the trial results formally. Despite that, Synlett is moving to the new system for all its papers.

Why does crowdsourcing work?

Here we get back to something more editorial. I’d suggest that there is a physical analog to traditional peer review, called noise. Noise is not just a constant background that must be overcome. Noise is also generated by the very process that creates a signal. The difference is how the amplitude of noise grows compared to the amplitude of signal. For very low-amplitude signals, all you measure is noise, while for very high-intensity signals, the noise is vanishingly small compared to the signal, even though it’s huge compared to the noise of the low-amplitude signal.

Our esteemed peers, I would argue, are somewhat random in their response, but weighted toward objectivity. Using this inappropriate physics model, a review conducted by four reviewers can be expected (on average) to contain two responses that are, basically, noise. By contrast, a review by 100 reviewers may only have 10 responses that are noise. Overall, a substantial improvement. So, adding the responses of a large number of peers together should produce a better picture of a scientific paper’s strengths and weaknesses.

Didn’t I just say that reviewers are overloaded? Doesn’t it seem that this will make the problem worse?

Well, no, as it turns out. When this approach was tested (with consent) on papers submitted to Synlett, it was discovered that review times went way down—from weeks to days. And authors reported getting more useful comments from their reviewers….(More)”.