Au Naturale

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 27, 2006 6:00 pm

The journal Nature has joined the world of Internet peepshows: it’s offering an online sneak peek at a selection of papers that have been submitted but not yet peer reviewed or accepted for publication.

The early edition articles, which appear as posts on a blog, are open to the general public, but only scientists in a related field at an academic institution are allowed to reply with comments. Unlike traditional meaningless blog banter, however, these comments could actually influence whether an editor accepts or rejects the manuscript, according to the site.

A Wall Street Journal article (subscriber only) says this type of open intellectual forum could strengthen the papers that make it into the journal. Last year I sat down with Linda Miller, who is Nature’s U.S. executive editor, for an unrelated discussion on the peer review process. Based on her comments, I have a hard time seeing how beneficial the new system will actually be, at least in the short term.

For starters, said Miller, the normal peer review system is kept anonymous for good reason. Studies have shown that reviewers generate a bias toward authors they know, or labs they have heard of, whether they want to or not. In the regular system, reviewers don’t know who authored the report—but all authors are listed on the new site.

Also, while some authors are grateful to hear feedback, others aren’t, Miller told me. The new system lets researchers choose whether they would like their submitted paper to appear online. Guarded researchers, who are often the successful ones, might scoff at the new system, limiting the scope of scientific dialogue.

Finally, it remains unclear how much weight Nature’s editors will give these responses. “Good peer review relies on good editors making judicious assessments of the talents and skills of reviewers,” Miller said. “You send a paper to people whose guts you trust.”

Given the direction of research journals toward online formats, the idea behind the new system remains intriguing. But a brief glance at the site shows that, so far, many of the Nature posts have received no comments. Many other posts offer the message: “This paper is no longer available for commenting.” One post about a cooling effect in Saturn’s atmosphere did elicit five responses, but one suggests only that the authors check the spelling of their references.


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