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Open peer review

June 29 2014 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

I do not usually read The Economist magazine. One may agree or not with the editorial standpoint of the magazine but it provides weekly international news contrary to national publications except the Courier international in France. The science section contains articles both on the latest scientific developments and on science politics and sociology. On the June 14th issue an article (“Let the light shine in, The Economist June 14th 2014) was devoted to the new trend of open review triggered by the heated discussion that has followed two recent big research news.

The way to ensure the quality of scientific research is the process of peer review. A scientist who did not participate to the research asses that not obvious mistake has been made. But it is clear that no single individual can evaluate in depth the work of sometime hundreds over many years, especially that the referee can judge the work based on an article of at most 30 pages. The standard refereeing process is clearly explained in the article for the general audience.

Scientific articles are never the final words. Instead they are the starting point for further researches, which can confirm or not the claimed findings or conclusions. In the cases discussed in the article, one research deals with a method to grow stem cells and the other on cosmology. Both researches stirred a lot of press and the results of the first could not be reproduced by other laboratories. The Bicep2 group detection of polarized light from the Big Bang is based on extremely complicated analyses that other groups disagree. In both cases the discussions have been intense on the social networks. The one-person refereeing process has been replaced now by this open review process. In the case of the stem cell research, fraud may have been involved. Nevertheless, discussions are parts of the research process.

Interestingly the cosmological results would be categorized as normal science since the aim of the project is to find the signature of inflation as predicted by theorists already in the 1970's to accommodate the standard Big Bang model. The results were announced by press release and press conference ahead of a peer-reviewed publication. The open refereeing has been prompt to check both results. Replicating and checking results are part of the research process. We all do our best to avoid mistake, but making mistakes is also part of the research. As more researchers scrutinize the work of others, obvious mistakes are found and corrected. After all researchers are human and nobody should blame them for making involuntary mistakes. But frauds should be sanctionned.

A recent paper I have co-signed is being discussed on a Facebook group dedicated to my personal field of research. Virtual discussion places on the internet are complementing the conferences where researchers gather to present and discuss the latest results.

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