I was recently looking at PubPeer (a post-publication peer review site), and it’s pretty cool. Many people have tried to solve the same problem, but that’s ok; it’s an important problem and someone’s going to solve it, so why not them. However, there were two things I saw about that Made Me Sad. First, reviews on the site are anonymous. Second, the creators of the site, who describe themselves as “early-stage scientists,” have also decided to stay anonymous, citing career concerns.
While I can understand their reasons for both choices, I think they’re wrong, for a few reasons:
- Knowledge can grow in many environments–but spaces of openness, transparency, and forthrightness are its preferred habitat. As we build cool new review tools like PubPeer online, it’s a great chance to repair the unfortunate closedness of the traditional, paper-native review system.
- Peer review, particularly the post-publication variety, isn’t voting, where secret ballots make sense; it’s a conversation, where working in the dark is depersonalizing, polarizing, and encourages bad behavior. Conversations are about relationships, as well as content. Yup, sometimes those relationships go badly; but more often they’re really rewarding.
- As professional scholars we should have pride in our intellectual labor. How are we supposed to take work seriously when even its creators aren’t ready to stand behind it?
Again, I don’t know the whole story of where they’re coming from, and so I certainly can’t judge harshly. This is just my take. But my take is that as long as we junior folks keep clinging to anonymity, we continue to perpetuate the (often exaggerated) fear driving our atavistic, closed system.
So I sign every peer review I write. And my cofounder’s and my names are on our startup, ImpactStory. These things we make have plenty of mistakes, no doubt. But I’m proud to say I gave ‘em my best. When my work’s bad, I’ll accept the blame, and I’ll do my best to fix it; like all of us, I’m learning and I can’t see that’s anything to be ashamed of. If folks disagree, they can keep their money or tenure or whatever…we probably wouldn’t work together very well anyway.
Plus to sweeten the deal, projects like ImpactStory are helping boundary-pushing scholars get career boosts from their alternative products, not just risks. So while I can’t tell the innovative young academics behind PubPeer what to do with their company, but I can say that increased openness, transparency, and pride in one’s work are pretty cool, and potentially pretty rewarding–and I’d love to see them embrace these harder.