The recent announcement that more than 60 peer reviewed articles had been removed due to fraud, perpetrated by a peer review ring, has forced some to question the validity of the peer review process. However, while the peer review process is in need of innovation in order to bring it into the 21st century, it is in no way invalid.
The fact that the scientific community was able to crack down on the peer review ring and that the fraudulent articles were removed, shows just how well the peer review process does work. Such false information is rarely eliminated in other contexts. The reason why peer review and expert opinion is so important is that we want to maximize the odds of the opinion being valid while minimize the amount of unnecessary contention.
Unfortunately many have already jumped on this example to once again mock experts and refer to their theories as “just theories”. While theories are indeed “just theories” and treating theory as fact or indisputable is essentially dogmatic, theories are also not “just theories” in that they often have a large amount of supporting evidence.
An Updated Process
While the traditional peer review process has been around for a very long time, it does still suffers from many flaws. One of the largest flaws is that the process is closed source. This allows the system to be corrupted more easily than an open source decentralized system. Instead, articles can be published online using a Wiki system. The validity of the articles can be voted on by every user.
This may sound absurd, and without a further caveat, it might be. However, while simply giving equal weight to every single vote would probably result in a mess similar to that of the general internet, where any piece of information, whether valid or not, can be found, creating an algorithm that gives weight to expert opinion, would not. I say probably because Wikipedia, which, for the most part, is open to public editing, does a rather thorough job of maintaining a high level of validity. However, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and therefore contains already existing information which can be verified. Research articles are very often either new pieces of information or an analysis and synthesis of existing information.
What is an Expert?
One question that arises is “what is an expert”. An expert is generally someone who has formal education on a given topic. However, this is not necessary. An expert is also someone who is generally uncontested and has a long track record of providing information that is deemed reliable by others, especially other experts. Experts are generally held to a high standard of writing. The actual material must be well written, highly cited, and of course, not involve plagiarism. Any algorithm to determine expert opinion must include these ideas. Such an algorithm must also be open to public scrutiny in order for open source peer reviewing to be successful.
1. Peer Review and Manuscript Management in Scientific Journals: Guidelines for Good Practice (Amazon.com) [Paperback]