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The last time I checked in with Academia.edu, it had raised an $11.1 million round, and I got into a debate with its founder, Richard Price, about the whether or not the peer review process is broken. Apparently I didn’t break his spirit, because the open-source platform for academics continues to fight the good fight.

Today Academia.edu announced its acquisition of peer review platform Plasmyd, with the intention of proving that the two academic startups do indeed intend to generate an industry-wide shakeup.

Plasmyd is itself a peer-review platform, that has handled thousands of scientific papers and provided a space for scientists to discuss and critique each other’s work. Plasmyd sees itself as binding its scientific search engine platform with Academia.edu’s user base (which just hit 5 million yesterday). The two companies view this as a way to begin promoting new online academic platforms. “[Academia.edu has] built the largest online community of scientists while we’ve been working on building the next generation tools of peer review,” said Plasmyd’s co-founder Adnan Akil.

But the question must be asked: Is the peer review process broken? Price says, yes. I am dubious. As Price sees it, peer review requires the approval of only a few people in who aren’t necessarily experts in the relevant field. This doesn’t mean they aren’t qualified scientists, but that given the small size of committees, scientific specializations may not perfect align. “Not enough peer reviewers are reviewing,” he told me. He thinks the way to combat this is to utilize a more broad and diversified approach that lets more peers convey their knowledge of the subject.

Price sees the old peer review process as causing fewer papers to be reviewed than could be. He also doesn’t believe the current review process is rigorous enough. Earlier this month a journalist was able to successfully submit a bogus cancer research paper to a science journal. Price believes opening up peer review to a more democratic process, it will paradoxically allow more focus to specialized research, because a wider swath of the academic community would be able to review a given paper.

Another problem Price sees with the current system is that papers may not actually be yielding the expected results. A new study from Amgen showed that more than two-thirds of research papers were unable to be reproduced. This means that the original results that were published in a scientific study were unable to be replicated in a lab following publication. This is especially alarming when you think that scientific research papers are meant to provide new methods to combat health problems. If a paper poses a solution that is unable to be reproduced, then one has to question the value of the research.

When Price and I originally chatted, he envisioned an online platform where academics could participate to gain renown as a valued source, a re-envisioning of the peer-review process — almost a Klout or LinkedIn for academics. Academics would put in their two cents on the site, and that would help them build professional stature. This was in contrast to the current system where papers are sent to colleagues who pore over them for a period of time and then issue a yea or nay.

I found that to be somewhat questionable, as the peer review process is arduous precisely to weed out questionable material. While it is hard to get one’s foot in the door, academia has been meritocratic for centuries with reason. Speed and democratization shouldn’t necessarily be reasons to completely uproot this system.

I called up a friend of mine who is a PhD candidate in physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and asked him his thoughts. In his experience writing papers, he never had problems with the peer review process, and thought every comment he received was apt and thoughtful. If a scientist doesn’t think the reviewer’s comments are salient, “they are probably submitting to the wrong journals,” he told me.

Yet my friend did agree that some aspects of the journal system are outdated, and academic research shouldn’t be held behind a paywall. In his experience, science as a discipline is fractioned. There are so many journals because there are so many sub-sections and specialties that need to be handled. In order for a centralized platform to take root and be effective, it would need to get a majority of scientists in every field to participate. “And that’s convincing a lot of old professors to come on board [with Academia.edu],” my friend said.

At the same time, Price does bring up a valid point that published scientific research should be keeping with the times. Scientific discoveries are made everyday and published research ought to echo this. The inhibitors of getting a paper published shouldn’t be a limited number of expert voices on a topic; there surely isn’t a lack of PhDs.

The emphasis, then, should be on adding more authoritative voices, and not on completely upturning the process. But for such a new system like Academia.edu’s to be adopted, more rigorous work will have to be created. This means more reproducible research. And that really shouldn’t be so much to ask.

  1. Academia.edu
    A social platform for academics to share research papers.
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    Academia.edu is a social platform for academics to share research papers. Its mission is to accelerate the world's research. It's widely thought that science is too closed, and too slow. Academia.edu is trying to change that.

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