Friday, June 20, 2014

The Billionaires, Part 1: Elon Musk

Elon Musk did not need a journal to publicize his Hyperloop paper. [Hyperloop Alpha] No journal can create the kind of buzz he creates on his own. He did not need the validation of peer review; he had the credibility of his research teams that already revolutionized travel on earth and to space. He did not need the prestige of a journal's brand; he is his own brand.

Any number of journals would have published this paper by this author. They might even have expedited their review process. Yet, journals could hardly have done better than the public-review process that actually took place. Within days, experts from different disciplines had posted several insightful critiques. By now, there are too many to list. A journal would have insisted that the paper include author(s) and affiliations, a publication date (Aug. 12th, 2013), a bibliography... but those are irrelevant details to someone on a mission to change the world.

Does the Hyperloop paper even qualify as a scholarly paper? Or, is it an engineering-based political pamphlet written to undermine California's high-speed rail project? As a data point for scholarly communication, the Hyperloop paper may be an extreme outlier, but it holds some valuable lessons for the scholarly-communication community.

The gate-keeping role of journals is permanently over.

Neither researchers nor journalists rely on scholarly editors to dismiss research on their behalf.

In many disciplines, day-to-day research relies more on the grey literature (preprints, technical reports, even blogs and mailing lists) than on journal articles. In other words, researchers commit considerable time to refereeing one another, but they largely ignore each other's gate keeping. When it matters, they prefer immediacy over gate keeping and their own gate keeping over someone else's.

The same is true for journalists. If the story is interesting, it does not matter whether it comes from an established journal or the press release of a venture capitalist. Many journalists balance their reports with comments from neutral or adversarial experts. This practice may satisfy a journalistic concept of objectivity, but giving questionable research "equal treatment" may elevate it to a level it does not deserve.

Public review can be fast and effective. 

The web-based debate on Hyperloop remained remarkably professional and civil. Topics that attract trolls and conspiracy theorists may benefit from a more controlled discussion environment, but the public forum worked well for Hyperloop. The many critiques provide skeptical, but largely constructive, feedback that bold new ideas need.

Speculative papers that spark the imagination do not live by the stodgy rules of peer review.

The Hyperloop paper would be a success if its only accomplishment is inspiring a handful of young engineers to research radically different modes of mass transportation. Unfortunately, publishing speculative, incomplete, sloppy, or bad research may cause real harm. The imagined link between vaccines and autism (published in a peer-reviewed journal and later retracted) serves as an unhappy reminder of the latter.

Not all good research belongs in the scholarly record.

This episode points to an interactive future of scholarly communication. After the current public discussion, Hyperloop may gain acceptance, and engineering journals may publish many papers about it. Alternatively, the idea may die a quiet death, perhaps documented by one or more historical review papers (or books).

The ideal research paper solves a significant problem with inspiration (creative bold ideas) and perspiration (proper methodology, reproducibility, accuracy). Before that ideal is in sight, researchers travel long winding roads with many detours and dead ends. Most papers are small incremental steps along that road. A select few represent milestone research.

The de-facto system to identify milestone research is journal prestige. No journal could survive if it advertised itself as a place for routine research. Instead, the number of journals has exploded, and each journal claims high prestige for the narrowest of specializations. All of these journals treat all submissions as if they are milestone research and apply the same costly and inefficient refereeing processes across the board.

The cost of scholarly communication is more than the sum of subscriptions and page charges. While refereeing can be a valuable experience, there is a point of diminishing returns. Moreover, overwhelmed scholars are more likely to conduct only cursory reviews after ignoring the requests for extended periods. The expectation that all research deserves to be refereed has reduced the quality of the refereeing process, introduced inordinate delays, increased the number of journals, and indirectly increased the pressure to publish.

Papers should earn the privilege to be refereed. By channeling informal scholarly communication to social-network platforms, research can gain some scholarly weight based on community feedback and usage-based metrics. Such social networks, perhaps run by scholarly societies, would provide a forum for lively debate, and they could act as submission and screening systems for refereed journals. By restricting refereed journals to milestone research supported and validated by a significant fraction of the profession, we would need far fewer, less specialized journals.

A two-tier system would provide the immediacy and openness researchers crave, while reserving the highest level of scrutiny to research that has already shown significant promise.

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