A centralized repository for academic journals: it’d need to borrow credibility from those established in the field

July 21st, 2008 by jose

Today I found a comment (again in hacker news!) that is very relevant to the discussion we are having here. I’m going to repost it, but credit goes to the author mlinsey. We have discussed in the past how soft peer review could change the landscape in science. The original model of peer review worked well when there were few submissions to journals and people communicated by snail mail, but it’s getting crazy for our current environment. Dario proposed an alternative, and mlinsey presents a similar one, maybe even more radical. Enjoy.

The whole journal system itself is broken. My university’s Math & CS library dropped its subscriptions to several journals a few years ago because they cost too much. Even though they picked the least important/prestigious journals, at one of the top CS departments in the country, this should not happen. And this is to say nothing of a lone individual who wants to benefit from research and teach himself some of it. They can hardly pay to subscribe to any of these journals.

And think about what a journal provides: a forum for researchers to submit the results of their research and a mechanism for selecting which of the submissions are worthwhile for folks in the field to know about.

What I just described is essentially just a karma system, albeit you would have to find a way to take the credibility of the rater into serious consideration. Assuming you solved the chicken-and-egg problem of getting enough credible people from academia to be raters and to submit their best work to your site (quite a tough problem considering many large universities are much more like big companies, or worse government bureaucracies, than startups), you could totally replace the entire system of academic journals.

Think of all the other free extras you would get by having a web app host all journal articles: at minimum, the process of citing references and looking at the background of a paper could be improved: you could visually trace the findings of the paper you’re looking at all the way back to the founding of the field by what each of it’s references used as references. Search would be a lot better, as would recommendation engines (lots of professors have grad students waste time simply scanning journals for articles that are relevant for their work). If you’re into NLP than you would have a much better dataset and a clear application for doing summarization. And think about the possibilities of social networking or productivity-app type features enabling all sorts of new possibilities for collaboration among people at different universities!

But the real big play is that once you do all this, you’re well on your way to replacing universities themselves, which any undergraduate can tell you are bloated enterprises which spend large amounts of money and pass the costs onto their customers, who accept it because the university system has a monopoly on giving out credentials for people going into the working world.

One of universities main products is research, and in many fields (biology, physics) you need the big backing of university (and government) dollars to support research. In many other fields (math, Computer Science, philosophy) you don’t. Researchers in these fields usually need to somehow pay their living expenses, and the actual equipment expenses are minimal. They mainly need: -a place to find like-minded collaborators -credibility for their work (ie, ability to publish in journals). You could give them both of those things. Now people in these fields wouldn’t even need to choose the career path of grad school and then professorship (in other words, staying their entire life in the university monopoly) in order to contribute their research to humanity’s body of knowledge.

So in other words, what you need is to build a HN/Reddit style voting/peer review system that weights the credibility of the voter heavily. Then you need to find some early adopters who are credible enough to lend your own site credibility. Then you could be well on your way to reinventing the academy in a way that is much more democratic and makes its results much more widely available and usable by the public.

Anyone want to build this? My email address is in my profile. Or just go ahead and use this idea yourself – I just really want to be able to use this service somehow, though probably more as a consumer than a producer of research. Maybe someone who actually went to grad school and had lots of papers published themselves would be in a better position to build this idea.

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