Monday, March 5, 2007

Web 2.0-Based Peer Review Comes to U.S. Patents: Are Scholarly Publishers Next?

As scholarly publishers drag their feet in responding to Open Access challenges to their business model, the Washington Post notes an effort by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to introduce open Web peer review for patent applications using technologies similar to those used on popular social media Web sites. The online system now under development will allow the public to post comments on patent applications and to have those comments rated by their peers, much in the way that social bookmarking sites such as Digg, del.icio.ius and Newsvine allow users to chime in on posted comments. Detailed profiles required for comment posters is hoped to dissuade bogus comments from infiltrating the system, though the potential for this is nevertheless acknowledged by the USPTO.

With USPTO officials overwhelmed with an onslaught of new patent applications - 4,000 examiners processed 332,000 applications last year - online peer review methods are a key initiative to help the agency to judge the worthiness of patent applications more efficiently. First up will be tech companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, with an open call for other participants. While scholarly researchers are likely to continue to use peer-reviewed publications from publishers as the principal gateway to vetting their ideas amongst peers the USPTO initiative offers an exciting alternative to traditional peer review methods for serious sci-tech innovations.

No peer review model is perfect, but online content and ecommerce services have accumulated extensive experience in what types of peer review methods are valuable and reliable. The key to moving scholarly publishing forward into more profitable and efficient methods will revolve around innovative approaches to peer review similar in general concept to the USPTO initiative. The key problem with scholarly peer review today is that there are too few peers willing and able to review too much potentially publishable content within the constraints of the existing system. While this does provide a certain degree of quality control, the pressures to publish journals on fixed schedules are in some ways more likely to push questionable research into print using today's peer review methods as methods that don't rely on the production limitations of print services. They don't call it "publish or perish" for nothing, after all.

A more open approach to scholarly peer review similar in concept to the USPTO initiative may have the potential to loosen review bottlenecks while maintaining the quality of the peer review process. The price to pay for this innovation is that such a system would begin to expose who in a scholarly community was really respected by their peers and leading publishers. As in other arenas of publishing the "brand name" institutions associated with quality research may find both their research papers and their scholars not receiving what they may feel is deserved recognition from a system that allows reviewers to express their preferences more openly and honestly than via the more closed process of today's journal-managed peer review processes.

But at the end of the day more open approaches to peer review are going to be necessary to gain the confidence of both scholarly researchers and the markets that they serve. The current PLoS One is a hopeful step in this direction, but the USPTO initiative offers scale that may prove out to scholarly publishers the importance of enabling a more open approach to peer review as a competitive necessity. While not every scientific discovery is likely to be backed up by the USPTO review methodology alone, it may create enough competitive force in the marketplace to jar scholarly publishers loose from their moorings and to consider how the broader marketplace for innovations will seek to have discoveries confirmed as valid in the eyes of their peers. We'll see how this unfolds, but for now consider this a major shift in the peer review process of technologies that's likely to ripple long and hard into scholarly publishing.
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