How will peer review act in the digital age?

Tom Bonan, Writer

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Scientists at Harvard University spotted indirect evidence of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time that emanate from the very earliest moments in the universe. These findings help support the idea of cosmic inflation, one of the core principles of the Big Bang Theory, which is one of the most fundamental theories regarding the creation of our universe.

This discovery is not only notable for its scientific significance, but for the inordinate amount of press coverage it has received. This discovery is also not brand new, for these waves were predicted–but never confirmed–by Einstein in 1916. A recent surge in public interest regarding physics has led to a few of these high-profile scientific discoveries in the last couple of years, most notably with the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in July 2012.

One interesting consequence of this newly formed interest in scientific discoveries is that the findings went public well before the papers were peer-reviewed. Peer review is a crucial practice for the scientific community that aims to make sure data is credible and valid before it is published. In the case of the Higgs discovery, other physicists did validate the data a few weeks after the discovery, but for the most recent case it could be months before other institutions are able to do similarly.

The rise of rapid sharing information via the web as well as the rise of the 24-hour media cycle has substantially challenged the practice of peer-review. There are obviously those who question its efficacy; many scientists say that it takes too long to review their work, jeopardizing their ability to share their findings quickly. Yet for the most part, many see the practice as upholding a standard of validity that non-scientific fields lack.

As academic and research institutions come under pressure to write and publish more papers in order to receive funding, they frequently are at odds with a traditional system that seems disconnected with the current way that information travels. It would be a stretch to say that web-blog formats will replace, or are even serious competitors with, peer-reviewed academic journals. Yet many institutions are implementing drastic changes with regards to how they spread not only their scientific findings, but also their names and other research projects to account for the technological age.

These two recent discoveries in the field of physics are unprecedented, since the amount of technology and cooperation needed to work on these projects would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. But they also represent a dramatic shift in the way that information flows from the scientific community to the general public. The number of research papers that are published in the United States has risen steeply over the last two decades as institutions fight for prestige and money. It is certain that these high-profile cases are surely helping to fuel this rise, but also help usher in an age where the public is more intimately tied to scientific discoveries.

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