Crowd Sourced Review Probably Can't Replace the Journals

posted on Feb 12th, 2024

Two years ago, I started a journey into academic publishing. I imagined using a reputation system to replace the journals with crowd sourcing. The reputation system would match reviewers to papers, incentivize good faith review, and identify bad actors. It wasn’t clear whether it would work in practice, but I wanted to find out.

I spent a year doing user research, building a beta (peer-review.io), and working to get people to give it a shot.

I am now convinced that it’s not going to work.

While some of the reasons are specific to the reputation based approach, most impact any attempt to crowd source peer review. There’s a brick wall standing in the way of any attempt to move academic publishing outside of the journals.

A photo of stacked journals.

What is crowd sourcing in an academic review context?

Before we dive into the reasons why crowd sourcing probably won’t work, let’s get some definitions in place.

In traditional academic publishing, the journal editors act as the organizers, moderators, and facilitators.

Crowd sourcing is any system where technology provides everything needed for scholars to self-organize. It is any system of academic review where the reviewers self-select and self-organize using technology without needing a faciliator, organizer, or editor.

What is it that we’re trying to replace with crowd sourcing?

Journal’s editorial teams are doing quite a bit of manual labor, some of which is very difficult to replace with technology.

The work of journal editorial teams includes:

  • Filtering spam and amateur work.
  • Facilitating multiple rounds of review and feedback, which requires:
    • Identifying and recruiting reviewers for papers.
    • Moderating the reviews.
  • Technical support for authors and reviewers in using the journal’s software.

Why can’t we replace that?

On the surface, most of that seems like work that a crowd sourcing system could potentially handle. I certainly thought the reputation system could handle a lot of it.

But I didn’t fully understand exactly what was happening with two items in particular.

Identifying and recruiting reviewers for papers… and convincing them to do the review.

This is a huge piece of the labor of editorial teams.

Scholars are constantly operating at the edge of burn out, with work coming at them from all directions. They don’t actually have the time or bandwidth to do review and are barely squeezing it in. Because of this, they aren’t seeking opportunities to do review. Editors have to work hard to find reviewers who can and will find bandwidth to do a review for them, often leaning on personal relationships or the prestige of their journals.

Editors I’ve spoken to sometimes have to ask 20 people before they find 2 or 3 willing to do a review. And even then, it’s not uncommon for people to commit and drop out.

I definitely didn’t understand just how bad this was when I started out. I was hoping a crowd sourcing system could fix this by building review into the natural process of reading the literature. And it’s still unclear whether that would help, if a system that made review easy and natural became the default publishing system. But it presents a chicken and egg problem. Reviewers aren’t going to review on that system until it’s the default, and it can’t become the default with out the reviewers.

Moderating the reviews.

Journal editors are doing an enormous amount of moderation. And not just your standard internet discussion moderation. They’re doing a lot of a very specific kind of ego management.

Crowd sourced systems generally work as long as the average actor is a good actor.

A good actor in the context of academic publishing is someone who is willing to put aside their own ego in the pursuit of the best work possible. This is someone capable of recognizing when they’re wrong and letting their own ideas go. A good actor would see a paper that invalidated their work and be able to assess it purely on the merits.

It is unclear whether the average academic is a good actor in this sense. And its editors who keep that from tearing the whole system apart.

Most academics seem to intuitively suspect that there are enough bad actors in academia to make crowd sourcing non-viable. One of the biggest pieces of feedback I got was concerns about abuse, manipulation, gaming, or just plain old bad faith reviews from people with competing ideas.

If the average actor is a good actor, a well designed reputation system would be able to flush those behaviors out over time. If not, it breaks the system. This breaks just about any other attempt to crowd source review as well.

Any attempt to replace the journals has to contend with these two issues and has to have a really solid, convincing answer for them. Peer-review.io doesn’t.

The Other Shoe

There’s another reason why outright replacing the journals with a crowd sourced system - or any other system - is unlikely to succeed.

Lock in.

Authors simply aren’t free to try other systems. Their career advancement is wholly dependent on publishing in a limited set of journals chosen by their departments. In some cases those are chosen by committees of their peers, in other cases by university administrators.

Authors are not going to risk publishing a worthwhile paper in a new system. And reviewers aren’t going to go anywhere authors aren’t.

I had hoped focusing on file drawered papers might provide an in. But it’s unclear just how much of an issue file drawered papers are. It seems likely many of the papers aren’t easily shareable. Many academics question whether their file drawered papers should be shared. Often, ones that they want to share have already been shared on preprint servers.

There’s very little room for movement in the system where authors and reviewers are concerned. And you can see that in the massive graveyard of attempts to build something different, to which peer-review.io is now being added.

Is there hope for change?

Crowd sourcing probably won’t work, but there is still hope. We just have to change how we think about the system.

There are various attempts to reform the journal structure itself, like eLife’s move to reviewed preprints with a no rejection model. There are attempts to overlay a journal-like structure on top of preprints, like Peer Community In. In some cases, previous attempts to crowdsource are gradually evolving back towards something that looks like a journal form, like PREreview which started out pure crowd sourced and is gradually evolving back towards journalish with their review communities.

It remains to be seen whether any of these attempts will be able to get enough traction to make systematic change in the long run, but they all have the potential to.

But there’s another path as well.

If we admit that the journal structure, defined as an editorial team manually organizing and moderating review, is unlikely to change and redefine our goal from “crowd source review” to “escape the commercial publishers” and “enable experimentation with the journal structure”, then there’s a path with a ton of promise: flipping journals.

But that’s a story for another post.

City Elections 2023 - Housing and Land Use Policy Guide (Affordability)

posted on Mar 12th, 2023

It’s city election time in Bloomington, Indiana. The candidates have all filed and the race is underway. This is the first in a series of posts covering city policy.

There are four major policy areas that tend to come up in municipal policy discussions. They are:

  • housing and land use
  • transportation
  • public safety and policing
  • economic development

There are other things that the city has jurisdiction over that don’t fit neatly into those categories (parks, utilities, etc). There are very important issues that represent cross cutting concerns - things like climate response and antiracism touch on most of those policy areas. Solutions to things like homelessness often touch on several.

But those categories tend to be the most significant areas of city policy.

I’m going to start with housing and land use. There are two major questions we need to address: “How do we make housing affordable and available to everyone?” and “What kind of built environment should we live in?” I’ll address the first in this post and (hopefully) deal with the second in a future post.

Arial shot of house rooftops - Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash

How do we make housing affordable and available to everyone?

We have a pretty good idea how to improve affordability. It’s just not easy to do. In the case of Bloomington, a lot of the strategies that have been effective elsewhere have been banned by the state government in Indianapolis.

We Have to Build More

First off, we need to build a lot more housing. There are 30,000 people who live in the surrounding counties and commute into the city every day. While some of those people wouldn’t choose to live in the city, a fair number of them were simply priced out.

The city released a housing study in 2020. The study referenced two vacancy rates, the American Communities Survey run by the Census Bureau reported a 9% vacancy rate for Bloomington. The city ran its own survey that found a less than 2% vacancy rate. The ACS doesn’t account for seasonal variation in vacancy that comes with being a college town, but the city’s study involved asking landlords to self report their vacancy rates. Make of that what you will. My guess is the true number is somewhere in between.

Even if the vacancy rate is 9%, that’s not enough vacant housing to house even a third of the commuters. That vacancy rate is definitely not high enough to push landlords to lower rents.

When developers build a new project they do the financial math with an assumed vacancy rate based on the market they’re building into. It’s often between 5% and 10%. To get rents to go down, we need the vacancy rate to be significantly higher than the one they assumed and built in.

So we need to build a lot of housing. This is necessary to achieve housing affordability, but not sufficient.

Building housing is slow. When you look around town, it may seem like we’re building a lot. But when you count the beds, it comes out to surprisingly little. The biggest of the megahousing projects we’ve built lately was around 1000 beds. Most “big” apartment projects are a few hundred beds. Many are less than 100. They often take several years to build.

Put it all together and we’re only adding a few thousand new housing units a year. Many years we add less than a thousand. We only started building at that rate a few years ago. So it’s going to take us years to catch up.

When the vacancy rates do finally rise, the rents will begin to fall. We’re already seeing this in other cities that are ahead of us on building.

But we can’t count on that for permanent affordability. When rents start to fall, the developers will eventually slow down or stop building. Vacancy pressure is necessary, but not sufficient.

We’re Limited by State Government

It’s important to make note of what we can’t do here. We can’t do rent control, it’s banned at the state level. We can’t do inclusionary zoning, where we require developers include a certain percentage of permanently affordable housing in all projects, that’s also banned at the state level.

We can do density bonusing, where we allow developers extra density (another floor) in exchange for holding some percentage of units permanently affordable. But that only helps in so far as developers are building.

So we need to put other pressure on the landlords to lower rents. There are a lot of things we could explore to do this.

Renter’s Bill of Rights

A Renter’s Bill of Rights (like this example) with things like requiring cause for eviction, fee limitations, and right of first refusal would help.

Once again, the state government is standing in our way. We have a rental inspection program that allows us to do some of this. But it’s grandfathered in. New rental inspection programs are banned at the state level. Past city governments have been very afraid to try new things with the grandfathered program for fear the state would decide they invalidated the grandfathering and kill it.

It’s unclear what would happen if we attempted to implement a Renter’s Bill of Rights independent of the rental inspection program, or whether we even could under state code.

At the very least, we can properly fund HAND - right now they don’t have enough resources to keep up with inspections.

Vacant Rental Fee

We could also explore a vacant rental fee: where we only allow a landlord to hold a rental vacant for a certain time period (6 months or a year) before we start charging a monthly fee. The fee has to be high enough that it actually causes pain and incentivizes the landlord to lower rents to find a renter. Some cities in Europe have been exploring this. It’s likely it would be banned at the state level as soon as we try it, but it’s still worth trying.

Finally, we need to explore and support alternative housing development and ownership structures. Public housing is the obvious one and we need to build more of it. But there are other forms as well.

Housing Cooperatives

Cooperatively owned housing allows tenants to collectively govern their own rental housing. We have a housing cooperative already in Bloomington Cooperative Living. The cooperative owns three properties and leases two more. It’s structured as co-living, with members renting a room and sharing living areas, but housing cooperatives don’t have to be co-living. BCL manages to get rents down to $400 - $600 a month, which includes utilities and food.

BCL has been steadily growing and the city should invest in its continued growth. It’s also worth putting effort into forming additional cooperatives, because diversity is good. It’ll take a while, but if we can eventually reach a point where a significant chunk of the rental market is cooperatively owned, that would put real pressure on the landlords.

Community Land Trusts

Cooperatives work best on rental housing, but what about keeping owner occupied housing affordable? For that we need a Community Land Trust.

Community Land Trusts are non-profits that can be democratically run by their members, but don’t have to be. A community land trust works by owning the land owner-occupied housing is built on and giving the housing owner a 99 year ground lease. This allows the occupant to own the building, get a traditional mortgage, accrue equity, but it allows the land trust to dictate how much the value of the property can rise. It effectively removes housing from the normal housing market and gives it a set rate of appreciation.

Community Land Trusts are very effective at keeping gentrification at bay, as long as local governments recognize them and support them. Home owners who are worried about being priced out of their homes - which usually happens when their property taxes rise with the value of their property beyond what they can pay - can put their homes in the land trust and then that prevents the price from going up, and thus the taxes from going up.

Activists in Bloomington recently formed a land trust. The city should support it financially, and work with the county to ensure the land trust is accounted for when calculating property values and taxes.

This is just examining the affordability aspect of housing and land use policy. There are many other things to consider: the sustainability of the built environment, histories of racial exclusion and how we make amends, and what we do for those who struggle to stay in housing for reasons other than the cost alone.

I’ll try cover all those things in future posts.

But these give you a pretty good idea what to look for on the issue of housing affordability. Almost all of the candidates will give lip service the issue of housing affordability at some point. The good ones know what it takes the create it. The bad ones will talk the talk, but when it comes to following through, they’ll balk.

Peer Review Reaches Alpha

posted on Aug 5th, 2022

Peer Review now exists as an alpha.

Screenshot of Scientific Publishing Web Platform

I’m looking for a couple of things:

  • I need feedback on the concept. Is this a good idea? Am I heading in the right direction? I’ve explained it in detail in the post below.
  • I’m looking for academics who are interested in exploring the alpha and giving me feedback on all aspects of it.
  • I’m looking for people who are interested in signing up for the closed and open betas, early adopters who can form the core of the initial community.

And, if you do think I’m heading in the right direction with this, I’m asking for donations to support the development work financially and extend the runway.

I’ve made a ton of progress in the last month, but there’s still a lot of work left to do! I think I’m a few months out from being able to begin a closed beta. I’m really excited by the idea and the platform’s potential. I’m eager to hear the thoughts of everyone involved in academic publishing!

I wrote up a post on the Peer Review blog explaining what the platform is and how it works, as well as linking to a feedback and beta sign up form. Here’s the link: A Possible Fix for Scientific and Academic Publishing

Please share far and wide!

A Possible Fix For Scientific (and Academic) Publishing

posted on Aug 3rd, 2022

Originally Published on the Peer Review Blog.

Scientific and academic publishing is broken. The vast majority of the journals have been privatized by publishers who charge astronomical fees for access to the literature.

The fees have gotten so high that even well funded universities have started to walk away from negotiations. Universities with less funding have long been unable to afford them. The average citizen has no hope of affording them.

With the results of the scientific process locked away behind paywalls, science is no longer an open and transparent process. Worse, the ultimate deciders of policy in a democracy, average citizens, are being denied access to the primary source materials necessary to make good policy decisions.

The Open Access movement has been trying to solve this problem, but it has mostly stuck to the existing model of hiring editors to manually match reviewers to papers, creating high overhead. To fund their operations, most Open Access journals have flipped the business model from fee for access to fee for publish. This has created a whole host of new problems, including the rise of predatory journals that are willing to publish almost anything by anyone who can pay.

The ultimate effect of pay-to-play is that the traditional peer review and refereeing process has broken down. If a dishonest researcher gets rejected from a reputable journal, they can take their paper to a pay-to-play journal and have it published there. With over 10,000 academic journals, it’s impossible for the lay public to track which journals are reputable and which are not. As far as the public is concerned, a published paper is a valid paper.

This is a proposal for a software platform that may help the academic community solve these problems, and more.

Peer Review - A Proposed Publishing Platform

Peer Review is a diamond open access (free to publish, free to access) academic publishing platform with the potential to replace the entire journal system.

A screenshot of a scientific publishing platform.

Peer Review allows scholars, scientists, academics, and researchers to self organize their own peer review and refereeing, without needing journal editors to manually mediate it. The platform allows review and refereeing to be crowdsourced, using a reputation system tied to academic fields to determine who should be able to offer review and to referee.

The platform splits pre-publish peer review from post-publish refereeing. Pre-publish review then becomes completely about helping authors polish their work and decide if their articles are ready to publish. Refereeing happens post-publish, and in a way which is easily understandable to the lay reader, helping the general public sort solid studies from shakey ones.

Peer Review is being developed open source. The hope is to form a non-profit to develop it which would be governed by the community of academics who use the platform in collaboration with the team of software professionals who build it (a multi-stakeholder cooperative).

Since the platform crowdsources the work of review and refereeing, and because it can potentially handle all academic and scientific fields on a single platform, we could eliminate most of the overhead of academic publishing. Meaning Peer Review could be initially funded with small donations from the scholars using it. If the platform were to eventually replace the entire journal system, it could be funded by the universities for a tiny fraction (1% or less) of what they are paying for publishing now.

Peer Review is currently at the alpha stage of development, most of the core features are functional in a proof of concept. They need testing and hardening, and a number of functionality gaps need to be filled in. I hope to reach a closed beta in the next few months. And an open beta several months after that. I’m seeking academics to give feedback on the concept, help test the alpha, and help us prioritize the roadmap for the closed and open betas.

If Peer Review succeeds, there are any number of ways we could take it. It could potentially solve the file drawer problem from the beginning, by simply giving scholars a place to submit, get immediate feedback on, and publish file drawered papers. We could explore building systems to help incentivize and highlight replications - linking replications to the studies they are replicating and giving replications a reputation bonus. We could build systems to assist with data sharing and funding transparency. We could even explore automating some of the grunt work of maintaining the academic literature - such as generating automated literature reviews. And we could work to make the academic literature more accessible and understandable to general public.

How It Works - The Overview

Here’s how the platform works in detail. When you have a draft of a paper you’re ready to get feedback on, you submit it to the platform. You give it a title, add your co-authors, and tag it with up to five fields or disciplines (eg. “biology”, “biochemistry”, “economics”, etc).

A screenshot of a submission screen.

The fields exist in a hierarchical graph, which is intended to be evolutionary. Each field may have multiple parents and many children - eg. “biochemistry” which is a child of both “biology” and “chemistry”. The hierarchy can go as deep as it needs to. We’re initializing the field hierarchy using Wikipedia’s outlines of academic disciplines, but the intention is for the 1.0 version to include the ability for scholars to propose new fields or edits to existing fields, along with a proposed place in the hierarchy, and for their peers to confirm the proposals.

A screenshot showing field tags.

When reputation is gained in a child field, it is also gained in all of that field’s parents. So a paper tagged “astrophysics” also gives reputation in “physics” and “space-science”. Reputation is primarily gained through publishing and receiving positive feedback from your peers during post publish-refereeing - more on that later.

When you hit submit, the draft goes into the review queue. Here other scholars who have enough reputation in any of the fields you tagged the paper with can see the draft and offer feedback on it.

A screenshot showing the review queue.

This system gives scholars an enormous amount of control over who they solicit feedback from. By choosing how high up the field tree they go, they choose how wide to cast their net. Because they can add up to five fields (which don’t have to be related) they can easily request interdisciplinary feedback.

Reviewers can click anywhere on the document to leave comments.

A screenshot of review comments.

When they are ready, reviewers submit their review with a summary and a recommendation. The possible recommendations are:

  • “Recommend Approval” meaning that this draft is ready to publish.
  • “Recommend Changes” meaning that they think it’ll be ready to publish after the recommended changes are made.
  • “Recommend Rejection” meaning that they don’t think this paper is worthy of publishing, or could be made publishable.
  • “Commentary” which is just a way to offer feedback and commentary with out a specific recommendation.

A screenshot of the review screen.

Authors can then mark reviews as “accepted”, indicating that they found them helpful, or “rejected” indicating that they were not helpful. Reviews that are “accepted” grant the reviewer reputation in the fields the paper is tagged with (and their parents). Reviews that are “rejected” grant no reputation, but don’t remove it either.

As the review process goes along, authors may upload additional versions of their paper and request new rounds of review feedback for each version uploaded. Reviewers may offer as many reviews to each version as needed, but only gain reputation for a single accepted review on each version.

When the authors are ready, they hit “Publish” and their paper is published and live to the world.

This puts the pre-publish review process entirely in the hands of the authors. It gives reviewers an incentive to give solid, constructive review feedback - and rewards good reviewers for their efforts with recognition of their contributions. It treats review work as a valuable contribution to an academic field alongside publishing.

Refereeing begins once the work is published.

At that point, peer scholars with enough reputation in the fields the paper is tagged with can vote the paper up or down. Up votes increase the paper’s score and grant the authors reputation in the tagged fields. Down votes decrease the paper’s score and the author’s reputation in the tagged fields.

A screenshot of a published paper.

Up votes should be given based on an objective assessment of the paper’s quality. Is this good science? A well constructed argument? Much of the same criteria currently used to determine whether a paper should be published in a well refereed journal, should be used to determine whether a paper should be upvoted, downvoted, or simply left with no score. Instead of that judgment being passed by a handful of reviewers selected by a journal’s editor, it will be collected from the entire community of the fields the paper was submitted in.

Peers can also post a single response to each paper, outlining their feedback and reasons for voting how they did (or not voting at all) in public. Down voters will be strongly encouraged to post a response explaining their downvote.

A screenshot of the responses section of the publish screen.

In this way, the refereeing process is made transparent and easy for the public to follow. A down voted paper should be treated with skepticism. An up voted one is trustworthy. The responses help add context and clarity.

All papers submitted to Peer Review are published under the Creative Commons Attribution License, meaning the work can be freely distributed, remixed, and reused as long as the authors of the original work are attributed.

It’s important to emphasize: Peer Review is intended to be the final publish step. It is not a pre-print server. It is an attempt to replace the journal system with something open to its core, scholar lead, and collectively managed by the scholar community.

Who Are You?

My name is Daniel Bingham and I’m the developer of Peer Review. I grew up in an academic family (my mother and father are both professors and my brother got his PhD), but went into software engineering. I taught myself to code at age 12 and have been in professional software development for well over a decade.

My most recent role was Director of DevOps at Ceros, a mid-sized software company. I built and lead the department which developed and maintained the cloud infrastructure and deployment pipelines for the Ceros Studio and MarkUp. Before building the DevOps team, I was a full stack developer at Ceros helping to build the Ceros Studio.

When I’m not writing code, I’m very involved in local policy. I’ve worked closely with representatives of Bloomington, Indiana’s municipal government on climate, transportation, and housing policy. I’ve served on government task forces and on the boards of local non-profits, including a three year term as president of the board of our local 501(c)3 affordable housing cooperative.

I’ve been dreaming about Peer Review for years. In my role as a policy advocate, I needed access to the research literature, but struggled to get it. As I pondered potential solutions to the problem of open access, the tools I used on a daily basis as a software engineer inspired the concept that became Peer Review.

I have a deep commitment to democracy, and I am as excited about the potential to build a scholar and worker governed organization around the platform as I am to build the platform.

Where Do Things Stand and Where Are They Going?

I am currently the only developer working on Peer Review full time. There are a small handful of volunteers who’ve offered part time help.

I have the alpha version of Peer Review up on a staging server. I’m looking for scientists, researchers, scholars, and academics from all disciplines who are interested in exploring the alpha and giving me feedback on the concept and where to go next.

Could this work the way I think it might? Are there things I’m not thinking of? Problems I haven’t foreseen? Aspects of the academic publishing system I am unaware of and that Peer Review doesn’t account for? Broadly speaking, am I going in the right direction?

I have a roadmap of features I need to put in place before we can begin a closed beta, and a significant amount of hardening and bug fixing to do as well. I hope to reach a closed beta in the next couple months. I’m also soliciting sign ups for the closed beta. Peer Review will only be as good as the community that forms around it, so - if the direction I’m exploring does indeed hold promise - I’m hoping we can start building that community now.

After the closed beta period I intend to do an open beta, where the platform is opened to any who would like to use it (while still understanding that it is not completely finished or polished).

You can view the roadmap on GitHub. If you’re unfamiliar with the process of software development, please keep in mind that the roadmap is a very rough estimate and that it is constantly in flux.

I’m also looking for feedback on that roadmap, are there features which aren’t currently included that should be considered for the closed beta? For the open beta?

If you’re interested in exploring the alpha and giving feedback, want to participate in the closed beta, or want to be notified when we reach open beta, please fill out this form! You can also use that form to give feedback on the initial concept with out signing up for anything.

If you think I’m on to something and you want to see Peer Review grow, please consider supporting the development effort! Right now my family (my wife, my daughter, and I) are living on savings. I’m hoping to raise enough through donations to be able to commit to working on it full time, indefinitely.

I need to raise $8000 / month to make that commitment: $5500 of monthly living expenses, $1500 to cover health care, and $1000 to cover the initial cloud infrastructure costs for site hosting.

You can support me on GitHub Sponsors. You’ll need to make a GitHub Account, but it’s free.

If we successfully raise that much, I will form the non-profit. If we raise substantially more than that I will hire additional engineers, designers, product managers, devops, and QE to help with development. I will also be pursuing grant funding once we reach the closed beta period. Any leads in that direction would be much appreciated.

If you have questions, ideas, suggestions, criticisms, feedback of any kind, grant leads, or offers of help that don’t fit into the form linked above, you can contact me at contact@peer-review.io

Goodbye Ceros, Hello Peer Review

posted on Jul 8th, 2022

Today is my last day at Ceros. I’ve been at Ceros since November of 2014. Minus a 10 month sabbatical in 2016, I’ve worked at Ceros for nearly a full 7 years of my life. That’s almost 10% of an average American lifespan.

Ceros is a great company with a great product team. I got to solve some really fun (and some less fun) problems, worked with incredible people, had some wild adventures, and learned a ton. I got to build a DevOps department from the ground up to now three teams totalling 13 people and growing. I got to help a startup grow from 37 people, when I joined, to now approaching 400. It’s been a hell of a ride.

Now I’m on to the next adventure, which I couldn’t be more excited about.

For the last 3 years, I’ve been dreaming about a web platform that I think has the potential to drastically improve scientific and academic publishing for everyone.

If you’re not in, or adjacent to, academia you may not realize just how broken academic publishing is.

Academic publishing has been privatized and monopolized. Five major publishing houses own the majority (close to 80%) of the academic journals. They charge absolutely enormous fees to sell the output of academia back to the universities.

While this has wildly negative impacts in a lot of areas, the worst of it is in science.

Most scientific research is funded by the public in one way or another. The way scientists share the results of their research is by publishing papers in academic journals. The quality control process is performed by other scientists for free - meaning their (often public) university salaries are funding that work. The private journals then take the results of this work and sell it back to the universities for billions of dollars.

The vast majority of the public can’t even begin to afford to access the scientific and academic literature. The public who, in a democracy, ultimately decide which government policies get implemented and which ones do not.

Science is supposed to be an open process, and that’s why we should trust it. But with the results of scientific research being privatized and hidden behind paywalls, that stopped being true for the vast majority of people in the world. And this is a major contributor to the growing crisis of disbelief in scientific fact. A crisis that contributed to our struggle to manage the pandemic world wide.

The Open Access movement has tried any number of approaches to fixing the access side of it. But they’re mostly still sticking to the same journal model that was developed in the 1680s, when the papers were being bundled into booklets and sent through the mail. This means they have really high overhead, and most open access journals have had to fund themselves by charging a fee to publish. This creates a whole new host of problems, and has lead to the rise of pay to play journals with little or no refereeing.

What this means, practically, is that the peer review process has broken down. A dishonest researcher who gets rejected from a reputable journal can take their paper to a disreputable one and simply pay to have it published. There are over 10,000 journals. It’s impossible for the general public to track which ones are reputable and which ones are not. So as far as the public is concerned, once it’s published, it’s published.

For three years, I’ve been dreaming of a web platform that I believe could fix all of this. For the past three months, I’ve been building it on nights and weekends.

Screenshot of Scientific Publishing Web Platform

It would allow academics to self-organize the publishing process, without needing the journals or the publishing houses. It uses a reputation system to determine who can peer review and referee papers. It splits pre-publish editorial peer review from post publish refereeing to make sure the quality signal is preserved for the public. And it puts full control of the publishing process back in the hands of academic authors, while allowing their peers to offer helpful pre-publish feedback and to exercise post publish, public quality control.

This web platform would cut the overhead of scientific publishing by several orders of magnitude. I believe it could easily be funded by donations from the academics who use it, and eventually by the institutions (the universities) paying a tiny fraction of what they are now paying. That would allow it to be diamond open access - free to publish, free to access. If successful, it could open up the scientific and academic literature completely.

My hope is to build a non-profit to develop, operate, and maintain the web platform and have it governed by the scholars who use the platform and the workers who build it.

I’m very close to an alpha prototype of the platform. I hope to have one running on cloud infrastructure in the next week or two.

I’m seeking academics and scholars to serve as alpha testers and give me early feedback on the prototype. Could this work the way I think it could? Will this solve the problems of access in academic publishing, while preserving what’s good about the journal system? What am I missing? What else needs to be included in an open, public beta? If you or anyone you know might be interested in helping, reach out to me here and I’ll let you or them know when the alpha is ready!