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Can collaboration replace peer review, given that we have a little thing called the ‘internet’?

July 30, 2013

I know that discussions of peer review reform are getting kind of boring these days. Usually, each suggestion has pros and cons, and so it becomes difficult to use arguments alone to sort out what system will be best. What will actually happen to peer review is what always happens in any culture…the people and groups with the most conviction, energy, and resources will be able to influence the peer review process, and there will be some good and bad aspects to the results no matter who these people are. Not that debate isn’t important and useful. Its just that it can be difficult to disentangle salesmanship from dispassionate reasoning, and at this point I’ve heard so much about this topic that its all starting to sound like noise.

Nevertheless, I wanted an excuse to share some new research in the foundations of mathematics, which suggests to me that peer review isn’t necessary for doing extremely influential and interesting research. A mathematician I know referred to this book as “…a major tectonic change in the bedrock that math is built on.” So its pretty important I think.

The cool part about this work is that:

40 authors collaborated on GitHub to produce a 470-page Creative Commons-licensed book in six months, without the involvement of any academic publisher. The book resets the foundations of mathematics in terms that suit computer formalisation – they formalised their theory in both Coq and Agda before writing the book. Several of the authors are active on Google+ answering questions about it.

I don’t know what Coq and Agda are…but for me the really interesting thing is that it seems as though this research has managed to completely circumvent the peer review process. Unfortunately a quick Google search couldn’t verify that there was absolutely no formal peer review (does anyone know?). But if there wasn’t, then these authors have effectively bypassed peer review via collaboration. Here’s a particularly inspiring quotation from one of the authors:

But more importantly, the spirit of collaboration that pervaded our group at the Institute for Advanced Study was truly amazing. We did not fragment. We talked, shared ideas, explained things to each other, and completely forgot who did what (so much in fact that we had to put some effort into reconstruction of history lest it be forgotten forever). The result was a substantial increase in productivity. There is a lesson to be learned here (other than the fact that the Institute for Advanced Study is the world’s premier research institution), namely that mathematicians benefit from being a little less possessive about their ideas and results. I know, I know, academic careers depend on proper credit being given and so on, but really those are just the idiosyncrasies of our time. If we can get mathematicians to share half-baked ideas, not to worry who contributed what to a paper, or even who the authors are, then we will reach a new and unimagined level of productivity.

I love this…especially the ‘explained things to each other’ bit. I know I’m being a bit utopian. But I still love it. Can we do this in ecology?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2013 6:12 pm

    I can confirm there was no formal peer review. We talked about this, and we wondered who could do it (all the people who knew homotopy type theory seemed to be the authors of the book).

    • July 30, 2013 6:32 pm

      Wow thanks for the comment!

      Maybe peer review is most useful for work on standard topics, but less useful when everyone who works on the topic can just get together.

  2. November 10, 2013 9:44 am

    I really like the idea of ‘post-publication peer reviewing’, just like

    you can see reviewers’ names, see wether they approved or not the article, make contributions to the paper (with some restrictions, of course), and so on…

    This is such a great idea.

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