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Academic Social Network Hopes to Change the Culture of Peer Review

An academic social network has added a tool it hopes will shake up the system of peer review.

The network is called Academia.edu, and it has grown to more than 25 million registered participants, who use it mainly to post their published papers in order to help others find them (and, it’s hoped, cite them). The site’s new tool, called Sessions, lets researchers post papers that are still in progress, and invite colleagues to comment on them so the papers can be improved before being submitted to peer-reviewed journals.

Richard Price, chief executive of Academia.edu, says the intention is to recreate online what happens at academic conferences, where scholars present new research and face questions and critiques from peers in the field. In Sessions, researchers upload a draft paper and then invite a list of other scholars on the network to comment on it during a 20-day period. After that time, the author can either extend the session for another 20 days or close off comments.

But since scholars already attend conferences and spend time reviewing unpublished papers for scholarly journals, why would they want to take more time to voluntarily review other drafts?

“There is something thrilling about discussing cutting-edge science,” argues Mr. Price. “And the author’s right there, and you can actually ask the author a question and get an answer.” And as at conferences, young scholars can build their reputations by asking good questions in front of their peers, Mr. Price notes.

The feature has been slowly rolled out to random users on the service during the last few months, but it is scheduled to be released to all users on Friday.

Not all of the early feedback has been positive. Early on, some scholars who had uploaded papers realized only later that, without intending to, they had requested comments from their contacts. Mr. Price says the feature has been changed so that users have more control over who gets notifications. “We’ve iterated on it several times,” he says.

Of course there are other ways for scholars to share preprints of papers to seek comment. They can use services like Google Docs or Scribd, for instance. But Mr. Price argues that the mix of a social network and a collaboration tool is new, and could change how scholars work. While scholars often find peer-reviewing articles for journals to be “a chore,” he says, researchers enjoy doing much the same activity when they travel to conferences to hear new ideas. Through Sessions, he argues, there could emerge a “more rigorous peer-review system” if people regularly share preprints for comment online.

But won’t researchers just send friends their papers to get happy comments?

“Friends don’t let their friends publish bad stuff,” he says.

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