Why indeed.

I have several motivations, deployed variably and therefore, my answers to his question about a journal-less world vary.

First and foremost I review manuscripts as a reciprocal professional obligation, motivated by the desire I have to get my papers published. It is distasteful free-rider behavior to not review at least as often as you require the field to review for you. That is, approximately 3 times your number of unique-journal submissions. Should we ever move to a point where I do not expect any such review of my work to be necessary, then this prime motivator goes to zero. So, “none”.

The least palatable (to me) motivation is the gatekeeper motivation. I do hope this is the rarest of reviews that I write. Gatekeeper motivation leads to reviews that try really hard to get the editor to reject the manuscript or to persuade the authors that this really should not be presented to the public in anything conceivably related to current form. In my recollection, this is because it is too slim for even my rather expansive views on “least publishable unit” or because there is some really bad interpretation or experimental design going on. In a world where these works appeared in pre-print, I think I would be mostly unmotivated to supply my thoughts in public. Mostly because I think this would just be obvious to anyone in the field and therefore what is the point of me posturing around on some biorxiv comment field about how smart I was to notice it.

In the middle of this space I have the motivation to try to improve the presentation of work that I have an interest in. The most fun papers to review for me are, of course, the ones directly related to my professional interests. For the most part, I am motivated to see at least some part of the work in print. I hope my critical comments are mostly in the nature of
“you need to rein back your expansive claims” and only much less often in the vein of “you need to do more work on what I would wish to see next”. I hate those when we get them and I hope I only rarely make them.

This latter motivation is, I expect, the one that would most drive me to make comments in a journal-less world. I am not sure that I would do much of this and the entirely obvious sources of bias in go/no-go make it even more likely that I wouldn’t comment. Look, there isn’t much value in a bunch of congratulatory comments on a scientific paper. The value is in critique and in drawing together a series of implications for our knowledge on the topic at hand. This latter is what review articles are for, and I am not personally big into those. So that wouldn’t motivate me. Critique? What’s the value? In pre-publication review there is some chance that this critique will result in changes where it counts. Data re-analysis, maybe some more studies added, a more focused interpretation narrative, better contextualization of the work…etc. In post-publication review, it is much less likely to result in any changes. Maybe a few readers will notice something that they didn’t already come up with for themselves. Maybe. I don’t have the sort of arrogance that thinks I’m some sort of brilliant reader of the paper. I think people that envision some new world order where the unique brilliance of their critical reviews are made public have serious narcissism issues, frankly. I’m open to discussion on that but it is my gut response.

On the flip side of this is cost. If you don’t think the process of peer review in subfields is already fraught with tit-for-tat vengeance seeking even when it is single-blind, well, I have a Covid cure to sell you. This will motivate people not to post public, unblinded critical comments on their peers’ papers. Because they don’t want to trigger revenge behaviors. It won’t just be a tit-for-tat waged in these “overlay” journals of the future or in the comment fields of pre-print servers. Oh no. It will bleed over into all of the areas of academic science including grant review, assistant professor hiring, promotion letters, etc, etc. I appreciate that Professor Eisen has an optimistic view of human nature and believes these issues to be minor. I do not have an optimistic view of human nature and I believe these issues to be hugely motivational.

We’ve had various attempts to get online, post-publication commentary of the journal-club nature crash and burn over the years. Decades by now. The efforts die because of a lack of use. Always. People in science just don’t make public review type comments, despite the means being readily available and simple. I assure you it is not because they do not have interesting and productive views on published work. It is because they see very little positive value and a whole lot of potential harm for their careers.

How do we change this, I feel sure Professor Eisen would challenge me.

I submit to you that we first start with looking at those who are already keen to take up such commentary. Who drop their opinions on the work of colleagues at the drop of a hat with nary a care about how it will be perceived. Why do they do it?

I mean yes, narcissistic assholes, sure but that’s not the general point.

It is those who feel themselves unassailable. Those who do not fear* any real risk of their opinions triggering revenge behavior.

In short, the empowered. Tenured. HHMI funded.

So, in order to move into a glorious new world of public post-publication review of scientific works, you have to make everyone feel unassailable. As if their opinion does not have to be filtered, modulated or squelched because of potential career blow-back.


*Sure, there are those dumbasses who know they are at risk of revenge behavior but can’t stfu with their opinions. I don’t recommend this as an approach, based on long personal experience.