In October, hundreds of journals accepted a bogus scientific paper, filled with fabricated authors and fancy-sounding jargon.
For academics and researchers, the peer review process is sacred. But this “sting operation,” as UK paper the Guardian put it, threw the whole process into question.
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, Brit-born entrepreneur Richard Price is on a mission to bring modern technology to academics with his website, Academia.edu. Price recently raised $11.1 million to publish every science PDF online, and market his online platform for academics to post papers.
Price realized that he could leverage Academia.edu’s massive network of scientists — 5 million and counting — to improve the peer review process. Rather than having one or two academics review a paper — why not ask dozens to take a look?
To build out the technology, Academia.edu today acquired a peer review startup called Plasymd. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the two Plasmyd founders, Adnan Akil and Kevin Wu, will join the company full-time.
“People always thought that peer review was slow, but high quality process,” said Price by phone. “But mistakes happen — we know that technology can make peer review more reliable.”
An algorithmic approach to peer review
When a researcher submits a paper, a journal editor will typically reach out to two or three scientists in their network. The reviewers will take on the job for free — it’s about the prestige more than anything.
Price believes that this whole process is flawed. For instance, there are roughly 50,000 people researching breast cancer. Only a small portion of them would be equipped to review a paper on the BRCA1 gene, for instance. Can we trust the journal editor to find the right match?
An algorithm, developed by Academia.edu and Plasymd, could determine the top scientists in their field who have mastered the subject matter in question.
In future, the author of a report could perform a search in Academia.edu’s network, and reach out to the experts. Dozens of people could review the paper, rather than just one or two.
In addition, the author will have the opportunity to respond to any critiques and suggestions online. The most active users of Academia.edu have developed online profiles, and are reaching out to likeminded experts.
“The goal is to build a system that incentivises the top scientists to share their peer reviews and thoughts on papers that they are reading,” said Akil, one of the founders of Plasmyd. “Together, we can bring peer review into the modern era.”
It’s not clear whether Academia.edu will build a revenue model around their modern approach to peer review. The company deliberately raised investment from “social good” firms, who believe in the mission and won’t place premature pressure on the company to make money.
San Francisco-based Academia.edu has raised a total of $17.7 million in venture funding from Khosla Ventures, Spark Capital, True Ventures, and others.