On-line comments?

Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific research journals, has embarked on an experiment of its own.

In addition to having articles submitted for publication subjected to peer reviews by a handful of experts in the field, the 136-year-old journal is trying out a new system for authors who agree to participate: posting the paper online and inviting scientists in the field to submit comments praising — or poking holes — in it.

Lay readers can see the submitted articles as well, but the site says postings are only for scientists in the discipline, who must list their names and institutional email addresses.  Nature says its editors screen out those they find irrelevant, intemperate or otherwise inappropriate.

Meanwhile, the papers also make their way through the journal’s traditional peer-review gauntlet.  Nature says it’s taking both sets of comments into account when deciding whether to publish.

So far, there have been only 70 posts on the 62 papers that authors have decided to put on the Web site, according to Linda Miller, U.S. executive editor of Nature, published by a unit of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

The experiment (at http://blogs.nature.com/nature/peerreview/trial/) is an early sign of how the scientific publishing establishment is pushing the limits of its hallowed but opaque peer-review system.  Critics of the traditional process say it lets not only low-quality papers, but also sometimes fraudulent ones, slip through the gates.  The Nature trial of a Web-based system could usher the spirit of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia edited by its readers, from the margins of scientific publishing to the mainstream.

That is part of an article by the excellent Nicholas Zamiska, in today’s Wall Street Journal, p.B1.  I have long wanted to see this happen, but I fear for economics, and perhaps other fields, it will not work.  The simple problem is that not enough people care about the results of enough papers to start a fruitful dialogue.  Still, at least opening up the papers for on-line comments seems to be a simple free lunch, at least for the world if not always for the reputation of the authors and journal editors.

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