Effect Of Review System On Innovation

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The default way cutting edge knowledge is currently distributed not only creates perverse incentives in knowledge generation but also effectively limits this knowledge to only the lucky few who have access to the research published. Now, one could ask

why should I care?

Well, in fact, it can be a matter of life and death: According to a comprehensive analysis of medical innovation it took 17 years to apply 14% of research knowledge to patient care (sorry for the closed paper, again…). This means, that whenever you go to a primary care physician in 2011 most of the care you would receive was state of the art in 1997! Yes, 1997, those distant dark ages before the iphone and personalized medicine.

As current state of the art medical information is closed, its application is restricted, which leads to people dying from causes that are already preventable or even fixable.

Is that a price we’d like to pay?

Research findings can spark imagination and inspiration. They make us think in new ways, even if they are not peer reviewed but just plain interesting. This is why I listen to e.g. TED talks about quantum physics and read articles on edge.org. It is not because I will likely contribute to a new discovery in synthetic biology, but because they generate new ideas, are fun to read or just show me how little I understand the things that are going on around me.

Interest leads to inspiration and that facilitates innovation.

In a free system we have two reinforcing loops, in which published innovative information inspires people. Following the inspirational, people spend time researching. The “higher” the inspirational level, the more different the idea is to the status quo. Together more research and the difference of the idea lead to innovation, which, once published inspires people again (1). The limiting factor here is what I call accessibility. Obviously, if the innovative information is not accessible it cannot be put into use. The usage of innovative findings is another important source of inspiration.

As mentioned above incentives in the currently adopted system are perverse: It hinders innovation, by making it less available, favors groupthink and draws time from research. As paper control is top down, some reviewers will often only allow findings to be published that reconfirm their own predisposition. The higher the reputation of a reviewer is in a field the more interest this person has in protecting it. The higher the interest, the more resistant will the person be to new ideas.

Learning from an outside competitor can be much less psychologically painful than learning from a colleague who is a direct rival for promotions and other rewards

behavioral scientist Tanya Menon and her coauthors wrote in Management Science. Moreover, the higher the reputation of a reviewer the more time will he spend on reviewing papers and exerting influence over the papers accepted. As a result, the reviewer will reduce the probability that an innovative finding is published and therefore the rate of publishing new information is reduced. This reduces how fast the stock of published information grows. Thus, the review process discourages creativity. Groupthink and vested interest in old ideas are big problems that were associated with the last financial crises. As a matter of fact they were called important reasons for why most economists had not recognized the huge problems in advance. Moreover, the research created in this system is less innovative and therefore additional papers just dilute the current state and do not create new insights. Part of the reduction in innovation also stems from the fact that reputable and high performing reviewers do not spend time on conducting their own research.

I am by far not the first one to propose that the process of publishing knowledge in closed journals is not the most beneficial way. People who have far deeper insight into scientific publishing than I will probably ever have, have written great reviews (e.g. on: peer review and here as well). But I keep asking myself why do we still predominantly rely on these outdated mechanisms in the age of crowdsourcing, innovation in rating systems (arguably e.g. Quora), social media and Google. Especially if we know that closed access means that people die.

Fortunately these problems have been recognized and more open approaches were proposed (here and here) and are being developed.

Until a new and more open system is realized, though, we should all work together to inspire each other as often as we can and share what we have learned!

As a result this blog will contain research I have conducted during my time at college and things that I have learned. In the next post I will introduce a series about return policies that I hope will make an interesting and inspiring read for both people shopping online and running e-commerce businesses.

1) The two lines crossing the arrow indicate a delay in the effect, as it takes time to complete research

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