Academic Startup Publons Gives Peer Reviewers Credit For Their Work

The traditional anonymous peer review process used in academic publishing is meant to ensure objectivity, but it means reviewers give up their time for very little reward. The lack of transparency is also vulnerable to exploitation, which can lead to flawed (if not fraudulent) research making it into prestigious publications. Publons, a platform for post-publication peer review, wants to address these problems by becoming “the Stack Overflow of academic research.”

The Wellington, New Zealand-based startup’s goal is to help scholars advance their careers by building a portfolio of article critiques and, in turn, help journals find quality reviewers. Founded by Andrew Preston and Daniel Johnston, Publons recently participated in accelerator program Lightning Lab and has received $350,000 New Zealand dollars (about $291,000 USD) in seed funding. The site plans to monetize by providing value-added services for academic publishers and hopes to have 20 major international journals signed up within a year.

Publons (the term refers to the smallest unit of information that can be published in a peer-reviewed journal) currently has 11,000 authors and about 3,000 publications in its database. Three hundred users, most of whom are based in the U.S., Europe and China, actively contribute reviews.

Other sites that want to change the achingly slow and cloistered traditional peer review process include academic networking site, which recently raised a $11.1 million Series B round, ResearchGate and flgshare.

Preston, who received his PhD in condensed matter physics from Victoria University in 2010 and did postdoctoral research in x-ray spectroscopy at Boston University, says Publons plans to differentiate by turning peer reviewers into “first-class academic citizens.”

Publons’ founders don’t expect to dramatically overhaul the deeply entrenched academic publishing process, but they want to give peer reviewers an open platform where they can publish critiques of scholarly articles and engage in discussions with other academics. The best reviews on Publons are assigned a digital object identifier (DOI), the standard for citing and indexing academic publications, so authors can include them on curriculum vitaes.

Preston’s favorite reviews on Publons include this critique of a paper called “Single molecule detection using surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS)” by PhD candidate Walter Somerville, which was assigned a DOI, and an augmentation added by computer graphics researcher Eugene d’Eon to one of his papers after finding a new result.

He says both reflect Publons’ mission to improve understanding of the original article and speed up academia’s research-feedback loop.

“Once something is published it is considered static, but we should be able to have a dialogue around the published paper,” says Preston.