Peer review, the basics
- What is peer-review?
- The history of peer-review
- 5 feel-good points about peer-review
- 5 pain points about peer-review
What is peer review?
Peer-review is a process where experts in specific fields are invited to provide a competent, critical evaluation on a manuscript, intellectual product of researchers, and authors. It is often adopted to determine a paper’s suitability for publication, but what peer-review does best is improve the quality of published papers: motivating authors to submit good quality work and helping to improve their work through the peer-review comments. Reviewing helps to maintain quality standards and provide credibility and, ensuring that presented research is of high quality and accurately presented, contributes to the research field. Peer-review maintains the integrity of science by filtering out invalid or poor quality articles.
Within the scientific community, peer-review is a vital component of the academic writing process. It helps to ensure that papers published in scientific journals answer relevant research questions and draw accurate conclusions, based on unbiased, professional experimentation. With the huge increase of low-quality submissions in the recent years, peer-review has been established as one of the critical and reputable processes to serve as a filter and prevent unsuitable work from reaching the scientific community.
Peer-review is not without flaws and has attracted many criticisms over the time, as well as driving many trials to create an alternative validation process. However, despite many critiques, peer-review is still the only widely accepted method for research validation and has continued successfully with relatively minor changes for over 350 years.
5 good points about peer-review
- Provides feedback so that researchers can improve their papers before publication. It also allows authors to see different perspectives on the issues raised. And gain confidence in their work.
- Enables journal editors to select the most important research findings for publication in their journals, based upon the objective, independent reviews of an expert group.
- Singles out duplicate and plagiarized papers avoiding cluttering publications. And prevents embarassing errors.
- It strengthens a journal reputation, attracting better contributions.
- Drives authors to maintain high standards in research, with positive implications for society and funding allocation.
5 bad points about peer-review
- It is a time consuming process which places considerable demands on voluntary academic collaboration, with inevitable delays in disseminating new research findings.
- The lack of recognition of the peer-review activity results in lack of motivation for academics to serve as peer-reviewers.
- An author’s reputation may bias the validity of its paper in the reviewing process unless double-blind peer-review is adopted. And – if anonymity is not maintained – experts with a conflict of interest might not approve research to further their own reputation or career.
- New findings which challenge existing knowledge may be overlooked, as only statistically significant results are published.
- There is no grading system about the quality of the peer-review: different journals have different standards, but there is no way to know the expertise and quality of the reviewers or editor.
What is the history of peer-review?
Peer-review has a long history and it is considered to have been used since ancient Greece. The invention of the printing press in 1453, which enabled written documents to be distributed to the general public, required to regulate the quality of the material printed. “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” (the very first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science) is thought to be also the first journal to formalize the reviewing process in 1665. At this point, peer-review was introduced to help editors decide which manuscripts to publish in their journals, and not to evaluate the validity of the research. However, the peer-review process soon evolved and papers started to be distributed to reviewers with the intent of authenticating the integrity of research studies before its publication. When in 1752 it became the official journal of The Royal Society of London it adopted this review procedure and developed the “Committee on Papers” to review manuscripts before they were published in “Philosophical Transactions”.
Generally speaking, in many scientific publications the editors had the only say on whether an article would be published or not until after World War II and in more recent times. Into the fifties and sixties, the specialization (and quantity) of articles increased and so did the competition for journal space.
Technological advances helped to shape the peer-review process we know today. Photocopying made it easier to share by post copies of articles to reviewers (and review reports were also returned by email on paper forms). Just think of the time required to receive reviewer comments!! The introduction of the internet made the process much easier (as well as quicker and paperless) through the adoption of emails. Today, peer-review is almost exclusively performed through dedicated, highly performing online platforms and we are all used to the fast turnaround times that they allow.
Peer-review is now not only a standard practice by most credible scientific journals, but the only way to ensure journal recognition and inclusion in reputable indexes.
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- Kelly J, Sadeghieh T, Adeli K. Peer review in scientific publications: benefits, critiques, & a survival guide. EJIFCC. 2014;25(3):227-243. Published 2014 Oct 24.
- Gannon F. The essential role of peer review. EMBO Rep. 2001;2(9):743. doi:10.1093/embo-reports/kve188
- Advantages and disadvantages of peer review. From “PILOT: Postgraduate Information Literacy Online Training” (GCU Glasgow Caledonian University). Available online (Accessed October 2020).