- Peer review has been a cornerstone of academia for over 350 years.
- The field of scholarly communication is in the midst of its revolution.
- Peer review is, however, not perfect. The existing literature demonstrates that there are several areas of peer review that warrant further research.
Peer Review | Journal | Manuscript | Scholarly | Research
Peer review is a process through which research manuscripts are evaluated and, if accepted, published in an academic journal. It is an essential part of the formal publication process, distinguishing it from virtually all other modes of communication.
Peer review began with the introduction of the scientific journal in the 18th century. Then, journals were published on paper, in bound volumes, and subscribers could consult them at their libraries. Today, peer review is an essential tool for quality control in scholarly communication. Peer review helps separate high-quality work from flaws and maintains the integrity of the scientific record.
This article presents a review of research on peer review, summarizing and synthesizing the relevant research literature. It identifies and analyzes core components of peer review, including the birth of peer review and its current situation. In addition, the article presents some recommendations for future research and suggests opportunities for future researchers.
Reviews of research on peer review tend to focus on evaluating its effects on individual authors and published research accuracy. Given the importance, I think it is important to provide a basic outline of peer review and its history.
The peer-review process is a system in which experts in the same field review the work of other researchers for quality, appropriateness, and robustness of the methodology. It stands as a rigorous method of making sure that only quality research is published. It is a vital part of the modern research paper publication process.
Like all critical aspects of the educational process, it is a controversial innovation. Peer review, therefore, is a way for societies to self-regulate and ensure that academic work meets specific standards of quality. It is also a way for learned societies to retain their authority by legitimizing academic work. It has also emerged as a way to combat plagiarism, the copying of other people's work without attribution, which threatened to undermine intellectual authority. Peer review, therefore, is a form of academic censorship that limits what can be said or written about a given topic. It is a process by which experts in the field review the manuscript and ask questions that may not be answered in the specific piece. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality and readability of the manuscript.
The Birth of Peer Review
The idea of peer review goes back to the earliest days of science. The first account of an editorial pre-publication peer-review is from 1665 by Henry Oldenburg. The first publication reviewed was the medical articles and observations of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1731, and external reviewers were not involved in the process. The majority of reviewing decisions were made directly by the editor-in-chief or an editorial committee without the involvement of an external panel.
"Despite this early start, in many scientific journal publications, the editors had the only say on whether an article will be published or not until after World War II. "Science and The Journal of the American Medical Association did not use outside reviewers until after 1940, and the Lancet did not implement peer-review until 1976."
It was not until the 19th century that the peer-review process began to involve external reviewers.
"After the war and into the fifties and sixties, the specialization of articles increased, and so did the competition for journal space. Technological advances made it easier to distribute extra copies of articles to reviewers. Today, peer review is the "golden standard" in the evaluation of everything from the scholarly publication."
Peer review has been a cornerstone of academia for over 350 years. What was once a private exchange of feedback between scholars has morphed into public discourse about the inner workings of academia.
The Evolution Of Peer-Review
The evolution of peer review was progressive and somewhat unmethodical. However, by the end of the 20th century, peer review became institutionalized and is currently employed by most biomedical journals. Around this time, many journals supported peer review in response to the enhanced specialization within each area of research and the high competition among journals for manuscript submission.
In general, it now personifies a process of consistently distributing, assessing, and reaching an agreement on the merits of submitted manuscripts as indicated by publication acceptance or rejection. The cornerstones of this process are the expert reviewers and editors.
Initially, authors submitted their manuscripts to a journal, and the journal editors decided whether the manuscripts should be published or not. However, with the growth in the number of scientific journals, it became difficult to provide the same level of attention to all the manuscripts. It prompted the authors to submit multiple manuscripts to different journals, which led to each editor being flooded with numerous manuscripts.
It posed a severe problem for the editors since they had to evaluate each manuscript individually. To resolve this problem, some journals introduced the concept of blind review. Under this mechanism, the reviewers do not know who the authors of the manuscript are. Instead, anonymous reviewers, usually, experts from their field, checked the manuscripts. Some journals also introduced the concept of editorial boards. The board consisted of several journal editors. Thus, the evaluation was conducted by all the editors on the editorial board.
Peer-reviewed journals, papers, and other scholarly output are an essential part of the research process. But the process of peer review is often misunderstood, and recent developments in online publishing have sought to improve transparency to the editorial process.
Since 1997, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has published guidelines on best obtain, handle, publish, and cite research. These guidelines helped journal editors and publishers improve the peer review process, which, in turn, helped increase the quality of the scholarly record.
Peer review has been in place for centuries, but it has become much more widespread as technology enables it to be performed remotely.
The Current Scenario
Peer review is the foundation of scholarly communication. Its importance is reflected in the increased attention in recent years, both in research outputs and academic resources devoted to peer review. However, a review of current research into peer review demonstrates there continues to be a lack of consensus, particularly regarding the function, performance, and dimensions of bias of the traditional process.
The quality of peer review can be assessed through several sources, including surveys and reviews. Surveys have been conducted to determine the nature of assigned reviewers and the proportion of accepted manuscripts from invited reviewers.
The present state of peer review is a multi-million dollar industry, and that's a lot of money for a system that's often considered broken and outdated. Peer review is good at preventing flawed research from getting published and at weeding out weak papers. But it's also slow, costly, and open to manipulation.
The field of scholarly communication is in the midst of its revolution. Social media, open content, and open access have entirely transformed how information is shared and removed many of the barriers that stood between researchers and their work. As researchers transition from traditional publishing to open access, it's only natural that they question the purpose of peer review.
Social science is in the midst of a transition from the traditional publishing model to the online, open, and open access one. The shift away from conventional publishing toward open access is typical in other fields, but it's fascinating in the social sciences, where peer review has traditionally dominated scholarly publishing.
Researchers publish their work in open-access journals, free for anyone to read and reuse with open access. However, readers contribute funding through article processing charges (APC) instead of paying to access a journal. APCs vary, but it's probably safe to say that most open-access journals don't charge for access, and instead, they generate revenue through article processing charges.
"It is estimated that more than 2.5 million English language scientific research publications are now published each year and at a rapidly increasing rate."
Peer review is, however, not perfect. The existing literature demonstrates that there are several other areas of peer review that warrant further research. In addition, the review process is lengthy and tedious, and manuscripts can languish in review queues.
The peer-review process can be divided into two stages. First, a manuscript is submitted to a journal. Second, the reviewers assess the manuscript, and then at least two reviewers review a manuscript. The feedback from the reviewers helps an editor decide if the manuscripts should be sent back to the authors for revision or if they should be rejected or accepted for publication.
“The availability of relatively limited information about the peer review process deters authors' and reviewers' ability and willingness to be involved in the process. An awareness of the peer review process may help authors understand the process and expectations better and therefore, may alleviate their anxiety and facilitate the preparation of appropriate quality manuscripts.”
While the peer-review process will still be there in some form, blind peer review may not be the only form. Already, other forms of peer review, such as open peer review, are also available. This means that anyone can review an article, and the identity of the author, as well as the reviewer, are known to each other. Of course, there are positive or negative aspects of such an approach. Another approach is a post-publication peer-review in which an article is subjected to scrutiny and peer review after publication. This type of review is already in practice to a certain extent as published research is scrutinized and evaluated through critical appraisal tools. This type of review has its own importance, but it doesn't take away the significance of the preprint peer-review process. In addition, another important aspect to consider is the training and preparation of the peer reviewers. Peer reviewing is a skill that is developed over time and requires some training and reflective skills on the reviewer’s part. There is also no doubt that peer review improves the quality of the article/ manuscript and therefore is useful.
Peer reviewer plays an important quality assurance process that ultimately improves the quality of scientific articles for any given discipline. The process of peer review perhaps can never be eliminated as it is not limited to publishing in journals but will always be part of other aspects of academics such as review of grants, job applications, so on and so forth. It is not free from flaws but has more benefits than drawbacks and, therefore, should be retained, developed, and sustained.
I would like to express my gratitude to Parveen Ali, Professor in the Division of Nursing and Midwifery, Health Sciences School at the University of Sheffield, who invested her time in co-authoring this article and penned down her valuable insights into the future of peer-review in scholarly publishing.
Professor Ali is works as Professor of Nursing and Deputy Director of Research and Innovation, in Health Sciences School, University of Sheffield and Doncaster and Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals. She is a Registered Nurse in the Registered Nurse Teacher and Senior Fellow of Higher Education Academy and Fellow of Faculty of Public Health. She is the Editor-in-Chief of International Nursing Review (official journal of the International Council of Nurses) and also serves as Editorial Board member for Journal of Advanced Nursing and Journal of Interpersonal violence. Learn more about her Futurelearn course 'Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence' and her Domestic Abuse Interactive Game.