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Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards of quality, improve performance, and provide credibility. In academia peer review is often used to determine an academic paper's suitability for publication.
Peer review can be categorized by the type of activity and by the field or profession in which the activity occurs. For example, medical peer review can refer to clinical peer review, or the peer evaluation of clinical teaching skills for both physicians and nurses, or scientific peer review of journal articles, or to a secondary round of peer review for the clinical value of articles concurrently published in medical journals. Moreover, "medical peer review" has been used by the American Medical Association to refer not only to the process of improving quality and safety in health care organizations, but also to the process of rating clinical behavior or compliance with professional society membership standards. Thus, the terminology has poor standardization and specificity, particularly as a database search term.
The first recorded editorial prepublication peer-review process was at The Royal Society in 1665 by the founding editor of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg. In the 20th century, peer review became common for science funding allocations. This process appears to have developed independently from that of editorial peer review.
The first peer-reviewed publication might have been the Medical Essays and Observations published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1731. The present-day peer-review system evolved from this 18th-century process.
A prototype professional peer-review process is recommended in the Ethics of the Physician written by Ishaq bin Ali al-Rahwi (854–931). His work states that a visiting physician must make duplicate notes of a patient's condition on every visit. When the patient was cured or had died, the notes of the physician were examined by a local medical council of other physicians, who would decide whether the treatment had met the required standards of medical care.
Peer review has long been a touchstone of the scientific method, but it is only since the middle of the 20th century that it has been systematically entrusted to external reviewers. In earlier periods, editors of scientific journals often made publication decisions without seeking outside input. For example, Albert Einstein's revolutionary "Annus Mirabilis" papers in the 1905 issue of Annalen der Physik were peer-reviewed by the journal's editor-in-chief, Max Planck, and its co-editor, Wilhelm Wien, both future Nobel prize winners and together experts on the topics of these papers. An external panel of reviewers was not sought, as is done for many scientific journals today. Established authors and editors were given more latitude in their journalistic discretion. An editorial in Nature published in 2003 stated that "in journals in those days, the burden of proof was generally on the opponents rather than the proponents of new ideas."
The first Peer Review congress met in 1989. Over time, the fraction of papers devoted to peer review has steadily declined, suggesting that as a field of study, it has been replaced by more systematic studies of bias and errors.
Professional peer review focuses on the performance of professionals, with a view to improving quality, upholding standards, or providing certification. Professional peer review activity is widespread in the field of health care, where it is best termed Clinical peer review. Further, since peer review activity is commonly segmented by clinical discipline, there is also physician peer review, nursing peer review, dentistry peer review, etc. Many other professional fields have some level of peer review process: accounting, law, engineering (e.g., software peer review, technical peer review), aviation, and even forest fire management. In academia, peer review is common in decisions related to faculty advancement and tenure. Peer review is used in education to achieve certain learning objectives, particularly as a tool to reach higher order processes in the affective and cognitive domains as defined by Bloom's Taxonomy. This may take a variety of forms, including closely mimicking the scholarly peer review processes used in science and medicine.
Scholarly peer review (also known as refereeing) is the process of subjecting an author's scholarly work, research, or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field, before a paper describing this work is published in a journal. Peer review in its current form is relatively recent; the journal Nature instituted formal peer review only in 1967. The work may be accepted, considered acceptable with revisions, or rejected. Peer review requires a community of experts in a given (and often narrowly defined) field, who are qualified and able to perform reasonably impartial review. Impartial review, especially of work in less narrowly defined or inter-disciplinary fields, may be difficult to accomplish; and the significance (good or bad) of an idea may never be widely appreciated among its contemporaries. Although generally considered essential to academic quality, and used in most important scientific publications, peer review has been criticized as ineffective, slow, and is often misunderstood (also see anonymous peer review and open peer review). Other critiques of the current peer review process from concerned scholars has stemmed from recent controversial studies published by two researchers from the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and NASA. These two published articles are now case studies of peer review failure. There have also recently been experiments with wiki-style, signed, peer reviews, for example in an issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly.
Pragmatically, peer review refers to the work done during the screening of submitted manuscripts and funding applications. This process encourages authors to meet the accepted standards of their discipline and reduces the dissemination of irrelevant findings, unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, and personal views. Publications that have not undergone peer review are likely to be regarded with suspicion by academic scholars and professionals.
It is difficult for authors and researchers, whether individually or in a team, to spot every mistake or flaw in a complicated piece of work. This is not necessarily a reflection on those concerned, but because with a new and perhaps eclectic subject, an opportunity for improvement may be more obvious to someone with special expertise or who simply looks at it with a fresh eye. Therefore, showing work to others increases the probability that weaknesses will be identified and improved. For both grant-funding and publication in a scholarly journal, it is also normally a requirement that the subject is both novel and substantial.
At the end of the day, the decision whether or not to publish a scholarly article, or what should be modified before publication, lies with the editor of the journal to which the manuscript has been submitted. Similarly, the decision whether or not to fund a proposed project rests with an official of the funding agency. These individuals usually refer to the opinion of one or more reviewers in making their decision. This is primarily for three reasons:
Thus it is normal for manuscripts and grant proposals to be sent to one or more external reviewers for comment.
Reviewers are typically anonymous and independent, to help foster unvarnished criticism, and to discourage cronyism in funding and publication decisions. However, US government guidelines governing peer review for federal regulatory agencies require that reviewer's identity be disclosed under some circumstances. Anonymity may be unilateral or reciprocal (single- or double-blinded reviewing).
Since reviewers are normally selected from experts in the fields discussed in the article, the process of peer review is considered critical to establishing a reliable body of research and knowledge. Scholars reading the published articles can only be expert in a limited area; they rely, to some degree, on the peer-review process to provide reliable and credible research that they can build upon for subsequent or related research. As a result, significant scandal ensues when an author is found to have falsified the research included in an article, as many other scholars, and the field of study itself, may have relied upon the original research.
In the case of proposed publications, an editor sends advance copies of an author's work or ideas to researchers or scholars who are experts in the field (known as "referees" or "reviewers"), nowadays normally by e-mail or through a web-based manuscript processing system. Usually, there are two or three referees for a given article.
These referees each return an evaluation of the work to the editor, noting weaknesses or problems along with suggestions for improvement. Typically, most of the referees' comments are eventually seen by the author; scientific journals observe this convention universally. The editor, usually familiar with the field of the manuscript (although typically not in as much depth as the referees, who are specialists), then evaluates the referees' comments, her or his own opinion of the manuscript, and the context of the scope of the journal or level of the book and readership, before passing a decision back to the author(s), usually with the referees' comments.
Referees' evaluations usually include an explicit recommendation of what to do with the manuscript or proposal, often chosen from options provided by the journal or funding agency. Most recommendations are along the lines of the following:
During this process, the role of the referees is advisory. The editor is typically under no obligation to accept the opinions of the referees, though she will most often do. Furthermore, in scientific publication, the referees do not act as a group, do not communicate with each other, and typically are not aware of each other's identities or evaluations. Proponents argue that if the reviewers of a paper are unknown to each other, the editor responsible for the paper can more easily verify the objectivity of the reviews. There is usually no requirement that the referees achieve consensus, with the decision instead often made by the editor based on her best judgement of the arguments. The group dynamics are thus substantially different from that of a jury.
In situations where multiple referees disagree substantially about the quality of a work, there are a number of strategies for reaching a decision. When an editor receives very positive and very negative reviews for the same manuscript, the editor will often solicit one or more additional reviews as a tie-breaker. As another strategy in the case of ties, editors may invite authors to reply to a referee's criticisms and permit a compelling rebuttal to break the tie. If an editor does not feel confident to weigh the persuasiveness of a rebuttal, the editor may solicit a response from the referee who made the original criticism. An editor may convey communications back and forth between authors and a referee, in effect allowing them to debate a point. Even in these cases, however, editors do not allow multiple referees to confer with each other, though each reviewer may often see earlier comments submitted by other reviewers. The goal of the process is explicitly not to reach consensus or to persuade anyone to change their opinions, but instead to provide material for an informed editorial decision. Some medical journals, usually following the open access model, have begun posting on the Internet the pre-publication history of each individual article, from the original submission to reviewers' reports, authors' comments, and revised manuscripts.
Traditionally, reviewers would often remain anonymous to the authors, but this standard varies both with time and with academic field. In some academic fields, most journals offer the reviewer the option of remaining anonymous or not, or a referee may opt to sign a review, thereby relinquishing anonymity. Published papers sometimes contain, in the acknowledgments section, thanks to anonymous or named referees who helped improve the paper.
Most university presses undertake peer review of books. After positive review by two or three independent referees, a university press sends the manuscript to the press's editorial board, a committee of faculty members, for final approval. Such a review process is a requirement for full membership of the Association of American University Presses.
In some disciplines there exist refereed venues (such as conferences and workshops). To be admitted to speak, scholars and scientists must submit papers (generally short, often 15 pages or less) in advance. These papers are reviewed by a "program committee" (the equivalent of an editorial board), which generally requests inputs from referees. The hard deadlines set by the conferences tend to limit the options to either accepting or rejecting the paper.
At a journal or book publisher, the task of picking reviewers typically falls to an editor. When a manuscript arrives, an editor solicits reviews from scholars or other experts who may or may not have already expressed a willingness to referee for that journal or book division. Granting agencies typically recruit a panel or committee of reviewers in advance of the arrival of applications.
Typically referees are not selected from among the authors' close colleagues, students, or friends. Referees are supposed to inform the editor of any conflict of interests that might arise. Journals or individual editors often invite a manuscript's authors to name people whom they consider qualified to referee their work. Indeed, for a number of journals this is a requirement of submission. Authors are sometimes also invited to name natural candidates who should be disqualified, in which case they may be asked to provide justification (typically expressed in terms of conflict of interest). In some disciplines, scholars listed in an "acknowledgments" section are not allowed to serve as referees (hence the occasional practice of using this section to disqualify potentially negative reviewers).
Editors solicit author input in selecting referees because academic writing typically is very specialized. Editors often oversee many specialties, and can not be experts in all of them. But after an editor selects referees from the pool of candidates, the editor typically is obliged not to disclose the referees' identities to the authors, and in scientific journals, to each other (see Anonymous peer review). Policies on such matters may differ among academic disciplines.
Recruiting referees is a political art, because referees, and often editors, are usually not paid, and reviewing takes time away from the referee's main activities, such as his or her own research. To the would-be recruiter's advantage, most potential referees are authors themselves, or at least readers, who know that the publication system requires that experts donate their time. Referees also have the opportunity to prevent work that does not meet the standards of the field from being published, which is a position of some responsibility. Editors are at a special advantage in recruiting a scholar when they have overseen the publication of his or her work, or if the scholar is one who hopes to submit manuscripts to that editor's publication in the future. Granting agencies, similarly, tend to seek referees among their present or former grantees. Serving as a referee can even be a condition of a grant, or professional association membership.
Another difficulty that peer review organizers face is that, with respect to some manuscripts or proposals, there may be few scholars who truly qualify as experts. Such a circumstance often frustrates the goals of reviewer anonymity and the avoidance of conflicts of interest. It also increases the chances that an organizer will not be able to recruit true experts – people who have themselves done work similar to that under review, and who can read between the lines. Low-prestige or local journals and granting agencies that award little money are especially handicapped with regard to recruiting experts.
Finally, anonymity adds to the difficulty in finding reviewers in another way. In scientific circles, credentials and reputation are important, and while being a referee for a prestigious journal is considered an honor, the anonymity restrictions make it impossible to publicly state that one was a referee for a particular article. However, credentials and reputation are principally established by publications, not by refereeing; and in some fields refereeing may not be anonymous.
In "double-blind" review, which is more common in the humanities than in the hard sciences, the identity of the authors is concealed from the reviewers, and vice versa, lest the knowledge of authorship or concern about disapprobation from the author bias their review. Critics of the double-blind review process point out that, despite any editorial effort to ensure anonymity, the process often fails to do so, since certain approaches, methods, writing styles, notations, etc., point to a certain group of people in a research stream, and even to a particular person. In many fields of big science, the publicly available operation schedules of major equipments, such as telescopes or synchrotrons, would make the authors' names obvious to anyone who would care to look them up. Proponents of double-blind review argue that it performs no worse than single-blind, and that it generates a perception of fairness and equality in academic funding and publishing. Single-blind review is strongly dependent upon the goodwill of the participants, but no more so than double-blind review with easily identified authors.
A conflict of interest arises when a reviewer and author have a disproportionate amount of respect or disrespect for each other. As an alternative to single-blind and double-blind review, authors and reviewers are encouraged to declare their conflicts of interest when the names of authors and sometimes reviewers are known to the other. When conflicts are reported, the conflicting reviewer can be prohibited from reviewing and discussing the manuscript, or her review can instead be interpreted with the reported conflict in mind; the latter option is more often adopted when the conflict of interest is mild, such as an ancient professional connection or a distant family relation. The incentive for reviewers to declare their conflicts of interest is a matter of professional ethics and individual integrity. While their reviews are not public, these reviews are a matter of record and the reviewer's credibility depends upon how they represent themselves among their peers. Some software engineering journals, such as the IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, use non-blind reviews with reporting to editors of conflicts of interest by both authors and reviewers.
A more rigorous standard of accountability is known as an audit. Because reviewers are not paid, they cannot be expected to put as much time and effort into a review as an audit requires. Therefore, academic journals such as Science, organizations such as the or the American Geophysical Union, and agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation maintain and archive scientific data and methods in the event another researcher wishes to replicate or audit the research after publication.
Anonymous peer review, also called blind review, is a system of prepublication peer review of scientific articles or papers for journals or academic conferences by reviewers who are known to the journal editor or conference organizer but whose names are not given to the article's author. In some cases, the reviewers do not know the author's identity, as any identifying information is stripped from the document before review. The system is intended to reduce or eliminate bias, although this has been challenged – for example Eugene Koonin, a senior investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, asserts that the system has "well-known ills" and advocates "open peer review". Others support blind reviewing because no research has suggested that the methodology may be harmful and that the cost of facilitating such reviews is minimal. Some experts proposed blind review procedures for reviewing controversial research topics.
Open peer review describes a scientific literature concept and process, central to which is the various transparency and disclosure of the identities of those reviewing scientific publications. The concept thus represents a departure from, and an alternative to, the incumbent anonymous peer review process, in which non-disclosure of these identities toward the public – and toward the authors of the work under review – is default practice. The open peer review concept appears to constitute a response to modern criticisms of the incumbent system; therefore, its emergence may be partially attributed to these phenomena.
The process of peer review does not end after a paper completes the peer review process. After being put to press, and after 'the ink is dry', the process of peer review continues as publications are read. Readers will often send letters to the editor of a journal, or correspond with the editor via an on-line journal club. In this way, all 'peers' may offer review and critique of published literature. A variation on this theme is open peer commentary; journals using this process solicit and publish non-anonymous commentaries on the "target paper" together with the paper, and with original authors' reply as a matter of course. The introduction of the "epub ahead of print" practice in many journals has made possible the simultaneous publication of unsolicited letters to the editor together with the original paper in the print issue.
Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of Journal of the American Medical Association is an organizer of the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication, which has been held every four years since 1986. He remarked:
There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.
The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than just a crude means of discovering the acceptability—not the validity—of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.
The interposition of editors and reviewers between authors and readers may enable the intermediators to act as gatekeepers. Some sociologists of science argue that peer review makes the ability to publish susceptible to control by elites and to personal jealousy. The peer review process may suppress dissent against "mainstream" theories. Reviewers tend to be especially critical of conclusions that contradict their own views, and lenient towards those that match them. At the same time, established scientists are more likely than others to be sought out as referees, particularly by high-prestige journals/publishers. As a result, ideas that harmonize with the established experts' are more likely to see print and to appear in premier journals than are iconoclastic or revolutionary ones. This accords with Thomas Kuhn's well-known observations regarding scientific revolutions. A theoretical model has been established whose simulations imply that peer review and over-competitive research funding foster mainstream opinion to monopoly. A marketing professor argued that invited papers are more valuable because papers that undergo the conventional system of peer review may not necessarily feature findings that are actually important.
Peer review failures occur when a peer-reviewed article contains fundamental errors that undermine at least one of its main conclusions. Many journals have no procedure to deal with peer review failures beyond publishing letters to the editor.
Peer review in scientific journals assumes that the article reviewed has been honestly prepared and the process is not designed to detect fraud.
An experiment on peer review with a fictitious manuscript found that peer reviewers fail to detect some manuscript errors and the majority of reviewers may not notice that the conclusions of the paper are unsupported by its results.
When peer review fails and a paper is published with fraudulent or otherwise irreproducible data, the paper may be retracted.
Efforts to make fundamental improvements have ebbed and flowed since the late 1970s when Rennie first systematically reviewed articles in thirty medical journals. According to Ana Marušić, "Nothing much has changed in 25 years". Mentorship has not been shown to have a positive effect. Worse, little evidence indicates that peer review as presently performed, improves the quality of published papers.
In response to these criticisms, other systems of peer review with various degrees of "openness" have been suggested.
Starting in the 1990s, several scientific journals (including the high impact journal Nature in 2006) started experiments with hybrid peer review processes, often allowing the open peer reviews in parallel to the traditional model. The initial evidence of the effect of open peer review upon the quality of reviews, the tone and the time spent on reviewing was mixed, although under open peer review, more of those who are invited to review decline to do so.
Throughout the 2000s academic journals based solely on the concept of open peer review were launched, such as Philica. An extension of peer review beyond the date of publication is open peer commentary, whereby expert commentaries are solicited on published articles and the authors are encouraged to respond.
The technique of peer review is also used to improve government policy. In particular, the European Union uses it as a tool in the 'Open Method of Co-ordination' of policies in the fields of employment and social inclusion.
A program of peer reviews in active labour market policy started in 1999, and was followed in 2004 by one in social inclusion. Each program sponsors about eight peer review meetings in each year, in which a 'host country' lays a given policy or initiative open to examination by half a dozen other countries and the relevant European-level NGOs. These usually meet over two days and include visits to local sites where the policy can be seen in operation. The meeting is preceded by the compilation of an expert report on which participating 'peer countries' submit comments. The results are published on the web.
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