Peer review

One of the key elements of the publication process is refereeing or peer review. This is the primary safeguard in scholarly communication which aims to ensure that research findings have been verified by other experts working within the same discipline. So central is the role of refereeing and peer review to scholarly publication that it has come to define the status of an academic journal.

The peer review or refereeing process can apply to nearly all forms of scholarly communication, but the most rigorous approach (and therefore the most time consuming) tends to apply to academic journals and book publications (whole monographs or chapters in edited works). Peer review is usually undertaken free of charge by experienced researchers who are qualified and able to provide impartial review.

The importance of peer review is not only to establish the accuracy of research findings but also to gauge their suitability for publication. Many journals will attract a large number of manuscript submissions so it is the job of the editor and referees to decide whether a manuscript is of suitable originality, significance and rigour to be published. Not all manuscripts submitted to a journal will get as far as peer review; depending on the journal only a small proportion may pass the editor's initial scrutiny.

How does peer review work?

There are many accepted conventions in the way the peer review process is carried out, some of which may be defined by the academic discipline or the policies of a particular journal. However the role of the editor is always crucial. It is the editor who handles communications between the researcher submitting the manuscript and the referees who have been asked to review it. In the majority of cases the referees will remain anonymous so it will be the editor who conveys their opinions and recommendations.

The function of peer review is not simply to weed out and prevent the dissemination of poor research. Quite often the reviewers will suggest how improvements could be made to the paper. As the editor will be receiving comments from a number of reviewers, which may not all be in agreement, the editor has the final decision on what changes need to be made if the paper is to be accepted for publication.

The editor may however reject the paper outright if the reviews are too critical or if the suggested changes are too numerous or extensive. If this is the case the author(s) will probably be grateful for feedback from the referees, to judge the criteria used in rejecting it, as it may be possible to redraft the manuscript extensively and resubmit or, if the paper has failed to meet the acceptance criteria of the journal, to make amendments and resubmit the manuscript to an alternative journal.

Criticism of peer review

The peer review process can cause lengthy delays in the dissemination of research findings, especially when multiple rounds of peer review are required. It can also be a time consuming process which places considerable demands on the academic community. Sometimes it may be difficult to protect the anonymity of referees in very specialised research fields where there may be only a small number of experts.

Peer review has been accused of protecting established opinions and not being open to genuinely new ideas. There has been extensive debate as to how effective the peer review process really is in detecting errors in academic papers. Ultimately it may not prevent the publication of poor research as review standards can vary and the increasing complexity of research data may even leave expert referees unable to detect errors or inconsistencies in a manuscript.

Open peer review

Like any process peer review requires scrutiny and assessment to ensure it is still relevant and functional. The advent of the internet has brought many benefits for peer review, including significantly speeding up what was once a very lengthy process. However some publishers are now challenging the fundamental basics of peer review with open peer review, a term encompassing various possible modifications to the traditional peer review process. The three most common versions of open peer review are:

  • Open identities: author and reviewer identities are no longer anonymous
  • Open reports: rather than being confidential, peer review reports are published alongside the research output
  • Open participation: the research output is published online prior to review allowing the wider scholarly community (not just invited reviewers) to provide comment.

The perceived advantages to open peer review are that removing anonymity forces reviewers to be more constructive and reduces bias, leading to higher quality reviews. Open participation can also help to improve the legitimacy of manuscripts that may contain editorial conflicts of interest and allow increased scrutiny from a greater variety of reviewers.

Many publishers are now adopting one or more element of open peer review including BioMed Central, PLOS and the BMJ Group.