Researchers record the results of their work in academic articles. The aim of these articles is to inform other researchers about research findings and to lay claim to the findings as new and original insights. Such claims are not usually acknowledged by other researchers until the article has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
What is peer review? Peer review is a form of quality assessment. In this context, the word ‘peer’ (meaning an equal) refers to a fellow researcher. A peer review is therefore an assessment by a fellow specialist in the relevant field. Peer reviewers assess whether an article meets certain requirements, such as originality, accessibility and solid substantiation of the results. All academic journals work with a system like this in order to assure the quality of the articles they publish.
If an article is peer-reviewed, you can assume that the information is reliable and of the required standard. In many bibliographic databases you can search specifically for peer-reviewed articles.
The peer review system has come in for quite a bit of criticism lately.
Criticism focuses on:
There are websites where academics share their experiences with peer-review of journals, the Dutch initiative SciRev is one such website.
Some journals, such as PLOS One (Public Library of Science One), experiment with new forms of peer-review. Here reviewers only indicate whether the research methods used for an article have been satisfactory. The assessment of scientific merit occurs afterwards, by the readers. By using this method many more articles are published in a much shorter period of time.
A researcher (or research group) submits an article to the editor of an academic journal that is most relevant to the subject of the article. The editor gives the article a cursory reading and determines whether the article is of the required quality, contains new insights and is well written.
If the editor decides to proceed with the article, two or more peer reviewers must be sought. The reviewers may be the authors of articles previously published in the journal, or other researchers who have an established reputation in a particular research field. The editor will always look for reviewers who are fellow researchers and experts in the subject of the article, but he/she will also aim for diversity. This diversity aspect can be problematic; in a relatively small discipline few fellow researchers will have the required specialist knowledge.
The selected reviewers will receive a letter or e-mail asking them to review the article by a certain deadline. The reviewers only get to see the title, authors and occasionally the abstract of the article. In general researchers are happy to oblige, partly because their own status within the research field is enhanced in this way.
The editor will eventually receive two or more reviews, which are then sent anonymously to the author(s) of the article. On the basis of the reviews, the editor decides whether to reject the article, ask the author(s) to make major or minor revisions, or to accept it without further action. In most cases, authors are required to rewrite part of the article.
The revised version is resubmitted by the author(s), along with a response to the reviewers’ comments. The editor will then reassess the comments, the response of the author(s) and the revised article. The article may still be accepted, but more often than not it is sent back to the reviewers for further comments. This means that an article may be revised several times before it is ultimately accepted or rejected.
Other peer-review systems now in use are: