What Is Peer Review and Why Is It Important?

It’s one of the major cornerstones of the academic process and critical to maintaining rigorous quality standards for research papers. Whichever side of the peer review process you’re on, we want to help you understand the steps involved.

This post is part of a series that provides practical information and resources for authors and editors.

Peer review – the evaluation of academic research by other experts in the same field – has been used by the scientific community as a method of ensuring novelty and quality of research for more than 300 years. It is a testament to the power of peer review that a scientific hypothesis or statement presented to the world is largely ignored by the scholarly community unless it is first published in a peer-reviewed journal.

It is also safe to say that peer review is a critical element of the scholarly publication process and one of the major cornerstones of the academic process. It acts as a filter, ensuring that research is properly verified before being published. And it arguably improves the quality of the research, as the rigorous review by like-minded experts helps to refine or emphasise key points and correct inadvertent errors.

Ideally, this process encourages authors to meet the accepted standards of their discipline and in turn reduces the dissemination of irrelevant findings, unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, and personal views.

If you are a researcher, you will come across peer review many times in your career. But not every part of the process might be clear to you yet. So, let’s have a look together!

Types of Peer Review

Peer review comes in many different forms. With single-blind peer review, the names of the reviewers are hidden from the authors, while double-blind peer review, both reviewers and authors remain anonymous. Then, there is open peer review, a term which offers more than one interpretation nowadays.

Open peer review can simply mean that reviewer and author identities are revealed to each other. It can also mean that a journal makes the reviewers’ reports and author replies of published papers publicly available (anonymized or not). The “open” in open peer review can even be a call for participation, where fellow researchers are invited to proactively comment on a freely accessible pre-print article. The latter two options are not yet widely used, but the Open Science movement, which strives for more transparency in scientific publishing, has been giving them a strong push over the last years.

If you are unsure about what kind of peer review a specific journal conducts, check out its instructions for authors and/or their editorial policy on the journal’s home page.

Why Should I Even Review?

To answer that question, many reviewers would probably reply that it simply is their “academic duty” – a natural part of academia, an important mechanism to monitor the quality of published research in their field. This is of course why the peer-review system was developed in the first place – by academia rather than the publishers – but there are also benefits.

Besides a general interest in the field, reviewing also helps researchers keep up-to-date with the latest developments. They get to know about new research before everyone else does. It might help with their own research and/or stimulate new ideas. On top of that, reviewing builds relationships with prestigious journals and journal editors.

Clearly, reviewing is also crucial for the development of a scientific career, especially in the early stages. Relatively new services like Publons and ORCID Reviewer Recognition can support reviewers in getting credit for their efforts and making their contributions more visible to the wider community.

The Fundamentals of Reviewing

You have received an invitation to review? Before agreeing to do so, there are three pertinent questions you should ask yourself:

  • Does the article you are being asked to review match your expertise?
  • Do you have time to review the paper?
  • Are there any potential conflicts of interest (e.g. of financial or personal nature)?

If you feel like you cannot handle the review for whatever reason, it is okay to decline. If you can think of a colleague who would be well suited for the topic, even better – suggest them to the journal’s editorial office.

But let’s assume that you have accepted the request. Here are some general things to keep in mind:

Please be aware that reviewer reports provide advice for editors to assist them in reaching a decision on a submitted paper. The final decision concerning a manuscript does not lie with you, but ultimately with the editor. It’s your expert guidance that is being sought.

Reviewing also needs to be conducted confidentially. The article you have been asked to review, including supplementary material, must never be disclosed to a third party. In the traditional single- or double-blind peer review process, your own anonymity will also be strictly preserved. Therefore, you should not communicate directly with the authors.

When writing a review, it is important to keep the journal’s guidelines in mind and to work along the building blocks of a manuscript (typically: abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, references, tables, figures).

After initial receipt of the manuscript, you will be asked to supply your feedback within a specified period (usually 2-4 weeks). If at some point you notice that you are running out of time, get in touch with the editorial office as soon as you can and ask whether an extension is possible.

Some More Advice from a Journal Editor

  1. Be critical and constructive. An editor will find it easier to overturn very critical, unconstructive comments than to overturn favourable comments.
  2. Justify and specify all criticisms. Make specific references to the text of the paper (use line numbers!) or to published literature. Vague criticisms are unhelpful.
  3. Don’t repeat information from the paper, for example, the title and authors names, as this information already appears elsewhere in the review form.
  4. Check the aims and scope. This will help ensure that your comments are in accordance with journal policy and can be found on its home page.
  5. Give a clear recommendation. Do not put “I will leave the decision to the editor” in your reply, unless you are genuinely unsure of your recommendation.
  6. Number your comments. This makes it easy for authors to easily refer to them.
  7. Be careful not to identify yourself. Check, for example, the file name of your report if you submit it as a Word file.

Sticking to these rules will make the author’s life and that of the editors much easier!

Explore new perspectives on peer review in this collection of blog posts published during Peer Review Week 2021

[Title image by AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

David Sleeman

David Sleeman works as a Senior Journals Manager in the field of Physical Sciences at De Gruyter.

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