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Peer Review: Why is it important?

Scientific findings and discoveries can have far-reaching implications for individuals and society. This is one reason why they undergo a process of quality control known as 'peer review' before they are published.

Peer review involves subjecting the author's scholarly work and research to the scrutiny of other experts in the same field to check its validity and evaluate its suitability for publication.
A peer review helps the publisher decide whether a work should be accepted.

How the peer review process works

When a scholarly work is submitted to a scientific journal, it first undergoes a preliminary check known as a desk review. The editor decides if the manuscript should be sent for peer review or be immediately rejected. The next step is to select experts from the same field who are qualified and able to review the work impartially. Ideally the work is evaluated by multiple experts.

The primary goals of a peer review are to determine whether a scholarly work falls within the journal's scope, to check whether the research topic has been clearly formulated, and to decide if a suitable approach has been taken to address the scientific issues involved. The reviewer also examines the methodology to determine whether the author's results can be reproduced, and he or she assesses the novelty and originality of the research findings. If a work involves patients or animals, then the peer review will also cover ethical aspects. Finally, the reviewer will also rate the 'readability' of the work, assessing how logically the argument has been constructed and whether the conclusions are well-founded. In addition, the author of the work will generally receive useful advice on how to improve their work.

Peer reviewers normally provide their assessment in the form of a questionnaire which they return to the editor. This forms the basis for deciding whether the work should be accepted, considered acceptable with revisions, or rejected. Submissions with serious failings will be rejected, though they can be re-submitted once they have been thoroughly revised.

If a work is rejected, this does not necessarily mean it is of poor quality. A paper may also be rejected because it doesn't fall within the journal's area of specialisation or because it doesn't meet the high standards of novelty and originality required by the journal in question. Some prestigious journals reject over 90 percent of papers submitted to them, while the rejection rate across all scientific journals is somewhere in the region of 50 percent. Another reason a paper may be rejected is that the reviewers do not agree that the approach taken by the author is innovative. There are also some journals which take a more relaxed stance in regard to originality and focus more on the extent to which the author has followed correct scientific procedures. It is therefore common for authors to submit their paper to a different journal after receiving a rejection.

Reviewers are generally not paid for their time since peer review is simply considered to be part of the self-regulatory nature of the world of science and research. Some publishers 'reward' their reviewers by granting them free access to their archives for limited periods of time.

Different types of peer review

The term peer review actually encompasses a number of different approaches, the most common of which are the following:

  • single-blind peer review: the name of the reviewer is hidden from the author;
  • double-blind peer review: both the reviewer and the author remain anonymous to each other.

There are also considerable differences in the level of detail with which papers are evaluated. For example, some journals make additional use of anti-plagiarism software, organise separate reviews of the author's methods and statistics, or examine the submitted illustrations to detect whether they have been manipulated. There is also an increasing number of journals which focus on scientific software or research datasets, and the peer review process has been adapted to fit these contexts, too.

Peer review is also used by conference organisers to select which contributions to include in their programme. And funding bodies even use peer review methods to assess the eligibility of research proposals for funding.

Criticisms of peer review

All the methods mentioned above have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, critics of the double-blind method argue that reviewers can guess who the authors are by looking at the references they cite. They suggest that this could undermine their neutral stance. The evaluation of an academic paper is also affected by the reviewer's scientific beliefs and by the care and effort they choose to invest in the process.

Peer review has recently come in for major criticism following cases where reviewers failed to spot serious errors in the author's methodology. The reasons for 'failures' in the peer review process include peer reviewers' heavy workloads as more papers are published and poor selection of reviewers by editorial boards.

Another objection that is frequently raised is that peer review is not transparent enough, not just because the reviews are inevitably subjective (especially if reviewers are unable to separate themselves adequately from their particular schools of thought), but also because reviewers may not appreciate the value of a new idea or may withhold – or simply not be asked to provide – relevant information on conflicts of interest.

Another key criticism of peer review is that the process may stretch over a long period of time, generally weeks or months, but occasionally even years.

Some people also suspect that journals which claim to have implemented peer review actually carry out very superficial assessments, or none at all.
For further information see the FAQ on "Predatory Publishing".

It is generally accepted that peer review cannot completely eliminate cases of fraud and the publication of low-quality papers. Nevertheless, peer review continues to be favoured despite all the criticism because it has ultimately proved its worth and shown that in most cases it can help improve the quality of publications – especially if authors are able to view the report and work through the comments. In the end, of course, responsibility lies with the authors who are required to demonstrate rigour, probity and scientific reproducibility as part of the scientific process. The peer review concept is also constantly being adapted to counter criticism such as the points mentioned above.

Alternatives to the standard peer review process

This criticism has led to the discussion of new alternatives such as open peer review, a concept which includes crowd sourced peer review. In this case articles are published either immediately or after perfunctory preliminary checks and the actual assessment and evaluation process is left to the scientific community. Although this offers key benefits such as opening up a broader discussion and considerably speeding up the process of publishing comments and assessments, there are also some significant challenges involved in this approach. The main problem is finding a sufficient number of experts who are capable of offering a professional assessment. It can also be difficult to know how to best organise the platforms used for this purpose to ensure they are manageable and searchable. The current assumption is that open peer review can only work as a supplement to the existing peer review process rather than replacing it altogether. Open peer review also has a number of different variants. Issues that have prompted particular discussion include doubts about the extent to which people should be able to make reviews and comments anonymously, since there is obviously a risk that the process could be muddied by personal feelings and rivalries between individual scientists.

Disclaimer

Important note: The information and links provided here do not represent any form of binding legal advice. They are solely intended to provide an initial basis to help get you on the right track. ZB MED – Information Centre for Life Sciences has carefully checked the information included in the list of FAQs. However, we are unable to accept any liability whatsoever for any errors it may contain. Unless indicated otherwise, any statements concerning individual statutory norms or regulations refer to German law (FAQ updated 11/2017).