What is Peer Review in Science? A Complete Guide
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In the age of “fake news,” peer-reviewed research has become one of the only sources of information inquiring minds can trust.
If you’re new to research, though, you may be wondering: what is peer review in science? And why is it so important?
The peer-review process has been around for hundreds of years. Despite its drawbacks, the system truly works to weed out invalid, poor quality, or unoriginal science. That way, you can always trust the peer-reviewed research you read.
Want to know more about peer review and how it affects your career as a research scientist? Then keep reading this article for everything you need to know.
What is a Peer Review in Science?
Peer review is a process of ensuring that new research is original and uses valid science. It is used in all areas of scientific and academic research activity from life sciences to astrophysics and psychology to social sciences.
The submitting author’s work is put before a panel of experts in the same field, who then review the scientific work and evaluates it based on originality, quality, and validity.
In other words, peer review allows the scientific community to continuously put out high-quality information. Information that practitioners, researchers, and students can trust.
If you ask most veteran scientists, they’ll probably tell you that there are three main goals of the peer-review process:
- To validate a piece of academic work
- To ensure the quality of published research
- To increase networking opportunities among individuals in the research community
Each of these three goals contributes to the overarching theory behind peer review. That is, that science must be evaluated before being published.
A Brief History of Peer-Reviewed Research
Before there was ever such thing as a scholarly journal, historians believe ancient Greeks used the peer-review process to evaluate their ideas. A Syrian physician recorded evidence of such a process for the first time in 800-900 C.E.
A few hundred years later, the printing press was invented. From that point forward, academic communities could distribute books and articles to the general public.
Yet, with no regulation on what was being put out where and to whom, researchers recognized a need.
Francis Bacon fulfilled that need in 1620. The famed scientist and researcher published a book detailing what is now considered the seed of modern-day peer-reviewed research. The world’s first scientific journal emerged a few years later, putting in place a formal peer-review process.
Since then, the peer review process has evolved. It incorporated the goal of validity in the 18th century. Then, it added the goal of quality in the years following World War II.
Today, some researchers criticize the flaws of the peer review process (see below). Still, 82% of people in the research community say there is no control in scientific publishing without it.
The Peer Review Process and the 4 Different Types of Reviews
When an author submits an idea or study for publication, the article must go through the formal peer-review process. Here’s a condensed version of how it works.
- The First Pass Review A journal editor gets the submitted article and does a first-pass review in which they make sure the article follows that particular journal’s quality guidelines. Based on their findings, the editor either rejects the article or passes it along to the next phase of the process.
- The Peer Review In this step, experts on the article’s subject peer review the article. They check for validity of the science and information contained therein before rejecting it, requesting revisions, or accepting the article.
- The Revision Process If the peer reviewers request that the author revises the article, the author makes the required revisions. They then submit the article to the peer reviewers a second time, and the reviewers either reject it or approve the article for publication.
Depending on the journal to which the author submits, the standards for peer reviews vary. Yet, the majority of journals follow one of four broad types of peer reviews. Let’s explore each of them in depth below.
85% of all peer reviews are single-blind, making it the most common of the four types. In a single-blind review, the author doesn’t know the name of the peer reviewer(s).
This type of review allows peer reviewers to remain impartial. Here’s what we mean: the author can’t influence the reviewer during the peer review process if they don’t know the name of the reviewer(s).
However, this benefit does come with a couple of criticisms.
First of all, single-blind reviews don’t protect the identity of the authors. There have been cases of peer reviewers purposefully delaying publication so he or she can publish their research first. Another con is that reviewers have been known to use their anonymity to be overly-critical or unnecessarily harsh with their review.
For these reasons, some publications prefer to deploy a double-blind peer-review process.
In a double-blind review, both the author of the publication and the peer reviewer(s) are anonymous. That means the author doesn’t know who the peer reviewers are, and the reviewer doesn’t know who authored the research.
This type of review process fixes many of the problems with single-blind reviews, including:
- Double-Blind Reviews Protect Authors The author’s relationship with the reviewer won’t influence the peer reviewer’s critiques. This also removes issues of bias regarding age, gender, and nationality.
- Double-Blind Reviews Remove Bias Toward Certain Authors An author’s popularity (or lack thereof) in the space won’t influence the reviewer’s critique. This allows reviewers to evaluate a work based on the research done, not on the author’s previous track record.
Keep in mind that double-blind reviews aren’t fault-free. There’s no way to 100% guarantee author anonymity. Even with a double-blind process, reviewers may identify an author by his or her writing style or subject matter.
Double-blind and single-blind reviews also fail to protect authors from editor bias. Seeing as editors have an ultimate say over where, when, and how an article is published in a scholarly journal, this is a major concern. Luckily, some journals use triple-blind reviews to address this worry.
Triple-blind review processes are relatively uncommon, but they offer the most protection to authors. How so? These peer reviews anonymize the submitting author, the peer reviewer(s), and the journal editor(s).
In addition to harnessing the benefits of single- and double-blind peer reviews, triple-blind reviews remove editor bias toward (or away from) a particular submitting author.
At this point, you may be thinking: if triple-blind reviews are so great, why don’t more journals use them?
The process of maintaining total author anonymity is subject to the same risks as in double-blind reviews. Triple-blind reviews are also highly complex, making it pricier and more time-consuming.
You may think the solution to the issues that come along with blind reviews is to tighten things up even further. The scientific community would disagree. Instead of pushing for more anonymity, today’s researchers want to make the process more transparent.
In an attempt to provide more transparency in the research cycle, journals have come up with a catch-all term to describe a new kind of peer-review process: open reviews.
Open reviews vary by journal. Yet, they all have the main goal of transparency in common. This type of review process aims to do so by making author, reviewer, and editor identities known before, during, and after the peer-review process.
Other identifying information that may be included in an open review includes:
- Other peer reviews of the article
- Responses from the author(s) and/or the editor(s) along with other reviews of the article
- Quick publication of an article alongside a discussion forum for the community to comment
Why are more and more journals turning to open reviews? They believe open reviews remove the problem with hateful anonymous reviewers. Open reviews, they say, also allow for more honest peer reviews.
Of course, many disagree. The opposition considers open reviews as subject to less honest feedback.
Reviewers cite a fear of retribution or a tendency toward politeness as the top reasons for dishonest open reviews. One study even showed that fewer peer reviewers are willing to participate in open reviews as compared to blind ones.
While the community continues to debate the best type of peer review, you can make up your mind once and for all. We’ll help you out with a quick dive into the benefits and disadvantages of the peer review process as a whole.
The Benefits of Peer-Reviewed Research
We’ve already mentioned one major benefit of peer review: it prevents publication of “fake news” by putting new research through a rigorous process of evaluation. That’s not the only benefit of peer reviews, though.
Here are three more that most scientists would agree on.
Peer Review Provides Valuable Feedback for Authors
For most researchers, getting published is a make-it or break-it moment. Many a career has begun (and ended) with a single article appearing (or failing to appear) in a prestigious journal.
Yet, there are still those researchers who struggle to get published. Proponents of peer-reviewed research say that the valuable feedback given during the peer-review process helps those struggling authors.
Helps Journals Identify the Cream of the Crop Research for Publication
1.8 million academic articles are published each year. Journal editors have a hard task, sorting through all the submissions they receive. To speed up the process, say peer-reviewed research supporters, journals need peer reviewers.
Peer Review is Well-Understood and Widely-Accepted in the Community
Even those in the scientific community who hate peer reviews can still agree that they understand their purpose. The peer-review process is straightforward and simple to grasp, making it easy to train new scientists and practitioners.
What’s more, the scientific community has relied on peer review for so long it would take something truly disruptive to replace the current model.
Critiques of the Peer Review Process
In addition to the pickier problems with the different types of peer reviews (see above), the community agrees that there are big issues with peer review in general.
Here are the top four critiques the community makes today.
The Process Takes Too Long
Even blind supporters of peer review agree that the process takes forever. This slows down the research process as a whole and prevents valuable findings from reaching practitioners and, ultimately, patients or other people in need.
Is Peer Review Really Effective at Detecting Errors?
For a process that validates other research efforts, you may find it ironic that the peer review process has never been tested.
That means we don’t know how effective peer reviewers are at catching errors in submissions. Many scientists in the community doubt that the process is effective in detecting errors at all.
Peer Reviewers and Journal Editors aren’t Open to New Ideas
One of the most controversial critiques of peer-reviewed research is that journals reject potentially novel and valuable ideas. Why is this? You could chalk it up to confirmation bias or elitism in the community, but the bottom line is peer review could be preventing advancements in science.
Peer Review Can’t Prevent the Publication of Low-Quality Research
Not all journals are created equal. While some deploy a vetting process stricter than most university graduate admissions boards, others are much laxer.
Some researchers say that lower-level journals are churning out too much bad science. And because of the way it works currently, the peer review process can’t do anything to stop this issue.
The Final Word on Peer Reviews
So, what is peer review in science? It’s a widely accepted way to validate academic research which has some fundamental defects and limitations. As criticisms add up, though, the community will search for a solution that can address the drawbacks of peer-reviewed research.
That’s where ARTIFACTS comes in.
Are you looking for a new way to share your findings with the scientific community? Learn more about how the ARTIFACTS platform works and get in touch with us today to try it out for free!