Peer review

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Peer review is a process used to assess manuscripts
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"... Scientific peer review has been defined as the evaluation of research findings for competence, significance, and originality by qualified experts. These peers act as sentinels on the road of scientific discovery and publication..." — Benos et al, 2007

Peer review (also known as refereeing) is an evaluation process that puts a scholarly work or piece of research through scrutiny by a number of qualified reviewers. In double-blinded peer review, the identity of authors and reviewers is kept confidential and concealed from both parties. Peer review is one of the pillars of modern science and ensures the integrity of (and faith in) scientific research. Peer review has been a touchstone in science since approximately the middle of the 20th century, and historically the only exception to this is in medicine. The first peer-reviewed publication in medicine was probably Medical Essays and Observations published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1731. The present-day peer-review system evolved from this 18th-century process. Some scientists believe that current peer review needs to be improved and streamlined. Manuscript submission platforms help to reduce lag times in peer review. Among the other current challenges in peer review are how to reduce the considerable burden placed on referees, and how to increase the pool of qualified referees. Recruiting referees is a major challenge because they are usually unpaid, and reviewing takes time away from the referee's own research. Evaluations in the peer review process typically include an explicit recommendation about the manuscript or research proposal, for example: 1) to unconditionally accept the manuscript or proposal, 2) to accept it after its authors improve the paper in specific ways, 3) to reject the paper, but encourage revisions and invite resubmission and finally 4) to reject it outright for the reasons stated.

Peer reviewers are generally knowledgeable in specific areas (and may indeed be experts in their chosen fields), and their input and comments are indispensable to peer review. Generally, there are at least two or three referees assigned to a given article by journal editors. Each referee completes an evaluation of the work, and points out the strengths and weaknesses of the research. Referees' comments are generally seen by the editors, and in some cases write two sets of comments. How is peer review used by editors and publishers? Peer review is used by editors and funding agencies to select and screen submitted manuscripts and to assist in the adjudication and awarding of grants. The peer review process has a normative function by encouraging authors to meet the accepted high standards of their discipline and to prevent the dissemination of unwarranted claims or unacceptable interpretations or personal views. Publications and awards that have not undergone peer review are regarded with suspicion by scholars and professionals in many fields. Even refereed journals, however, contain errors.

Is peer review broken?

See Publishing: The peer-review scam in which a handful of authors were caught reviewing their own papers. The paper exposes weaknesses in modern publishing systems. Editors are trying to plug the holes.

Peer review 2.0 tools

The closed nature of traditional peer review has come under close scrutiny in the age of social media. Traditionally, reviewers have remained anonymous to the authors, but there is increased pressure to change this practice. A more open, on-going (post-publication) crowd-sourced and transparent peer-review process is thought to be of benefit to scholars and researchers. Some social media advocates, for example, suggest that more openness would help combat scientific misconduct & its effect on the medical literature. To date, there are several initiatives put forward to solve one or more aspects of the problems in peer review:

  • is a distributed, open-source platform for the collaborative evaluation of information
  • Peerage of Science is a web application offering automatically controlled, standardized, rigorous, fully anonymous peer review
  • PeerJ started by Peter Binfield from PLOS, offers a one-time lifetime publishing fee/membership as long as you do one peer review a year. Each author up to the first 12 has to buy a membership. Their plan is to have open reviews that might even be published alongside the article.
  • Publons is the home of expert peer review. Reviewer recognition, training, post-publication review and statistics.

The concept of peer review 2.0 is still in the process of being defined and framed. Until the many issues of privacy, honest evaluation and transparency can be worked out, most academic journals will continue to use the old peer review processes. Social media such as blogs and Twitter are serving as a type of post-publication space for discussion and informal peer review. PLOS ONE, for example, combines traditional peer review with web 2.0 tools to facilitate community evaluation and discourse around published articles.

Canadian context

Recently, peer-review was introduced for the JCHLA/JABSC, the national journal for Canadian health librarians. A prominent member of CHLA/ABSC (Canada), Jessie McGowan, is a health librarian who has written about peer review. The move to peer review for the Canadian health library literature is an essential part of improving our scholarly communication practices. Many other health library journals already have peer review. There is also a move in health libraries to undertake peer review of search strategies:


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