The basic steps in the peer-review process have been around for a while. In fact, a medical journal published in the 1700s alerted contributors that all submissions would be "distributed according to the subject matter to those members who are most versed in these matters" [source: Ware]. This time-honored tradition continues today, although it's not as simple as it sounds. Getting research published in a peer-reviewed journal can be time-consuming and difficult.
It all starts with a scientist and his research. When the research is completed, the scientist writes a paper describing the experimental procedure and the results. He then submits it to a journal that publishes papers in his field. For example, if he's studying an aspect of breast cancer formation, he might submit his paper to CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, a widely circulated oncology journal. Starting with a prestigious journal in a topic area is common practice. If a paper isn't accepted there, the scientist moves on to his second choice, third choice and so on.
The path to acceptance begins with the journal editors. They first review the submission to make sure it fits both the journal's subject-matter focus and its editorial platform. For example, some journals prefer to publish only groundbreaking research and may overlook even good papers that don't, in the opinion of the editors, drive the field forward. Only a small percentage of papers survive this initial evaluation. Those that do enter the formal peer review system.
Generally, the process of peer review involves an exchange between a journal editor and a team of reviewers, also known as referees. After the referees receive a paper from the editor, they read it closely and provide individual critiques, usually within two to four weeks. In their critiques, they:
- Comment on the validity of the science, identifying scientific errors and evaluating the design and methodology used
- Judge the significance by evaluating the importance of the findings
- Determine the originality of the work based on how much it advances the field. Reviewers also identify missing or inaccurate references.
- Recommend that the paper be published or rejected. Editors don't have to heed this recommendation, but most do.
These activities are common to all types of peer review. What varies is whose identities are known and whose are concealed. In the most traditional approach to peer review, known as single-blind review, reviewers know the author's identity, but not vice versa. Blinding the identity of reviewers enables them to comment freely and not worry about disgruntled authors seeking retribution for negative reviews. Another approach is double-blind review, in which the identities of the author and referees are both hidden, making it easier for reviewers to focus on the paper itself without being swayed by any preconceived ideas about the author or his institution. Finally, many journals have adopted open peer review. In this model, the author's and reviewers' identities are known to each other, a situation that forces reviewers, who can't hide behind a veil of anonymity, to provide more thoughtful critiques.
Regardless of the approach, peer review has several benefits. Let's look at those next.