Peer review is an important element of academic communication through academic, published literature.
Peer review is an integral part of the publication procedure for (many, but not all) academic publications.
What is peer review?
In a nutshell, peer review is when an article is sent for assessment by 1 to 3 experts in the fields that the article concerns after the editors of a journal have deemed it publishable. The expert panel does not consist of the editor or co-authors, but of external academics who offer their services free of charge.
The expert panel analyses the article and checks for errors or content-related flaws, examines whether the article's conclusion is well-founded in relation to the underlying data and earlier literature, and generally whether the article concerns new and correctly conducted research.
Furthermore, they consider whether the article is easy to read and intelligible – often a problem for authors who do not have English as their native tongue.
Peer review report
The analysis by the experts is compiled in a report, which is sent to the editors with one of three possible recommendations: 'can be published', 'can be published after correction' or 'rejected'.
Typically, the article with be sent back to the author for correction, and after passing back and forth a few times, it is finally published. The editors coordinate the process itself and often there is no direct contact between author and assessor. However, there are several different types of assessment:
- Blind assessment, i.e. the author does not know who is assessing his/her work;
- Double-blind assessment, i.e. neither the assessor nor the author know who the other is;
- Non-anonymous or even open assessment, i.e. all or a large number of academics can take part in the assessment. A variation of this is when the review is accessible only after an embargo period;
- Dynamic and open peer review, i.e. the review process is not concluded, but continuous.
Why peer review?
The purpose of assessing research publications prior to their publication is partly to prevent fraud, plagiarism and 'poor' research, but also has to do with improving manuscripts and generating greater confidence in your own and others' research findings.
Other types of review:
- Clinical peer review, where doctors' clinical work is evaluated by colleagues
- Technical peer review, where researchers assess only the technical sections of an article
- Post-publication review, which includes reader letters, public debate and reviews
Peer review should ideally enable the academic to, "… build upon the work of others with a degree of warranted confidence …" .
Problems with peer review
There are, however, problems with peer review. Often the assessors do not have time to request further documentation from the author or to reproduce findings from the accompanying data. Assessors can also be biased, especially if they know or can guess who the author is. For this reason, some are critical of the system, and there are a number of instances where the system has failed.
Research environments, however, are inclined to give preference to a peer-reviewed article rather than to an earlier edition of the same article . Thus it would seem that there is general confidence in the effectiveness of the peer-review system and in the highly esteemed peer-reviewed journals.
Peer review process and citations
Some claim that peer review in fact also benefits those articles that are not printed in a journal.
This blog post describes a study conducted by Vincent Calcagno (2012) and published in Science: The hidden map of science: Pre-publication history of articles tells us that rejection leads to higher citations. Thus it appears that those articles rejected by a first or second journal, but finally published, receive more citations than articles accepted the first time around. And this is despite the fact that around 75% of the 80,000 articles in the study were accepted by the first journal.
The study concludes that the most simple explanation for the fact that articles which are rejected by a journal and are re-submitted to another are less likely to receive 0 or just 1 citation might be simply that the peer review and subsequent work on the article improves it so much that it is cited by many.
Peer review and open access
Open access means free electronic access to read published academic literature.
In short, there are two ways to communicate open access literature: the gold road and the green road.
The green road is via journals that are free and do not require subscription. Here the author often pays a fee to have the article published. These journals may or may not be peer reviewed.
The gold road is when the article is published in the usual paid journals, but after a period of time, is deposited in an open archive, where everyone can read it: in other words, it is self-archived.
In the field of physics, for example, conventional practice has been to place pre-print articles (i.e. articles not yet peer reviewed) in open archives, such as arxiv.org. This has slightly tinged the reputation of open access, since many have come to believe that open access literature is not peer reviewed. This is a misconception: both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed open access literature are available, as with conventionally published literature.
Motivation to publish open access linked to peer review
The report titled PEER Behavioural Research  investigates how far authors and readers of academic work are aware of open access and examines the distinction between green open access and gold open access, and their different methods of approaching open access material.
In this respect the report seeks to identify what motivating or de-motivating circumstances play a role in the spread of open access. It shows that authors tend to be positive towards open access and "… receptive to the benefits of self-archiving in terms of greater readership and wider dissemination of their research …" .
Readers, however, harbour certain concerns about whether they can give the same credence to the content, especially in open access repositories, as they would to a final print version. Thus users need greater knowledge about open access publication to be able to assess the quality control of individual publication channels. Again, this is indicative of a culture where authors attach great importance to confidence in individual journals.
Your role as Peer Reviewer
You may also be asked to review a manuscript. In Ugeskrift for Læger, Jacob Rosenberg has published a “Practical guide to peer review”. Here he lists the following statements and advice to the new reviewer:
- You are good enough to do the review!
- Say no, if you have a potential conflict of interest or do not have time.
- Read the article quickly from start to finish and make notes along the way.
- Consider if the journal/target audience is the right one.
- Assess how easy the text is to understand.
- Write an assessment divided into; confidential comments to the editor, general comments to the author and detailed comments to the author.
- It is important to remain positive and friendly in your language and provide constructive criticism.
- Remember to maintain confidentiality.
The final review/report will include an acceptance, a conditional acceptance, a rejection with suggestions on how to improve the piece, or a rejection.
 H Zuckerman and R.K. Merton (1971). Patterns of evaluation in science: Institutionalization, structure and functions of the referee system, In: Minerva, Vol. 9, pp. 66-100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF01553188
 Adrian Mulligan and Michael Mabe (2011). The effect of the internet on researcher motivations, behaviour and attitudes, In: Journal of Documentation Vol. 67, Iss. 2, p. 75. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00220411111109485
 James Mullins et al. (12 March 2012). Library Publishing Services: Strategies for Success: Final Research Report (March 2012), Purdue University Press e-books, p. 24. http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/purduepress_ebooks/24/