When did peer review start | Researcher blog

When did peer review start: the origins and evolution of peer review through time

8 mins

Zoe Brooke

Peer review is not just quality control, it is the backbone of modern scientific and academic publishing, ensuring the validity and credibility of research articles. While it may seem like an age-old practice, peer review, in its current form, is a relatively recent development. But when did peer review start? In this blog, we explore the origins and evolution of peer review from its earliest roots to the present day.

Ancient beginnings

Peer review, in some form, has been an integral part of scholarly communication for centuries, with roots dating back to ancient civilizations. In ancient Greece, for example, scholars would often discuss and debate each other’s works, offering critiques and insights. However, this was more of an informal process, lacking the structured system we associate with modern peer review.

The birth of scientific journals

The 17th century witnessed a pivotal development in the history of scholarly communication—the emergence of modern scientific journals. The ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London’, founded in 1665 by Henry Oldenburg, is often recognized as one of the earliest scientific journals. 

While these early journals did not employ peer review in the contemporary sense, they provided platforms for scholars to share their findings with the burgeoning scientific community. The concept of formalized peer review was yet to be fully realized.

The Enlightenment and the beginnings of critical review

The 18th century, known as the Enlightenment, marked a significant turning point in the history of peer review. During this era, intellectuals would gather in coffeehouses and salons to critically review and debate scientific ideas. 

This period laid the foundation for a more structured and systematic approach to evaluating scientific work, even though formal peer review processes were not yet in place.

Early peer review in medical journals

Medical journals began to adopt a more rigorous evaluation process for submitted articles. For example, The Lancet, a British medical journal founded in 1823, introduced an editorial process that included peer assessment. This signaled a shift toward a more structured evaluation of submitted manuscripts, especially in the context of medical research.

The birth of modern peer review

The practice of peer review gained further momentum in the early 19th century, primarily in the field of medicine.

In June 1936, German-born Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein submitted a paper to Physical Review, an American journal, challenging the prevailing belief in gravitational waves. After an anonymous reviewer suggested revisions, Einstein declined, and his paper was published elsewhere. This incident, then a novelty, is now known as ‘peer review’ or ‘referee system’, the cornerstone of academic publishing.

The mid-20th century marked a crucial turning point in the history of peer review. Journals across various disciplines started to adopt formalized peer review processes aimed at ensuring the quality and validity of published research. In this modern peer review system, the process typically involved the selection of expert reviewers, often anonymous to the authors, who would evaluate the manuscript’s quality, methodology, and significance. Reviewers would provide feedback and recommend acceptance, revision, or rejection of the manuscript.

One of the key milestones during this period was the establishment of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) by Eugene Garfield, an American linguist and businessman, in 1960. ISI introduced the Science Citation Index, which tracked citation patterns in scientific literature. This innovation provided a quantitative measure of a paper’s impact, further underscoring the importance of peer-reviewed articles in the scientific community.

The peer review process

To understand the evolution of peer review, it’s essential to grasp the core elements of the modern peer review process. While variations exist across journals and disciplines, the following steps generally characterize the process:

  1. Submission: Researchers submit their manuscripts to academic journals for consideration.
  1. Editorial peer review/assessment: Journal editors evaluate the submitted manuscripts to determine if they align with the journal’s scope and standards. Some manuscripts may be rejected at this stage if they do not meet the journal’s criteria.
  1. Peer review: After passing the editorial assessment, manuscripts are sent for peer review. Journal editors select expert reviewers (also known as referees), often chosen for their expertise in the subject matter. These reviewers assess the manuscript’s quality, methodology, and significance. They provide detailed feedback and recommend one of several outcomes: acceptance, revision, or rejection.
  1. Revisions: If revisions are required, authors are typically given the opportunity to address the reviewers’ comments and suggestions. This may involve conducting additional experiments or analyses to strengthen the manuscript.
  1. Editorial decision: The editor-in-chief, informed by the feedback from the reviewers and the revised manuscript, makes the final decision on whether to accept, reject, or request further revisions to the manuscript. They may consult with members of the editorial board in making their decision. 
  1. Publication: Accepted articles are published in the journal, contributing to the body of scientific knowledge and becoming accessible to the broader academic community.

Challenges, criticisms, and controversies around peer review

While peer review has become the gold standard for scientific publishing, it is not without its challenges and criticisms. Some of the common issues and criticisms include:

Bias and conflicts of interests

Critics argue that peer review can perpetuate bias, as reviewers may favor well-established researchers or be unconsciously prejudiced against authors from underrepresented groups. Additionally, conflicts of interest among reviewers can compromise the integrity of the peer review process.

Peer review speed

The peer review process can be time-consuming, leading to delays in sharing research findings. This delay can be particularly problematic in rapidly evolving fields where timely dissemination of information is critical.

Concerns around reproducibility

Peer review primarily focuses on assessing the validity and quality of research but may not always ensure the reproducibility of results. In recent years, concerns about the reproducibility of scientific findings have gained prominence in the scientific community with 52% of researchers stating there is a reproducibility crisis.

Trends in contemporary peer review

In recent years, the traditional peer review model has faced challenges from new, innovative approaches aimed at addressing some of the limitations and concerns associated with peer review. These approaches include:

Open peer review

In his Systematic Review, Ross-Hellauer defines open peer review as ‘‘an umbrella term for a number of overlapping ways that peer review models can be adapted in line with the aims of Open Science.’’ Most open peer review models publish the peer review reports and/or reviewer identities openly making the whole process fully transparent as opposed to the more traditional double-blind review. This approach is intended to increase accountability, reduce bias, and enhance the transparency of the review process.

Some publishers are already operating an open peer review model. For example, a number of peer-reviewed journals offered by Nature, including Nature Communications, have an open reports model which is optional for some of their journals where authors can opt in and mandatory in others. Published journal articles with open reports contain a section for peer review which lists the name of the reviewers who choose to be identified and credits other anonymous reviews.

BMJ is an example of a journal that uses both open identities and open reports as part of its publishing model. Every published paper is a peer review tab that provides a PDF copy of the article’s history. The initial peer review reports and the reviewer’s identities are available in the first decision file, and one can view the author’s responses to these in the author response PDF as well.

Articles published on F1000 publishing venues have both open identities and open reports, the latter of which directly determines the peer review outcome of an article. The peer review history is available in an open peer review bar and it includes the reviewers names and affiliations. When a report is published, it is immediately available to authors and readers.

Preprint servers

A preprint is a full-text version of a scholarly or scientific publication that is typically made available online before it undergoes formal peer review. Preprint servers, such as arXiv, bioRxiv, and SocArXiv are online repositories that allow authors to post such early versions of their paper. 

As publication times can be lengthy in traditional scholarly publishing, preprint servers give researchers the chance to share their work a lot quicker. Preprints are often assigned a digital object identifier (DOI) ensuring readers can reliably locate the source.

While preprints accelerate the dissemination of knowledge, they also raise questions about the quality and credibility of research shared in this manner.

Post-publication review

Some publishers have experimented with post-publication review, where articles are published first and then reviewed by the scientific community. Public Library of Science (PLOS) has been a proponent of post-publication peer review, which allows for ongoing evaluation and discussion of research after publication. BMJ’s former Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Fiona Godlee has supported the concept of post-publication peer review, arguing that this approach can allow for real-time feedback, help identify errors, improve research quality, and facilitate ongoing scholarly discourse.

Artificial intelligence

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are being explored to assist in the peer review process. These technologies have the potential to aid in identifying potential issues in manuscripts, evaluating the quality of research, and suggesting suitable reviewers.

Peer review has come a long way from its informal beginnings in ancient Greece to the structured, rigorous process we know today. While it has faced challenges and criticisms, it remains a vital tool for ensuring the quality and credibility of scientific research. As we continue to advance in the digital age, the peer review process is likely to evolve further, adapting to the changing landscape of scholarly communication. 

Whatever the future holds, peer review will continue to play a crucial role in the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of human understanding. In an era of rapid scientific progress, open access, and global collaboration, peer review stands as a testament to the enduring commitment to excellence in scientific publishing. It is both a gatekeeper and a beacon guiding the way toward the discovery and dissemination of knowledge that shapes our world.

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