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What is Peer Review?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 23, 2024

Peer review is a process in which a proposed publication is examined by people who are experts in the field which the publication concerns. These experts review the piece to look for errors and problems, determining whether or not the piece should be accepted for publication, grant money, awards, and other benefits. This process most commonly takes place in the sciences, where peer review is a cornerstone, although academics in fields like history may also put their work through a similar process.

This process is designed to catch errors, flaws, and issues with pieces which their authors may have missed. It assumes that everyone makes mistakes, sometimes fundamental ones, and that the benefit of a second pair of eyes can be extremely useful. Peer review is also used to ensure that pieces conform with generally accepted views and standards in the community, although it is not used to detect fraud, plagiarism, and other acts of dishonesty on the part of the author, with the review panel assuming that the author's intentions are honorable.

In many cases, peer review is anonymous, which means that when a piece is submitted, the author has no control over who is on the review panel, and he or she is not given the names of the people on the panel. Sometimes, the author's identity is obscured as well, to avoid bias on the part of the panel. Open review, in which the names of all parties involved are freely exchanged, has been growing in popularity.

Peer-reviewed publications tend to be viewed as more respectable and credible, both because they have been reviewed for errors, and because submission to peer reviewers suggests that an author welcomes insight and criticism from the community. Many scientific magazines and publications only accept pieces which have been peer reviewed, and some maintain their own panels reviewers.

The major flaw in this system is that it tends to be slow, and can delay publication for months or years, even when the information is of great interest or critical importance. It can also be difficult to find qualified reviewers, especially for works in esoteric, obscure, or cross-disciplinary fields. If a publication is being written by the premier specialist in a very small field, for example, it can be hard to find someone who would be appropriate for peer reviewing, let alone a panel of readers who can examine and discuss the piece.

When a submission is peer reviewed, there are usually four possible outcomes. The first and best is an acceptance without qualifications, meaning that the piece is deemed more or less perfect. The second is an acceptance with caveats, meaning that the author must make revisions for the piece to be accepted. Next is a rejection with an encouragement to revise and resubmit, suggesting that the work has merit, but the piece was too flawed to consider for publication. Finally, a piece can be simply rejected with comment.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By stl156 — On Sep 04, 2012

@JimmyT - The process isn't as hard as you might think. The real challenge is making sure you have a good experiment that has been scientifically designed and can pass a peer review on those grounds. As part of your graduate project, this should already be taken care of. Different graduate advisers take difference stances on having their students submit journal articles, but it should be in everyone's best interest for them to help you out. Just ask about the process, and they can help guide you through it.

As far as writing the article, every journal will have peer review guidelines posted on their website. This will tell you what sections to have and how to cite sources. Programs like Endnote are a huge help.

For more guidance on the whole process, I would highly suggest you check the library for a book called "How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper" by Robert Day. It is a pretty thorough guide.

By JimmyT — On Sep 03, 2012

I have just gotten into grad school and am worried about the whole peer review process. Apparently, we are evaluated at the time we do our defense, and one of the criteria is whether or not you have submitted an article to a peer reviewed journal. The problem is that I really don't even know how to go about doing it.

I have read a lot of journal articles while I was an undergrad, but I don't know anything about the per review evaluation process. Can I even submit stuff to the journals? I thought it was just professors that did that.

Besides all of that, I don't even know what to write about. How do you go about writing the actual papers and submitting them? How hard is it to get accepted to the journals?

By jmc88 — On Sep 03, 2012

@Izzy78 - It is good that your professor is assigning you assignments where you have to read and understand journal articles. As you will find, they are much different than reading things out of textbooks. The name of the game with peer reviewed articles is to be organized and fit as much information as you can into the least amount of space.

Since you've been given an assignment that needs journal articles, I am willing to guess that your university subscribes to a lot of different journals. Just go to your school's library webpage and look around for a search feature. There should be a way to search for journal articles from there. I also like using Google Scholar, since you can search a lot of sources at one.

As you progress, you'll start to learn what the important journals are in your field and what types of research they publish. Good luck!

By Izzy78 — On Sep 02, 2012

This article really helped me understand what a peer reviewed article was. I didn't realize that there were things like this that existed. I just started college, and my professor gave us a writing assignment and said that we had to use at least 2 peer reviewed sources.

Are articles in a peer reviewed journal the only things that fall under this category? For example, are complete books ever peer reviewed? How can you tell?

Finally, now that I know what they are, where can I find peer reviewed articles? I searched online, but you have to have a subscription to a lot of the journals that I want to look at. Are there free ones anywhere?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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