What is peer review? How does it work? In this guide Sharon Boden forewarns those of you new to the process about the various practices, procedures and stages of peer reviewing.

Peer review

Although it is unlikely that you will ever look forward to being reviewed by your peers, understanding the how, when, and why of peer reviewing can help you get the most out of the experience.

What is peer review and why is it necessary?

The peer review process is a form of quality assurance. It is also called ‘refereeing’. During this process, experts in your field consider the merits of your work. They provide journal editors with an impartial decision about whether or not to publish, as well as how to improve an article already accepted for publication.

Although it may seem daunting at first, publishing in a peer-reviewed journal will help establish you as a credible contributor to the field. It shows that your peers consider your work worthy of being read, used and cited by others.

Types of peer review

  • Open: the identities of both author and reviewer are made known to each other
  • Blind: the author does not know the identity of the reviewer
  • Double blind: neither author nor reviewer knows the other’s identity

What do reviewers look for?

Reviewers typically set out an argument for or against publishing your article. Whilst reviewers evaluate technical or factual evidence they also consider writing style and presentation of ideas. Put simply, they review not just what you have to say but how you say it.

Reviewers are also asked to think about whether an article suits the style of the publication and the expectations of its audience. You want readers to notice your article amongst the journal’s other contents, but not because it sticks out like a sore thumb as being from someone new or inexperienced in publishing!

Questions that a peer reviewer asks:

  • Who will be interested in reading the paper and why?
  • What are the main claims of the paper and how significant or convincing are they?
  • Are the claims appropriately discussed in the context of previous literature?
  • Are research methods sufficiently detailed and is data analysis sound?
  • Is it clearly written and accessible to readers outside of the field?
  • How much would further work improve it? How difficult would this be and how long would it take?

These questions have been adapted from the peer review policy of the journal Nature.

What are the outcomes of peer review?

If your article is sent out for peer review it is likely that the editorial team have already read it to check that it is suitable for their journal. The outcomes of peer review vary, but often fall into one of the following scenarios:

  • Unconditional acceptance of the work.
  • Acceptance, but requiring certain improvements (usually minor).
  • Rejection, but with an invitation to resubmit after major revision.
  • Outright rejection.

You may be asked to respond to any feedback you receive from the reviewers as a condition of publication (with or without a time limit). If so, then describe your revisions in a ‘responses to reviewers’ document. This is best achieved in list form. Respond to each individual reviewer first and then explain any overarching changes to content or style.

The most useful reviewers provide you with suggestions and encouragement to make your work stronger. Whilst you may not always agree with them, their feedback is hopefully impartial and made with a view to upholding the journal’s quality.

What happens after the peer review process?

Once an article has been accepted for publication, there are often further quality checks.

Disclosures – Some journals require you to state and sign that the work is your own and has not been published elsewhere. They may also require you to disclose whether you have any interests (such as financial activities) that might influence your contribution. If your article has multiple authors, they may also want an indication of who was responsible for what work.

Retractions – Very occasionally, an already-published article is discovered to be seriously flawed, in which case it may need to be retracted. Retraction policies differ from journal to journal, but the main reasons for retracting a publication include plagiarism, faulty or unreliable data, or unethical research method or design. Such a situation may arise from either intentional misconduct or genuine error.

Corrections – These can be published in later issues of the journal to draw the reader’s attention to small but significant errors in the article, especially if correction of the error alters how the work is understood.

Publication errors – Similar to corrections, these are errors that have been made by the editorial team or production office instead of the author. These may include errors in tables or figures or the failure to change errors pointed out by the author during proofreading.

Do peer reviews occur in any other context?

Peer reviews can take place throughout your career – whether formal or informal in nature. They might form part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), conference/poster presentations, research bids or promotions, and they can be part of an institution’s internal measures of good practice.

Useful links

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has information on retraction policies, authorship disputes, and best practice guidelines for journal editors.

The peer review guidelines at the journal Science

The University of California’s 2011 report on peer reviewing

The British Medical Journal’s report on peer reviewing 

Image: Deutsche Fotothek, Wikicommons