What is Peer Review?

Peer review is the process by which scholar’s assess the quality and accuracy of one another’s research papers. Peer review is most frequently employed within academia, where professors evaluate each others' work before it is published in major academic research journals.

Key Takeaways

  • Peer review is the process by which academic researchers check each other's work for quality before publication.
  • Peer review is analogous to reporters proofreading and fact checking each other’s articles, but follows a much more complicated, laborious, and lengthy process.
  • Peer review has been criticized on a number of grounds including potential conflicts of interest, timeliness, and actual quality achieved.

Understanding Peer Review

Peer review is the process that decides which academic results and articles get published, or not,  in academic journals. Peer review is intended to provide quality assurance as to the validity of scientific findings and to prevent the publication of faulty research. 

Under peer review, scientists and academics review each other’s research and writing to check that the methods, results, and conclusions are correct or at least consistent with accepted standards in their respective fields. Along these lines, many theories in economics and finance are peer reviewed before they are published in journals and subsequently make their way to market practitioners and investors.

Peer review is analogous to journalists at a newspaper proofreading, fact checking, and editing each other’s articles, or engineers on  project checking each other’s measurements and calculations. The system of limiting peer review among other academics is used because, in much high-level academic work, there are relatively few experts in the world with sufficient knowledge to properly critique new research findings or theoretical developments. In the same way that an average person would not be asked to check an engineer’s work, nonscientists are generally not expected to be able to rigorously judge the quality of scientific research results.

Criticisms of Peer Review

The peer review process has sometimes been criticized on a number of grounds. 

Accountability and Conflicts of Interest

Peer review is sometimes criticized where reviewers are perceived to be unfair in their assessments of manuscripts. Since review is most often anonymous for both the author(s) and reviewers - known as double blind peer review - there is little accountability for the reviewers. This can lead to problems where, for instance, reviewers may be biased against work which is not in accordance with mainstream theory, their own personal ideologies or training, or the interests of their funders. Peer review may thus function as a barrier to maintain established orthodoxies, rather than assuring quality research and create other conflicts of interest for researchers, publishers, and reviewers. 

Timeliness

In addition, peer review is often a slow and laborious process. Journal editors must find suitable peer reviewers (sometimes called referees) to appraise and assess the rigor and contribution of new research. The journal editor will solicit several scholars in the field who are likely to be familiar with the topic and methodology involved in the reviewed paper. Ideally more than one reviewer agrees to review and submit a report to the author and editor. If the editor cannot find a suitable reviewer, it may take several weeks merely to assign peer reviewers. 

Then, the reviewers are given several weeks to read the manuscript and write a report that evaluates the research. Sometimes, different reviewers of the same paper will reach different conclusions as to its quality or worthiness for publication, at which point the editor or editorial board must make the ultimate decision to accept, suggest an R&R, or reject.

Since peer review often goes through several rounds of revising, it may take several months or even years to complete the process. Even if reviewers suggest an article should be revised and resubmitted (an R&R), the updated paper may still meet rejection in the end. Critics argue that due to these factors peer review is only suitable for content that is not at all time sensitive. 

Professional Incentives and Quality

Peer review may not always produce the rigorous quality control desired. Since publishing in journals the key to job tenure and promotion in academia, navigating the peer review process is vital to career progression for university and college professors.

However, reviewing work does not bring prestige in the way that generating new research does. Thus, reviewing others' work is often a lower priority, and is often delegated to graduate assistants rather than full qualified academics. These issues call into question the actual quality of the peer review process.