Peer Review as We Know It

Jan 15, 2023 | Scholarly publishing

The peer-review process is a funny old beast. It’s an imperfect system that varies from journal to journal and everyone has an opinion on the best way to manage it: the authors should/shouldn’t be anonymous, the reviewers should/shouldn’t be rewarded, there should be a maximum of two reviewers, there should be a minimum of three… the list goes on.


But where does the concept of peer review come from – and just how long have we been deciding whether or not to publish new research in this way?


Just how old is it?

According to some sources, the concept can be traced back to ancient Greece; however it is more popularly attributed to Henry Oldenburg, the first editor of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London which launched in 1665 (fun fact – it’s still in print!). It would be roughly three centuries before peer review would really take off, however, with the academic editors making a judgement call themselves on whether or not to publish a paper. There is a famous story of Einstein being mortally offended when, in 1939, an academic editor had the audacity to consult with external reviewers on a paper he’d submitted without obtaining permission from him to share it prior to publication.


Why should deciding internally have been the norm for so long, however? Surely getting an independent set of eyes or two on new research makes sense – especially since the concept had been around for so long? Well, it may have made sense, but the problem wasn’t just cultural, it was practical.


It wasn’t so long ago that papers would have to be written on a typewriter, or even by hand. In order to be distributed, they would need to be copied out by hand. The reviewers would then need to be contacted by post and there was the danger of manuscripts/reviews being lost, thereby having to start the process of coping/sending all over again. In the majority of cases, it simply wasn’t feasible.


So what changed?

Distribution of papers amongst experts became a somewhat easier task (albeit still dependent on snail mail) with the invention of the Xerox machine. Which was just as well, as the expansion of scientific endeavours with new fields developing at an alarming rate during the 20th century, meant that it became increasingly difficult for academic editors to have enough of an overview of their fields to continue making judgment calls without seeking second opinions.


By the 1970s, external review was becoming the standard procedure, and the phrase “peer review” seems to have been coined at around this time. With the arrival of the internet – and, more importantly, email – the whole process became a far more streamlined proposition as we were now able to quickly and easily send files out to experts anywhere in the world without being at the mercy of the postage system.


More recently this has been taken one step further with most journals now running their peer review via an online submission system such as ScholarOne Manuscripts or Editorial Manager, much to the relief of those of us who remember running journals from an Excel spreadsheet. Although naturally a vast improvement on snail mail and filing cabinets, the spreadsheets/email system was not without its problems (but more on that here).


What’s next for peer review?

The interesting thing about the review process – be it external or internal – is that it’s always evolving to meet the needs of the scientific community, with new ideas being incorporated and new technologies being employed as and when they become available. So it’s hard to predict where it will go next – but we’re excited to find out!


Further reading

Peer Review – A Historical Perspective

A brief history of peer review

The Rise of Peer Review: Melinda Baldwin on the History of Refereeing at Scientific Journals and Funding Bodies