A brief review of peer review: Where did it come from? Where is it going?

Peer review has a long history. We look at its past and present, and contemplate its future.

Peer review is a cornerstone of academic publishing. It’s supposed to ensure that published research is of a high standard by drawing on the knowledge of multiple experts in a field to make sure that the new information added to our understanding of that field is legitimate.

Ray Spier gives us that “the first documented description of a peer-review process is in a book called Ethics of the Physician by Ishap bin Ali Al Rahwi (CE 854—931) of Al Raha, Syria.” That book describes a council of physicians reviewing the notes of a doctor to determine whether his treatment of patients was up to par. This was a process that required hand-duplicating patient notes, and didn’t concern research.

What modern publishers might recognise as peer review did not take off until much later.

The model of peer review whereby a journal disseminates articles to experts in their field for review prior to publication—the one used in the preponderance of academic publishing today—is commonly thought to have originated with the Medical Essays and Observations published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1731. The process was established across the vast majority of publications by the mid-20th century.

Critics of the peer review process note that it is not infallible: reviewer bias is common, and the process can only assure the quality of the papers reviewed, not the data upon which they’re based. Despite that, it enjoys distinction as the gold-standard for quality assurance in academic publishing.

Today, peer review takes many forms, divided generally into “closed” and “open” systems and more specifically into types within those: single blind, double blind, signed, disclosed, and many others. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, although the growing popularity of open peer review practices—billed as encouraging greater transparency and therefore accountability—has become a point of interest.

Decades of criticism and conversation have resulted in these efforts to refine and improve the process, with various journals taking on different approaches over time. For example, Nature is one of the best-known peer reviewed journals—and by some metrics is the highest impact journal in the world. Their trial of transparent peer review, undertaken across the past few years, has garnered significant interest. Last year, the journal published that early reports of the process had been encouraging.

Technology has also contributed to changes in peer review, of course, as it has contributed to changes in just about everything else. The internet is an enabler of practically unlimited publishing, so its advent alleviated some of the resourcing costs of traditional academic publishing, which historically formed the impetus for rejecting otherwise high-quality and publishable articles. Additionally, the internet has been used since at least the 90s to provide open access to pre-print publications, exposing as-yet unreviewed research to anybody who chooses to look it up.

So, what’s the future of peer review? Well, it will be digitised, globalised and the pressure to review faster will probably only increase, but you knew that. In terms of the process, critics are searching outside the box for ways we can improve current practices. Some scholars of the last decade even suggest looking to the editorial practices of Wikipedia for inspiration.

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