What is peer review?
Reviewers play a pivotal role in scholarly publishing. The peer review system exists to validate academic work, helps to improve the quality of published research, and increases networking possibilities within research communities. Despite criticisms, peer review is still the only widely accepted method for research validation and has continued successfully with relatively minor changes for some 350 years.
Elsevier relies on the peer review process to uphold the quality and validity of individual articles and the journals that publish them.
Peer review has been a formal part of scientific communication since the first scientific journals appeared more than 300 years ago. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is thought to be the first journal to formalize the peer review process under the editorship of Henry Oldenburg (1618- 1677).
Despite many criticisms about the integrity of peer review, the majority of the research community still believes peer review is the best form of scientific evaluation. This opinion was endorsed by the outcome of a survey Elsevier and Sense About Science conducted in 2009 and has since been further confirmed by other publisher and scholarly organization surveys. Furthermore, a 2015 survey by the Publishing Research Consortium, saw 82 percent of researchers agreeing that “without peer review there is no control in scientific communication.”
To learn more about peer review, visit Elsevier’s free e-learning platform Researcher Academy.
The peer review process
Types of peer review
Peer review comes in different flavours: you must therefore check which variant is employed by the journal on which you are working so you’re aware of the respective rules. Each system has its own advantages and disadvantages. Often one type of review will be preferred by a subject community but there is an increasing call towards more transparency around the peer review process. In case of questions regarding the peer review model employed by the journal for which you have been invited to review, consult the journal’s homepage or contact the editorial office directly.
Single blind review
In this type of review, the names of the reviewers are hidden from the author. This is the traditional method of reviewing and is the most common type by far. Points to consider regarding single blind review include:
- Reviewer anonymity allows for impartial decisions – the reviewers should not be influenced by the authors.
- Authors may be concerned that reviewers in their field could delay publication, giving the reviewers a chance to publish first.
- Reviewers may use their anonymity as justification for being unnecessarily critical or harsh when commenting on the authors’ work.
Both the reviewer and the author are anonymous in this model. Some advantages of this model are listed below.
- Author anonymity limits reviewer bias, for example based on an author's gender, country of origin, academic status or previous publication history.
- Articles written by prestigious or renowned authors are considered on the basis of the content of their papers, rather than their reputation.
But bear in mind that despite the above, reviewers can often identify the author through their writing style, subject matter or self-citation – it is exceedingly difficult to guarantee total author anonymity. More information for authors can be found in our double-blind peer review guidelines.
With triple-blind review, reviewers are anonymous and the author's identity is unknown to both the reviewers and the editor. Articles are anonymized at the submission stage and are handled in such a way to minimize any potential bias towards the author(s). However, it should be noted that:
- the complexities involved with anonymizing articles/authors to this level are considerable
- as with double-blind review; there is still a possibility for the editor and/or reviewers to correctly divine the author’s identity from their style, subject matter, citation patterns or a number of other methodologies
Open peer review is an umbrella term for many different models aiming at greater transparency during and after the peer review process. The most common definition of open review is when both the reviewer and author are known to each other during the peer review process. Other types of open peer review consist of:
- publication of reviewers’ names on the article page.
- publication of peer review reports alongside the article, whether signed or anonymous.
- publication of peer review reports (signed or anonymous) together with authors’ and editors’ responses alongside the article.
- publication of the paper after a quick check and opening a discussion forum to the community who can comment (named or anonymous).
Many believe this is the best way to prevent malicious comments, stop plagiarism, prevent reviewers from following their own agenda, and encourage open, honest reviewing. Others see open review as a less honest process, in which politeness or fear of retribution may cause a reviewer to withhold or tone down criticism.
For three years, five Elsevier journals experimented with publication of peer review reports (signed or anonymous) as articles alongside the accepted paper on ScienceDirect (example).
More transparent peer review
In general transparency is the key to trust in peer review. Many Elsevier journals therefore publish the name of the article’s handling editor on the published paper on ScienceDirect. Some journals also provide details about the number of reviewers who reviewed the article before acceptance.
Furthermore, in order to provide updates and feedback to reviewers, most Elsevier journals inform reviewers about the editor’s decision and their peers’ recommendations.
Article transfer service: peer review cascade
Elsevier authors can transfer their article submission from one journal to another for free if they are rejected, without the need to reformat, and often without needing further peer review. For this reason, reviewers are informed about the service and are asked for their consent for transferring their review report along with the manuscript to the receiver journal. Reviewers are given the option to reveal their identity to the editor of the receiver journal or stay anonymous. The benefits of manuscript review cascades are twofold:
- Reviewers are not asked to review the same manuscript several times for different journals.
- Authors do not need to spend additional time reformatting their manuscript.
Tools and resources
- Chapter 2 of Academic and Professional Publishing, 2012, by Irene Hames in 2012
- "Is Peer Review in Crisis?" Perspectives in Publishing No 2, August 2004, by Adrian Mulligan
- “The history of the peer-review process” Trends in Biotechnology, 2002, by Ray Spier