What is peer review and why is it important?
What is peer review?
Peer review is the process where an academic author’s work is subjected to the examination of other experts in the same field as part of the journal publication process.
First of all, peer review complements but is entirely different from, editorial review.
Technically speaking, an editorial review is the first and third stage of review of manuscripts submitted by researchers to scholarly journals, and peer review is, as a rule, the second stage of this process. Peer review is different, because, instead of a faculty reading carefully the arguments and research findings that form a scholarly article of a researcher, and giving their opinion as to its scientific quality, they will today outsource it to (usually, two anonymous) peer reviewers.
Peer review is complementary to editorial review, because today, editorial review screens the overall compatibility of the article with the editorial guidelines of the scholarly journal in question. If a journal is large or leading in a given scientific field, and, especially, if a journal is multi-disciplinary, a manuscript is usually assigned to one of its sections’ editor. If a journal’s scope and reach are narrower and / or the journal is rather ‘young’, a manuscript can go directly to its general editors or editors-in-chief. In both cases, a preliminary editorial review generally aims at identifying whether the manuscript:
- sufficiently satisfies the editorial guidelines of that journal;
- is likely to provide clear scientific contribution and implications for the domain in question; and
- has some likelihood to be favourably evaluated by the journal’s peer reviewers.
Note that, while the quality of the manuscript is a decisive criterion for its screening in / out at the pre-peer review stage, a manuscript may be rejected by the editors for a variety of reasons, including subject matter interest, and sometimes even simply pipeline management—namely, too many articles on the same topic. When a submitted manuscript fails to satisfy one or more of these criteria, a decision is made to return the manuscript instead of sending it to peer reviewers as a part of the journal’s (typically, double-blind) peer review process.
Secondly, and consequently, peer review may provide some guarantee of scholarly excellence.
Indeed, the term ‘peer review’ means the review, mostly blind, of researchers’ manuscripts by their peers who are experts in the field in question. The criteria that peer reviewers use are quite common for any discipline: the choice of topic, the originality of the principal argument, the novelty of empirical data, coherent approach, method, and the structure of the paper, and the like. However, there are a few nuances here, too.
At this—second—stage of scholarly review, peer reviewers assess much more thoroughly than the journal editors at the previous stage whether the submission provides clear scientific contribution and implications for the scientific area in question. However, the results of the review by peers are recommendations to the journal editors instead of a categorical Yes / No verdict. Also, most scholarly journals in any scientific discipline classify article submissions into at least three general categories:
Moreover, the ‘Accept’ category is most commonly divided into ‘Accept in its current form’ and ‘Accept with minor revisions’. Note that in most cases, the authors must carry out at least some revisions. After the first (and often the only) round of peer review and taking into account the peer reviewers’ recommendations, the journal editors decide to accept, revise, or reject the manuscript. After revisions, except when the article was accepted in its current form, the journal editors then send the revised manuscript back to the same peer reviewers. However, a very average rate of refusal to peer review the original manuscripts in any discipline is as high as 50 per cent. So, the refusal rate (or only the problem of tardiness) to peer review the revised articles is even higher (except in the case of ‘Revise & Resubmit’, when the same peer reviewers must, in principle, read the revised paper). Indeed, there is only so much peer-reviewing that one can do, as peer reviewers are commonly unpaid in the case of most scientific journals, and surely, in the most reputed ones.
Consequently, once a paper is revised following the peer reviewers’ recommendations on the original manuscript, in at least half of the cases, it is the journal editors who make the final decision on some additional revisions and updates, and, ultimately, publication.
To sum up, both the first stage (preliminary editorial review or screening) and second stage (peer review) are essential. But the most critical test for a manuscript to pass is, of course, peer review. If peer reviewers recommended accepting the manuscript in its current form, accepting with minor revisions, or at least revising and resubmitting it, this means that generally, the submission passed the most challenging stage successfully. The third stage (second editorial review or ‘review of peer review’) depends on each particular journal but is commonly more comfortable to deal with.
The question that naturally follows the above is ‘how to maximize the chances of the manuscript being screened in by the journal editors, and especially positively evaluated and recommended to at least revise and resubmit, by peer reviewers?’ We address this question below.
Back to basics: methodology and overall form
While it depends on the scientific field and even the journal in question, the introduction of a research article today should, in principle, address the following:
- Why the topic is vital from the societal—political, social, economic—and only then the researcher’s discipline point of view (Importance);
- A (brief!) overview of existing literature and / or state-of-the-art (Gaps);
- Why this study is necessary today, what will it do—for the discipline, and, if possible, for the society as a whole (Contribution);
- The fundamental theoretical approach (Approach);
- A detailed methodology (Research question, methods and analysis); and
- A very clear structure of the article (Structure).
Regarding the methodology, which is most of the time the most criticised item by peer reviewers, the following structure may be of help:
- Theoretical framework: depends on the discipline.
- Data: could be textual (texts, typically used in humanities), empirical (experimentation, observations, interviews, statistics—widely used in natural and social sciences), or mixed.
- Analysis: is the way(s) you analyse your data. The analysis of texts is mostly theoretical, as opposed to empirical data, which is most typically analysed qualitatively and /or quantitatively.
- Results: are the results of your analysis of the data chosen according to your theoretical framework.
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