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Peer Review in 3 Minutes

Peer Review - A Basic Definition

Peer review is integral to scholarly research.  It is the process whereby publishers of scholarly journals send a copy of a submitted article to one or more experts working in the same field.  These peer reviewers -- sometimes called referees -- evaluate the quality of the research and the paper describing it by asking questions like:

  • was the literature review comprehensive in order to properly contextualize the current study and demonstrate its relevance to the field;
  • was the research design appropriate for the hypothesis being tested;
  • was the data collected sufficient; and,
  • do the conclusions follow logically from the results of the experiment?

Only after passing through peer review will an article be published.  The process can take months, but this level of scrutiny is intended to ensure the relevancy, integrity, accuracy, and objectivity of published research that comprises the scholarly record.

Types of Peer Review

Types of Peer Review

 There are several forms of peer review.  They are listed here from the most to the least rigorous:

o    Double Blind or Blind Peer Review: Submitted research articles are sent to peer reviewers outside of the journal’s publishing or sponsoring organization.  In Double Blind, neither the author nor the reviewers know each other’s identities to support objectivity and impartiality.

o    Editorial Board Peer Review: Submitted research articles are reviewed by an internal board of editors and not solely by one editor. Author’s identity may be known or unknown to the reviewing editors.

o    Open Peer Review: Submitted research articles are reviewed by experts, and both the experts and the author are aware of each other’s identity. Sometimes authors are encouraged to suggest possible reviewers.  

The journal editor receives the manuscript with comments back from the expert reviewer(s) and forwards them to the author with one of four common recommendations:

1) publish as is;
2) needs revision to correct errors or answer certain questions;
3) does not fit the focus of the journal; or,
4) not suitable for publication.

It is important to note that the phrase "peer review" is sometimes used to refer to an entire journal and at other times used to refer to a specific article.  Each one means something different, which is discussed below.

(This section adapted from the University of Minnesota Bio-Medical Library)

Peer Review at the Journal & Article Level

What Peer Review Means at the Journal Level

Phrases like peer reviewed journalscholarly journalacademic journal and refereed journal are used interchangeably to distinguish this type of publication from more popular sources like magazines and newspapers.  Watch this 3-minute video from McMaster University for more on scholarly versus popular:

Scholarly vs. Popular Sources

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors offers a formal definition of a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal:

 

"A peer-reviewed journal is one that has submitted most of its published articles for review by experts who are not part of the editorial staff. The numbers and kinds of manuscripts sent for review, the number of reviewers, the reviewing procedures and the use made of the reviewers’ opinions may vary, and therefore each journal should publicly disclose its policies in the Instructions to Authors for the benefit of readers and potential authors."  (2001)

The keyword in this definition is most.  This means that not everything in a peer-reviewed journal has actually gone through this process. Some content is peer reviewed, while other content is not.  So how can you tell?  You have to look at the individual article to decide if an article is peer-reviewed even if it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, which takes us to ...

 

Peer Review at the Article Level

Once you have determined that the journal is peer-reviewed, you need to determine what type of article you have.  Remember, not all articles in peer-reviewed journals are peer-reviewed!  While primary research articles are always peer-reviewed, secondary articles may or may not be peer-reviewed, and things like book reviews and editorials are not peer reviewed:

 

What types of articles are included in a peer reviewed journal?

  • Primary Research Articles (always peer reviewed)
  • Secondary Review Articles (sometimes peer reviewed)
  • News (not peer reviewed)
  • Letters to the Editor (not peer reviewed)
  • Job Announcements (not peer reviewed)
  • Obituaries (not peer reviewed)
  • Book Reviews (not peer reviewed)