While the story of the research paper peer review is much shorter than the history of the universe, it deserves our full attention (pun intended). Remembering the past is inevitably the key to understanding the present and making the right decisions in the future. This article gives a compact view on:
- What is peer review
- Why is it important
- History of peer review
Those of you interested mainly in the historical facts and data around peer review should skip the first two sections since you might already have the first-hand experience with peer review one way or another.
WHAT IS PEER REVIEW
Research results are best judged by other researchers ideally working in the same field. Since the dawn of humanity, it has been hard to avoid being biased about one's own work. Thus we need others to judge the fruit of our effort. This is especially valid in research, which by definition ventures outside the known and established knowledge and practices. The preeminent medium for communicating research is a research paper. Peer review is the process a research paper goes through before it can be published.
“Peer review is a process where competent researchers judge a paper on its worthiness of being published in a research journal.”
As you can imagine, pushing the boundaries of knowledge even in fields like electrical engineering creates a wide grey zone in the decision-making process about the novelty and value of any paper. The grey zone is further stretched by today's’ reality of increased competition in academia due to an ever-growing number of people in the race to become a professor.
WHY IS PEER REVIEW IMPORTANT
To this day, a review of a paper by another human being is indispensable. For more than a hundred years, automation has helped increase the speed, volume, and possibilities of industrial production and manufacturing of machines we use daily. The AI being in its infancy is barely capable of recognizing a cat from a dog, so reviewing even the mere technical soundness of a complex text with regard to other papers already published is a far cry from being done by a machine.
One also cannot overlook the tendency of obvious players in the AI arena to focus on rather mundane matters like politics - targeting deep fakes at triggering or fooling people rather than any noble purpose.
The peer review is not going bye-bye any time soon. But, with the swelling amount of grad students per single office and the number of reviewers growing much slower, there has to be a breaking point to the volume of research output.
An important part of the academic career, peer review is often perceived and received with a vast spectrum of opinions. While everyone would agree it is necessary to ‘maintain publication / journal quality’, it very much depends on which side of peer review you are. The mechanics of peer review are a minefield - there is often little consistency in navigating the process. This is also part of the reasons why authors stick to a few journals to publish in, establish their name, and get better at fitting the expectations of a particular pool of reviewers.
The idea that researchers read journals prevails over the reality of searching for anything and everything on the internet. The paper base of favorite journals is more narrow compared to what a random internet search can provide, given one has the patience and time to thoroughly examine the search results beyond the top of the first page.
PEER REVIEW HISTORY
In 1752, London, UK, a ‘committee on papers’ was established within the organizational structure of the Royal Society to assess the papers to be published by two or more readers with a background in a given topic of Philosophical Transactions . Other sources point out the Royal Society of Edinburgh had a similar way of paper evaluation in place already in 1731 .
In his book , Mario Biagioli argues that the origin of journal papers peer review was preceded by a review process of academic books before publishing in the seventeenth century. The royal license was a must in order to legally sell printed works. Without it, one risked being accused of heresy or anti-state activities. Such power of censorship was relegated to the royal societies by the Roman church at their founding. The condition was they passed a resolution stating that any book printed by them will be read by two of the council members and will contain only information ‘suitable for the work of the society.’
This kind of ‘review’ sounds more like a way to ensure the veto right on any prospective print, in other words, censorship. Where traditional book licensing made sure the books did not make unacceptable claims, the review process just outlined made sure whatever the books contained was deemed good by the right group of people.
The members of the societies often had close ties if not direct involvement in the government making their livelihoods depend on the state. No wonder that the ‘peer review’ had a double meaning. On one side, there was the review by the peers, and on the other by the peers of the common prominent club.
“In many cases, traditions last not because they are excellent, but because influential people are averse to change and because of the sheer burden of transition to a better state.” 
Progressively, the state-facilitated censorship transformed into a self-correcting mechanism we know as peer review today. The shift from early autocracy and improved autonomy propelled the peer review into a position of the workhorse of technical accuracy despite some of the early attraction to authoritative approval lingers to this day.
Peer review precedes the research journals, finding its roots in a thorough examination of the prospective members of the royal societies on their experimentation, publishing, or invention. The early fellows commonly read papers during the meetings or exchanged letters among themselves to get feedback and response on their latest discoveries. Peer review as a part of the publishing process in research journals appeared as a natural extension of society activities and it was not necessarily focused on quality control. The members of society were rather helping the editor select the papers for publication.
The responsibility for the soundness and integrity of the content of papers laid on the shoulders of authors themselves. The early review process helped journal editors of that age extend their publishing activities, not ensure quality control. The quality of the publications did not depend on the review process and neither the authority of the editor. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century that the peer review as we know it today became a common practice, given the two historical facts of peer review being a means of government censorship and not being a quality control mechanism.
Despite the history of what we call peer review today is somewhat shorter than academics might often believe, it uncompromisingly took roots so deep it is hard to imagine even the slightest possible change and even less so the future without it. Experiments such as ArXive or Natures’ failed ‘open peer review’ test challenge the traditional view on how the quality of publications can be treated. Nevertheless, blind peer review with its numerous grievances remains the most common way of filtering the real science from.
What is your opinion on this topic? What kind of peer review would you prefer? Or are you in favor of the current system? Let us know in comments!
Source: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Planned obsolescence,” NYU Press, 2011.
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