The review process for manuscripts submitted to peer review journals is one of the most common issues I get questioned about when I meet authors. I am asked what type of review process my journal uses and what the purpose and advantages and disadvantages of the various review processes are. I think these questions arise from curiosity and poor experiences with submitted manuscripts. Also, some authors expect a degree of certainty in the process which, as editors, we cannot provide. For example, I am often asked why one journal will reject a manuscript and another will accept it. My answer is that peer reviewing is not a scientific process; it is a process based on people and the judgements they make; people differ in their expertise, opinions, and experience. I also emphasize that reviewers for peer review journals do not make the decisions about which manuscripts to accept or reject; they provide a view on a manuscript which aids the editors in making a decision.
Types of peer review
There are, essentially, two types of peer review: closed and open. The former is more common, but the latter is gaining in popularity. Authors and reviewers will encounter both.
Closed peer review is a system where the identities of the reviewers are not disclosed in the journal or to authors, and the identities of authors may not be disclosed, during the review process, to the reviewers. Of course, the reviewers can identify the authors after publication. Closed review works in two ways: single-blind and double-blind. Single blind review works by revealing the names of authors to reviewers while withholding the names of reviewers from authors. In double-blind peer review—as described above—identities of authors and reviewers are mutually withheld.
Open peer review, in contrast, operates a more transparent approach to peer review. Identities of authors and reviewers are mutually disclosed and, furthermore, reviews are sometimes published alongside the published articles. This system is becoming increasingly popular and is often applied by open access journals.
Pros and cons
There is no consensus on which of these peer review systems is best and it is agreed that both closed and open peer review have good points and bad; likewise single- versus double-blind peer review. The principle behind closed review is to minimize the bias of reviewers who may be influenced by the identity of the authors and to protect the reviewers from authors who may take exception to adverse reviews and rejections. The principle of only protecting reviewers operates in single-blind review. While it is always possible to protect the identity of reviewers during and after the review process, it is often possible for reviewers to identify authors by virtue of the work that is being reviewed.
Moreover, even when the author cannot be identified, reviewers may take exception to a line of work for reasons that are not concerned with the science or because the work competes with or refutes some of their own work. Therefore, the advantages of the system—minimizing bias and protecting identities—may be undermined by prejudice on behalf of reviewers.
As an ‘antidote’ to some of the issues raised by closed review, open review introduces transparency. By mutually revealing identities, the potential for bias by reviewers is attenuated by accountability to authors and readers. The advantages of this system may be outweighed by less-than-honest comments from reviewers who feel unable to be frank about the work.. On the other hand, the potential for unhelpful and inappropriate comments is reduced. Neither of the above systems of review-closed or open-is capable of completely obviating the problems they are designed to address.
Some modern variants have been proposed and one is post-publication review. To a large extent, post-publication review had always existed as it has always been possible, for example, to correspond with authors and journals about their publications and authors may choose to publish refutations and rejoinders. In recent years the rise of social media has facilitated and accelerated the exchange of views on scientific publications. However, post-publication review is also proposed as a more radical and dynamic process whereby articles are published without pre-publication review and are altered thereafter in response to post-publication comments. This system has not yet ‘caught on’ but has supporters including Richard Smith, the former editor of the BMJ.
Another variation on the theme of closed review is triple blind review whereby, not only are authors and reviewers blind to each other’s identities but where editors are also blind to the identity of both. This is aimed at minimizing bias among editors but does not eliminate the possibility of identifying authors by their work or of bias against competing work. Again, there is little evidence that it is used commonly and it requires journals which can afford the administrative staff and processes.
The process of peer review, mainly in publishing but also in other aspects of academic life, came under the scrutiny of the British government and other bodies after some accusations about biased publishing in the field of climate science. The scrutiny was in-depth and prolonged. The conclusion was that the peer review system in its various manifestations was far from perfect, but that it was the best available and should continue.
For more on peer review processes, listen to my podcast on the subject.