Peer Review – Definition, Types, and Examples

Time to read: 6 Minutes
Peer-review-Definition

Peer review is a systematic, academic process that uses feedback from a panel of experts (i.e. peers) to verify and improve independent research for publication.

Peer Review – In a Nutshell

  • Peer review is a set method that lets experts review and edit submitted work. Academic papers are marked to set criteria by an accredited panel. Peer review guarantees credible sources.
  • It uses direct and indirect communication between an author and an anonymous panel to prevent bias. Five degrees of stringency exist.
  • Peer review helps improve validity, accuracy, ease of reading, and clarity. ‘Blind’ referees guard authors and journals against nepotism, ‘poaching’, reputational publishing, and favoritism.
  • The process isn’t without flaws. Critics highlight easy circumvention, stealth plagiarism, slow turnarounds, and irrelevant or overly harsh feedback as acute issues.

Definition: Peer Review

Peer review works by having professional, topical experts apply relevant marking criteria to submitted papers. After a thorough assessment, the peers will summarize their opinions on overall quality and suitability. An editor will then approve or reject it for publication.

Reviewers will send back their constructive criticism and suggest relevant edits to the author. Reviews are multi-stage – one paper may be rejected, changed, and re-reviewed multiple times before eventual approval.

Peer-approved works are considered credible sources. Credibility means work is considered novel, accurate, and trusted for use in the ‘real world’. You can safely cite approved work as secondary sources in your original essays.

Peer assessment is similar but more subjective, qualitative, and personal. Reviewers will mutually assess written work as an open group, highlight strengths, and suggest potential improvements. Peer assessment can help prepare new students while encouraging critical thinking.1

The purpose of peer review

A review allows research groups to create quality sources that move beyond individual observations, speculation, or common knowledge. Research, public, and private institutions often use reviews to pool their existing knowledge, improve proposals, and develop better theories.

The five types of peer review

We divide review methodologies by ‘known’ and ‘blind’ author-peer relationships. Journals will generally pick their best match and stick to it.

Single-blind peer review

A single-blind review is straightforward. A paper is reviewed by anonymous, expert adjudicator(s) who are unknown to the author. The author has no active input or right to reply until they’re finished.

The single-blind process is easy to understand and can happen remotely. Anonymity is meritocratic and helps prevent reviewer bias, favoritism, and nepotism. Author exclusion also limits undue first-person influence.

However, single-blind has exploitable flaws. Critics argue that limited anonymity permits circumvention, bullying by proxy, unwarranted harshness in remarks, and stealth plagiarism.

Double-blind peer review

Double-blind reviews add extra security. The author and reviewer(s) are now both unknown to each other. Papers pass back and forth through a neutral third party.

Two-way anonymity helps guard against the issues described above. Double-blind reviews can also remove unfair reputational bias – the expectation that a previously excellent author will continue producing quality work.

Nothing is perfect. With double-blind in play, unscrupulous authors can defeat safeguards with intense effort. Silent plagiarism is, again, a significant risk.

Triple-blind peer review

A triple-blind review is the ultimate in anonymity. While tricky to pull off, hiding absolutely all participants effectively prevents circumvention, conflicts of interest, fraud, and bias. However, triple-blind reviews can be costly, time-consuming, and prone to ruinous accidental identity leaks.

Collaborative review

A collaborative review grants the author(s) an active right to respond to criticism from the reviewers as it comes in. Peer collaborations take place via letter exchange, instant messenger, phone, or another anonymized direct communication method.

An instant right to reply turns the review into a discussion forum, in which ideas and concepts are debated and clarified faster. However, reviewers must always ensure their communication link is fast, stable, and reliable.

Open review

Open reviews are the opposite of blind. Everyone knows the identities of everyone. Anyone interested (within reason) may join in reviews.

However, openness may not be realistic or desirable for select papers. Open reviews may also soften justifiably harsh critiques of sub-par work due to public politeness, stopping beneficial changes.

The four steps of the peer review process

There are four simple yet essential steps to every review.2

  • Submission – The paper is read by an (expert) editor.
  • Selection – The editor considers the work. They will either approve publication, reject it entirely, or send the paper for a full review.
  • Peer Review.
  • Return – The paper is returned to the author with critiques and suggested alterations. The author edits and resubmits.

Providing peer review feedback

If you want to run your own review? You’ll need to know what creates excellent and welcome criticism.

Create a summary

Every good academic has something concrete to argue. Sometimes, an author might try to disguise a weak, inconclusive, or vague argument by obscuring it in clever, well-written prose – sophistry.

Summarizing the argument and evidence presented in bullet points can help you see if the author really has something substantive to say. With decent papers? It’ll highlight the main threads and themes for quick reference.3

Distinguish between major and minor issues

It’s crucial to identify and prioritize your suggested fixes. Dividing your criticisms into major and minor helps authors focus and respond efficiently.

Major issues include flaws in the paper’s central argument, prose, or factual accuracy. Minor problems include spelling, punctuation, and mild citation errors. Choose at your discretion.3

Put yourself in the author’s shoes

Unnecessarily harsh, personal, irrelevant, or unwarranted criticism hurts! Any justified, constructive criticism you make should always be:

  • Accurate
  • Actionable (i.e. Is a Fix Possible?)
  • Constructive
  • Proportionate (To Error)
  • Thorough

Avoid personal attacks against the author, wholesale value judgments (e.g. “rubbish”), and relentless negativity. It’s also worth highlighting what was good frequently. Mixed and reasonable appraisals soften the impact.2

Example of a peer review

Every review contains components that make up a full analytical critique. Critical comments insert as footnotes, boxes, or indents.

Example:

  • Clarifications – Edits to add a better explanation.
  • Data/Methodological Problems – Found issues with sample size, validity, accuracy, technique errors, confounding factors, correlation/causation, or statistics.
  • Inaccuracies/Falsification – Misassumptions that are demonstrably not true.
  • Prose Suggestions – Ideas on how to improve the writing.
  • Theoretical Foundations – The paper’s core argument(s), identified and graded by reviewers.
  • Typos – Small grammatical, reference, spelling, and style errors.
  • Conclusions – Reviewers summarize their opinion(s) and ask open-ended questions.

Pros and cons of a peer review

Consider these strengths and weaknesses carefully while considering whether or not to use a review.

Advantages of Peer Review Disadvantages of Peer Review
Quality Control - Peer-reviewed work is more precise, easier to read, better argued, and justified. Second opinions add content and context to work, too. Fraud - The process can be ignored, biased, or rigged, sometimes with extreme ease. Single-blind groups tend to be poor at removing reputational bias.
Safeguarding - Review helps prevent bias, nepotism, favoritism, (some) plagiarism, and collusion. Human Error - Reviewers might not see critical flaws within a paper - particularly falsified data. A convincingly referenced, well-argued, and well-written manuscript could still contain utter lies.
Valid Feedback - Informed opinion helps to contextualize new research and discoveries while giving authors outside angles and insights. Continuous review keeps field experts connected and informed. Time and Cost - Reviews can be tricky to organize, fund, and complete quickly. Delayed transfers can add months or years to already slow publishing turnarounds.

FAQs

It’s an academic quality control process that forensically assesses work. Undergoing review is essential to publishing your original work in the sciences or humanities.

Peer review ensures published research meets safe, verifiable, and reliable standards for use and reference.

Anyone who works in a field collectively studying a specific, abstract subject (e.g. physics, biology, chemistry).

No. While worthwhile, academic reviews can still be warped and subverted by bias, falsification, human error, and illicit author-to-peer collusion. Reviews may also miss the weaknesses and misconceptions in new and experimental work.

Sources

1 Cornell university. “Peer assessment.” Accessed September 03, 2022. https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/assessment-evaluation/peer-assessment.

2 Editor resources.”A guide to becoming a peer reviewer.” Accessed September 03, 2022. https://editorresources.taylorandfrancis.com/reviewer-guidelines/.

3 Sae.”A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Peer Review.” Accessed September 03, 2022.  https://www.sae.org/participate/volunteer/reviewer-resources/writing-guide.