Peer review
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06.09.2023 •

In praise of peer review

While the practice of reviewing papers in Philosophical Transactions was common, it was not equivalent to the modern concept of peer review. The formal recognition that reviewers should be experts in the field discussed in the paper came much later, in 1731 when the Royal Society of Edinburgh implemented a policy of sending papers only to appropriate anonymous members for review. However, peer review did not immediately become the established standard. Scholarly societies gradually began utilizing external experts to evaluate papers, but it was still common for papers to be published without undergoing peer review well into the 20th century. In fact, in 1936 Albert Einstein wrote to the editor of Physical Review expressing his frustration that his paper was sent to anonymous referees whose comments he deemed erroneous, and he chose not to respond. Notably, papers like the one published in Nature by James Watson and Francis Crick proposing the structure of DNA did not undergo external review; instead, an endorsement from the head of their institution, the Cavendish Laboratory, was sufficient for publication.

In 1973, external peer review became mandatory for Nature under the leadership of chief editor David Davies. Prior to his appointment, there was a perception that Nature was primarily a British establishment journal. Davies, who had previous experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recognized the need to address this perception. To do so, he made external peer review a requirement for all submitted papers and expanded the pool of referees beyond the UK. This move aimed to ensure a more diverse and unbiased assessment of papers published in Nature.

Since then, there have been additional advancements in the peer review process. One notable development is the use of preprint servers, such as arXiv, which house early versions of scientific papers. These servers are commonly utilized in specific scientific disciplines. 

Another innovation introduced in 2015 is the adoption of double-blind peer review. In this approach, authors anonymize their manuscripts, and the referees are unaware of the authors' identities. This ensures a more impartial evaluation of the papers submitted to journals. 

In certain communities, like the life sciences or photovoltaics, the submission of checklists aimed at enhancing transparency and reproducibility is required. These checklists are sent to the referees, assisting them in evaluating the research more effectively.

The scientific publishing landscape has undergone significant changes, resulting in a higher volume of published papers and a multitude of journals catering to this demand. Publishers like Springer Nature now facilitate the transfer of submissions between journals, both before and after the peer review process. However, it is important to exercise caution in this regard.

While it is possible to transfer a paper to another journal after peer review using a provided link, it should be noted that this doesn't always happen automatically. Researchers have the freedom to choose which journal to submit to and may opt to submit their work afresh. While this choice exists, there is a temptation to resubmit elsewhere without fully addressing concerns or comments raised by experts.

The fundamental principles underlying peer review are to evaluate the quality, impact, and accuracy of the scientific hypothesis being investigated. Therefore, it is considered good scientific practice for authors to address and acknowledge the points raised by their peers in their responses. Even if a paper is rejected by the target journal, engaging with peer feedback strengthens the scientific value of the research.

Engaging in the practice of submitting manuscripts elsewhere without adequately addressing technical issues, or using peer review as a means to identify weaknesses in a manuscript only to subsequently remove these weaknesses in a fresh submission, is regarded as poor scientific practice. Although this approach can help a paper gain acceptance in the short term, it ultimately undermines the long-term impact and credibility of the research. It is important to remember that many experts, including the original peer referees who reviewed the paper in another journal, will eventually read and assess the work. Thus, it is crucial to uphold the principles of integrity and transparency in the peer review process and actively address the feedback received to ensure the paper's long-term success and broader impact.

The history of peer review has witnessed ongoing evolution, a trend that is likely to persist. However, it is important to recognize that the fundamental principle of peer review, which seeks to enhance the quality of manuscripts through expert feedback, should remain unchanged. While there may be advancements in the process itself, the goal of improving manuscript quality through the insights and assessments of knowledgeable peers should remain at the core of the peer review system.


In praise of peer review. Nat. Mater. 22, 1047 (2023).