The peer review process is one of the cornerstones of academic writing, and is a way of ensuring that the information in any academic publication is verifiable and of a good quality.
With the amount of poor quality research available on the internet at the moment, it is vital to ensure that any sources that you use are from a peer-reviewed publication. It is also handy to understand the process, providing you with another tool to assess the quality and validity of information.
This is extremely important because of the way in which research is built up, with all research relying upon the findings of previous researchers in the field. If a piece of research is later found to be inaccurate, flawed or a fraud, then the viability of all the research built upon it is brought into question.
Generally speaking, the editor’s word is final, and the referees are there on a purely consultation basis.
Ideally, all stages of the process are independent, and the referees do not consult with each other, nor are they even aware of each other’s identity, to ensure impartiality. If the two peers disagree, then the editor makes the final decision, although high profile, prestige journals often send the paper to another reviewer for a decision.
In other cases, the editor may allow the author to deliver a rebuttal to any negative criticism, or even direct conversation between the author and referee.
Traditionally, the authors never knew the identity of the reviewers, and many journals attempted to use a double blind method, where the authors remained anonymous, but this proved to be very difficult, as the reference list and specific area of research gave too many clues, especially in smaller fields where researchers will tend to be aware of each other’s work.
The internet has brought its own difficulties, and it is becoming increasingly common to open up the entire process, especially in the field of medicine, where the sheer volume of research and journals makes it practically impossible to evaluate the quality of research.
In this process, subscribers to the journal can also read the entire history of the report, including all of the referees’ comments, bringing transparency to the process.
The idea of the peer review process is still the gold standard by which academic papers are reviewed, but the electronic-age has meant that peer review publications must adapt to the changing access to information.