Peer review is the a process used by every major academic publication. The intent of the peer review process is to assess the quality, correctness and suitability of the submitted manuscript prior to passing it on to the publications' professional editing staff.

In most cases, a manuscript will be examined (cursorily) by the associate editor in charge of the particular field of study (in smaller publications, there is only an editor-in-chief, and this person will do the preliminary examination). The associate editor will then decide whether the manuscript, in its current form, should indeed be put through the peer review process. If the manuscript does not meet the standards of the journal, then it will in most cases be sent back to the authors with a letter explaining the situation. If it is sent out for peer review, however, it is normally sent to two (sometimes three) reviewers contacted by the associate editor. These individuals (normally professors or their equivalents) will then assess the manuscript for the quality of the research and findings. Their job is to determine whether or not the research contributes something novel or important to the field of study and whether or not it fits with the mission statement of the journal. In most cases, the reviewers will have either minor or major corrections for the authors if the manuscript is not refused outright. At this point, in most cases, their job is done. After the authors make certain modifications or respond to the reviewers concerns, the associate editor may accept the manuscript for publication. At this point, the copy editing staff takes over and works the text into a format acceptable for publication.

The peer review process can be fraught with errors, but it is generally accepted (at times, begrudgingly) as the best method to ensure accuracy and truthfulness in the material being published. The reviewers will normally catch the majority of minor or major flaws in reasoning or interpretation, and most make a very concerted effort to examine every manuscript in an objective and fair-minded manner. In some instances, however, personal enmity prevents a reviewer for accurately or fairly assessing a manuscript, at which point the editorial staff should send the paper out for further review.

In most cases, the review is done anonymously, in order to protect the reviewers from possible future recrimination and also to encourage honesty and frankness when criticizing a manuscript. This anonymity is sometimes abused, however, and it again falls to the editorial staff to recognize such and react accordingly. In recent years, some reviewers have argued and begun to identify themselves, and there is some debate as to whether or not this is a good idea.

Whenever I hear someone bash the peer review process, I'm reminded of the expression often cited concerning the limitations of democracy: "It's the worst system out there, except for all the others."

A term for delineating credible academic journals.

There are thousands of journals out there, young researcher— which one to cite? There's the Journal of Alternative Realities and the International Journal of Parapsychology, as well as the New England Journal of Medicine. If you couldn't guess, the NEJM is more credible (you're likely to fail the course if you cite one of the other two) and is the only one of the three that is peer reviewed.

What is a peer review? Well, it's an anonymous selection of "experts" in whatever field you're working in who read the article before it goes to print, eliminating mistakes and making sure the discoveries are legitimate. Which does make it a bit odd that "alternative sciences" rarely ever peer review when you think that the "peers" would likely agree with whatever conclusions.
Emphasis, in most empirical science journals (like Nature, Science, Physics Review, etc.) is on verification of results and looking toward underlying assumptions that could have biased the data. The emphasis in less empirical disciplines is more on breaking new theories or unearthing obscure miscellanea. Even though the International Journal of Art and Design is peer reviewed, these sorts of journals tend to have more lax reviewing.

Which isn't to say that stringent review plugs all the holes of academic fraud. Jan Hendrik Schon managed to get 15 papers past peer review at the prestigious Nature and Science journals, only to be revealed as a massive fraud.
Another problem is that peer review tends to ossify consensus within scientific fields, due to the self-affirmation bias of reviewers. This is almost the total range of the field of scientific cultural studies, which move from Foucault's examination of the excluded as a critique of reason in order to question scientific assumptions.

Still, it is generally held that the benefits of peer review outweigh the detriments. In fact, by voting one way or another on this node, you're taking part in a peer review process. Enjoy the power.

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