A Summary of the Peer-review Process
Most published scientific research and much of the grant funding for proposed scientific studies is peer-reviewed. What do these words really mean? Here is a brief description of the peer review process, which should give readers some idea what this term means to scientists.
Authors – the people who write the study. In the case of a research report or clinical study, these are most often the people who did the work. In the case of a review article, the authors summarize and critique work done by others in their specialty area. Review article authors can be invited to submit by the editors of a journal, or they can write and submit an uninvited review.
Editor – employed by the publishers of the journal, an editor is the link between the authors and the reviewers. He or she is in charge of receiving the manuscript for consideration, choosing reviewers and sending the paper to them, receiving reviewer comments and sending them back to the authors, and is the ultimate authority on whether or not a study is published. Editors usually have experience as lab scientists or clinicians.
Reviewers – the people in charge of critiquing the study submitted for publication. These reviewers work in the same specialty area as the authors and therefore should know something about the research being discussed. Reviewers are anonymous, the authors are not allowed to know who reviewed their paper unless the reviewer chooses to sign his or her name to their review (this is rare, but it does happen). The reviewer, however, IS allowed to know the names of the authors of the study.
When a scientific or medical study is sent to a journal, the editor sends it out to two or three other investigators who work in the same field as the lab submitting the study. The reviewers can comment on any aspect of the paper, including the reasoning behind the study’s methods, any of the experiments included in the study and the conclusions made by the authors. The reviewers also tell the editor what they think the journal should do with the paper: accept it as is, accept it with changes (new experiments, revised conclusions, etc) or reject the publication entirely. Most of the time, the reviewers come back with an accept with revisions decision. The editor then sends the paper and the reviewer’s comments back to the authors. The authors are then given a set amount of time (typically three to six months) to revise their manuscript based on the reviewers’ comments and/or justify why they do not feel the reviewers’ proposed changes are valid. They send the revised paper back to the journal editor, and the editor then decides whether to accept it, reject it, or send it out for another round of review. If the paper is rejected, the authors can choose to submit their study to another journal (usually of equal or lower status) and try again for publication. During this process, authors usually have the right to appeal any decision made by an editor and make certain requests. For example, if an editor decides to reject a paper without review, the authors can often request another editor or for the paper to be sent to one reviewer anyway, and if that review is favorable it will often be allowed to go through the full review process. When a paper is accepted for publication it is cause for celebration and congratulations, and then work begins on another round of experiments for the next study.
This is the process of peer review for publication. Peer review for grant funding (i.e. money for proposed future research) is essentially the same, except BOTH authors AND reviewers are anonymous, and the editor is replaced by a moderator at the funding agency. The ability to appeal is also much more limited when it comes to funding. If a proposed study is not funded, all the researchers can really do is revise the proposal based on reviewer comments and re-submit to the same funding agency (some agencies limit the number of times a grant can be re-submitted) or revise the grant and seek funding from another agency. Funding agencies can be governmental (the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are examples) or private groups.
Edited 01/09/10 to add tags and categories.