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What Is a Peer-Reviewed Journal?


If you've spent any time in the research world, you might have heard about peer-reviewed journals and the honor of authors publishing their work in them. But what is a peer-reviewed journal, and why is it so important?

Sometimes also called scholarly or refereed journals, peer-reviewed journals are publications to which researchers submit their papers for readers within the industry. Upon submission of an article, the journal editors pass along the work to a team of scholars who read through the submitted paper and give feedback. They review the article, check sources and credibility of claims, consider the contribution of the research to the field, and make a judgment call regarding whether the article has earned a spot in the publication. Does that sound like a tough process to get through? It is! To be published, your article has to prove itself as a valuable contribution to the industry. This might feel intimidating to the authors creating the articles, but it also instills confidence in the journal's readers that the publication is going to provide only the best, most valuable content for the field.

How do you know if a journal is peer reviewed?

As a reader (or researcher), you want to know which articles come from peer-reviewed journals, since those give you a higher-quality source of knowledge than journals with a less-rigorous publication qualification process. The following are some distinguishing characteristics of a peer-reviewed journal:

  • Use of terms like "peer-reviewed" and a description of the referee process
    Within the first few pages of a publication, or the masthead, the journal provides some background about itself, including how to submit articles, members of the editorial board, and the peer review process.
  • Professional organizations as publishers
    Peer-reviewed journals are usually associated with professional organizations (e.g., the Journal of the American Medical Association) or with educational institutions (e.g., the Black Theatre Review is published through the University of Arizona).
  • Lack of graphics
    The meat of the journal is the knowledge-rich content of the articles, so the journal has no need to lure in readers with flashy pictures. In fact, the images you'll see in scholarly journals are usually tables and figures within articles, and these are often in black and white.
  • Very few advertisements
    Scholarly journals don't publish ads from outside sponsors. The few ads you might see will be for the publishing organization or upcoming conferences.
  • Authors listed at the beginning of the article
    Articles in peer-reviewed publications usually list the author's name and affiliated university and contact info, like an email address, at the top of the text.
  • Not a lot of definition of industry jargon
    Peer-reviewed journals are written with a specialized audience in mind, usually people who are as invested in the industry as the authors, so the writers and journal leadership do assume that the readers already know what industry-specific terms mean.
  • Citations at the end of each article Sources are given at the end of an article to enable the reader to double check the validity of the work or to explore the topic further.

These aspects can give you a way to identify whether an article comes from a peer-reviewed journal when you can see the physical article in front of you. In the case of online searches, however, the discerning process can be a little trickier. Most online publications offer users the option to view an article as a PDF, and these files are taken directly from the physical article. This helps you see the distinguishing features, even in an online source.

The review process

When you submit your article to a publication, the journal applies the review process to determine the caliber of a manuscript before publishing it. Upon receiving the text, the editorial team first reads over your manuscript to see if it is worth further review. Some texts are rejected outright before even reaching the reviewers (usually these are articles with serious errors, no relevance to the journal, or an absolute lack of value to the field). If the team deems the article as fitting for the publication and worth another look, the team members will notify you that it's time to have your article read by reviewers.

Reviewers are people involved in the field who have or are conducting their own research, and they have also probably been through the article submission process before. These independent researchers have expertise in the field (just like you! That's why they are called your peers), so they know what you are talking about in the article, whether your work is original and valuable, and generally what has already been published on the subject.

Selection of reviewers

Each journal has its own policies regarding whether the author or the journal selects the reviewers. Some journals will provide suggestions for potential reviewers to perform the peer-review process, and some will give you guidelines for selecting your own group of experts. In some cases, the journal will require that the author or reviewers (or both) do not know the other party's identity to preserve objectivity.

  • Single-blind review
    The reviewers know who the authors are, but the authors do not know who the reviewers are.
  • Double-blind review
    The reviewers are anonymous to the authors, and the authors also know nothing about the reviewers.
  • Open-peer review
    Both parties know the names of the other, and often the reviewer reports are published along with the article.

The subject of authors choosing their reviewers is a subject of some ethical debate, since they could select people with bias or conflicts of interest. A study by Lutz Bornmann and Hans-Dieter Daniel (2010), titled "Do Author-Suggested Reviewers Rate Submissions More Favorably than Editor-Suggested Reviewers?" asserts that choosing your own reviewers provides a huge advantage. Our results agree with those from other studies that editor-suggested reviewers rated manuscripts between 30% and 42% less favorably than author-suggested reviewers. Against this backdrop, journal editors should consider either doing without the use of author-suggested reviewers or, if they are used, bringing in more than one editor-suggested reviewer for the review process (so that the review by author-suggested reviewers can be put in perspective). To mitigate this risk, publications can provide a set of requirements regarding a chosen reviewer to prevent an unfair process. Each publication will have different requirements for its own reviewing process, so your experience will vary by field.

What happens next?

Once selected, the reviewers then read through the paper several times. During the first read, they gather initial impressions of the work. If they find major problems with your logic, lack of fit with the journal, or other issues, they could reject it at this stage. If no major issues are found, they will proceed with additional reads. They will look at the specifics of your arguments, your use of outside work and their application to your claims, the potency of your samples and studies, and the strength of each section of your manuscript, among other elements. The team will then provide their review to the journal, outlining their findings, with a recommendation for acceptance, rejection, or further revision. They can also further specify the manuscript as needing major or minor revision.

In the case of revision, the reviewer's comments are passed along to the authors, who have the opportunity to read and apply the comments made. During this stage, you can consider how the reviewers have interpreted your work, which gives you valuable insight into how your audience might see it. Upon addressing the issues outlined by the reviewers, your manuscript will be stronger, more compelling, and more applicable to your field. Your revised paper is then submitted back to the editor and to the reviewers, with a report explaining what you did and thanking them for their valuable feedback. Upon acceptance, your article is sent back to the journal for publication.

Peer-reviewed journals have a complex, multi-stage process in place, and the submission process can take an extended period of time. While this can be a cause for headaches and require a massive amount of patience from the authors of an article, the extensive review process gives you confidence that the articles published in that journal are going to be top notch. With so much scrutiny being devoted to a paper, you can be certain that inaccuracies will be eradicated, false claims will be questioned, and weak study samples will be addressed at many stages of the process. For this reason, peer-reviewed journals are viewed with well-deserved respect, and readers and researchers know they can trust the material they find therein.

Header image by Tada Images.

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