Peer Review

Peer review is a process after research has been conducted to assess the validity of it, before it is published. It is reviewed by psychologists not involved in the research, but working in a similar field.

Peer review is important because..

  • It is away of making a judgement about the validity, originality, quality and importance of the research before publication.
  • They also judge the significance of it in a wider context
  • They assess whether methods and designs used are appropriate.
  • They in their opinion can share whether they believe it should be published in its original form or changed in some way by suggesting recommendations or future improvements to ensure once it is published it is well-respected.

Unlike textbooks, journals are published periodically and build into yearly volumes that serve as a permanent record of research. Universities keep these in their libraries and also subscribe to online publications. Some journals accept research from various areas, e.g., Nature or Science. In psychology, the British Journal of Psychology publishes studies from many different fields whereas some journals are extremely specialised, e.g., Personality and Individual Differences.

The system of peer review is held in high esteem and begins when a research paper submitted to a journal is considered to be worthy of publication. The editor sends this to other experts (who are generally unpaid) in the field who critically appraise all aspects of the study then return it with their recommendations as to whether the work is of acceptable quality. If not, researchers revise their work and re-submit their paper. This ensures that high standards are maintained.

Single-Blind & Double-Blind Reviews

In single-blind reviews authors do not know who the reviewers are.  In double-blind reviews authors do not know who the reviewers are, nor do reviewers know the identity of the authors.  In many fields single blind reviews are the norm, while in others double blind reviews are preferred.

Evaluation of Peer Review

However, peer review is not infallible and the system sometimes breaks down. Proven cases of fraud are a rarity, but include plagiarism, falsification of data and fabrication of data (UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2002). The following are some points of concern:

  • Peer review can act to maintain the status quo and prevent potentially revolutionary research from being published. This is because science is generally very conservative and resistant to large changes in opinion – what we in psychology would refer to as a paradigm shift, e.g. behaviourist theories ushered in a radical change of thinking compared to the causes of behaviour from a psychodynamic viewpoint. If the results of a study do not fit with the accepted existing knowledge, it can be rejected.
  • Critics point out that there are many examples of faulty research published in peer-reviewed journals, which shows the peer review process is often unsuccessful in weeding out bad science
  • The process is slow and time-consuming
  • Objectivity – Reviewers find it hard to remain purely objective due to their own education, experience and preconceived notions. Reviewers tend to be highly critical of articles that contradict their own views, while being less critical of articles that support their personal views (this is an example of “myside bias”). Similarly, the reviewer is more likely to look favourably upon research presented by someone within their social circle.
  • Institution bias – research from prestigious universities is favoured
  • Gender Bias – statistically male researchers seem to be favoured
  • Well-known, established scientists are more likely to be recruited as reviewers
  • The ‘file-drawer’ problem – there is a bias towards publishing studies with positive results, i.e., those supporting the hypothesis, but negative findings are just as important if we are to achieve a balanced view of research. Negative findings tend to be either rejected or are never submitted for publication. For every study showing positive findings, there could be a hundred with negative results stuffed in university filing cabinets – our understanding of a subject becomes distorted.

In Conclusion

Despite these problems, without peer review we would have no idea whether someone’s claims were fact or fiction. A quick trip around the Internet will provide you with reasons for everything and guarantee you cures for just about anything, so we need to look at little closer at the actual process of peer review and its role in validating new knowledge. We need to ensure that anyone picking up a psychological research paper or downloading an article from an on-line psychological journal can be confident that the information is valid and reliable.


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