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The Value of Peer Review in Academic Publication

Publication in the right academic venue, such as a high-impact factor journal, can further a scholar’s career and standing within a discipline, and even open future professional opportunities. Regardless of pedigree, however, no scholar can publish in a prestigious academic publication without undergoing a long and lengthy process, the main component of which is peer review.

Peer review is the process whereby a scholarly text (such as a paper or book) is checked by experts in the same field to make sure that it meets the professional and intellectual criteria of the journal or publishing house before being accepted. In other words, it is an external critique that helps ensure the high quality essential to academic publications. The process is advantageous to scholars as it helps them better elucidate their ideas, consider other perspectives, and occasionally catch embarrassing errors.

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Added Value to Your Research

The benefits of peer review are numerous both prior to and following the publication of an article. First, the process includes submitting the text to one or several experts in the field who can help determine whether its thesis is sufficiently objective and firmly supported by up-to-date research. Based on the reader(s) critique and suggestions, the author can fine-tune his text and thus make it more valuable to a future readership. In addition, reviewers can often uncover a subconscious bias in the text. This is important in any discipline but especially in fields in which imprecise research can have devastating effects, as in medicine.

Ideally, peer review should offer an ostensibly unbiased assessment of an article’s content. For this reason, it is often ‘blind,’ meaning that the process is conducted without the reviewer or author’s awareness of each other’s identity. This also ensures that the work of less established scholars with fewer publications is considered on its own merits rather than on external factors or previous work.

Second, a quality peer review can provide valuable insight on the language and structure of a draft, and assess whether the text requires developmental editing or copy-editing in order to be understood by its target audience. A check by a second ‘pair of eyes’  helps  determine whether the manuscript is indeed appropriate to the journal’s general theme and subject matter. It is important to keep in mind that peer review is not necessarily objective; it’s a journal or publishing house’s way of sifting through huge amount of material and deciding what it wishes to invest in.

Third, the very process of peer review adds value to an academic article, book, or other text. Publications that require contributions to undergo peer review enjoy greater prestige in academia (and thus count more towards tenure) as they take the trouble to ensure that their contents meet the standard of distinguished experts in the field.

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Characteristics of High Quality Peer Review

Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of peer review is its potential to uncover lacuna in the text and offer additional information (sources) to the author. Such assistance is especially important today, when young scholars are often under intense pressure to publish quickly and have less time to go through vast amounts of material.

A good review also helps ensure that an article matches the interests and methodologies espoused by a particular publication.  Even if an author’s article is rejected, it will grant them a better idea of the kind of work that the periodical is likely to publish and can help them plan future work.

Issues with Peer Review

Alongside the potential benefits of peer review are legitimate concerns about trusting other scholars with one’s ideas discoveries, or research. The fact that manuscripts are reviewed prior to publication by researchers in the field, who may be rivals (or whose colleagues may be rivals), may lead to ethical concerns about confidentiality, plagiarism, and unconscious theft.

Reviewers working in closely related fields may obtain insights or ideas from an unpublished manuscript that could benefit their own research, giving them an unfair advantage in their discipline. Sometimes reviewers may even try to prevent or at least delay a publication so that their own work may seem to preempt it. More typically, however, an academic may simply absorb the information and not think to credit an author for an idea that he or she obtained from reviewing that person’s work.

Peer review can also add considerable time to the publication process. In fields characterized by active innovative research, in which timing and rapid publication of results are crucial, the delays caused by peer review may in fact pose a serious problem.

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Words for the Wise

Entering the world of peer-reviewed publishing can be overwhelming, especially for authors whose native tongue is not English. Although the process is helpful, one needs to be aware of its potential pitfalls. Feedback should be weighed carefully and does not necessarily have to be implemented if one deems it irrelevant or incorrect. Authors are generally given an opportunity to respond to the comments of the reviewer and fine-tune their arguments without changing anything essential. In some cases a review may even convince an author that it would be prudent for him or her to publish elsewhere.

It is important to keep in mind that many articles are rejected not because their quality is low but because they do not match the profile of the publication. Therefore, rejection does not necessarily reflect the review’s assessment of the quality of an author’s work but rather its suitability to a particular journal. The key to utilizing peer review effectively lies in determining which feedback to digest and implement and which to reject. If the research is of high quality and fully meets the journal’s criteria than review will simply serve as the final step prior to publication.