Peer review was first institutionalized by the Royal Society of London in 16651. It’s basically a good idea. Disinterested experts in a field assess a scholarly paper before announcing that it is worthy of publication in a respected journal. Peer review encourages quality and helps authors to sharpen their work. But it is not essential to quality. Plato’s Republic, Euclid’s Elements, and Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species had no peer review.
The assumption that today’s peer-reviewed paper has been vetted by experts and therefore has been awarded a blue ribbon for excellence is far from the truth. Peer review often does not do its job. Consequently, today’s collection of scholarly literature is exploding in quantity and deteriorating in quality.
Peer review comes in different flavors. One is anonymous peer review, where the identity of the reviewers is kept secret from the author. Albert Einstein only had one anonymous peer review in his career — and the paper was rejected2. This happened in 1936. A decade and a half earlier in 1905, Einstein’s annus mirabilis (remarkable year), he had published four breathtaking papers. One introduced the world to special relativity.3 Another outlined the photoelectric effect — why metals spit out electrons when illuminated with light.4 He won a Nobel Prize for this work, once the theory was experimentally verified. A third paper explained that Brownian motion occurs because there are molecules randomly dancing around and bumping into little particles.5 In another paper, he supplied the foundation for the relationship between mass and energy summarized by the world’s most familiar equation: E = mc 2.
Physicist Dr. Frank Tipler writes,
[All of Einstein’s 1905] papers were published in Annalen der Physik, one of the major physics journals in Germany. But none of the papers were sent to referees. Instead the editors — either the editor in chief, Max Planck, or the editor for theoretical physics, Wilhelm Wien—made the decision to publish. It is unlikely that whoever made the decision spent much time on whether to publish. Almost every paper submitted was published. So few people wanted to publish in any physics journal that editors rarely rejected submitted papers. Only papers that were clearly `crackpot’ papers — papers that any professional physicist could recognize as written by someone completely unfamiliar with the elementary laws of physics — were rejected.6
All agree that Nobel Laureates Max Planck and Wilhelm Wien were Einstein’s peers. During that time, Tipler estimates that “one would have to submit [only] three papers on the average to have an even chance that at least one of your papers would be `peer’ reviewed by a [past or future] Nobel Prize winner.”7
Much has changed. Peer review today is done largely by reviewers who are not peers. Professors often assign paper review to senior graduate students. Associate Editors often do not examine a paper carefully, defaulting to the recommendations of the reviewers. Editors typically parrot the opinions offered by the Associate Editor. More than once. I have been forced to offer tutorials, rich with references, to correct “peer” reviews made by technical simpletons. It’s a waste of time. A reviewer should know such things.
One solution is to return to review practices at the time of Einstein. Most bona fide fields boast professional organizations who elect Fellows. My professional society, the IEEE, admits at most one tenth of one percent of its membership to the grade of Fellow each year. It’s a very elite group. If a Fellow of several years thoroughly reviews and blesses a paper in the Fellow’s area of expertise, that should be enough for publication.
But, some may object, won’t such a practice promote cronyism and bias? Today’s peer review already overflows with cronyism and bias. And stealth as well. Reviewers hide behind anonymity. A sponsoring Fellow should be identified in the final print or electronic version of the paper. Such accountability places conflicts of interest and other biases under the bright sun where they will wither in the light.
Peer review works but it is misnamed. I want my papers reviewed by true peers — not greenhorn amateurs.
1 “Peer review in scientific publications,” Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence, The United Kingdom House of Commons.
2 Kennefick, Daniel (September 2005). “Einstein versus the Physical Review.” Physics Today 58 (9): 43.
3 Einstein, Albert (1905). “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper.” Annalen der Physik 17 (10): 891–921.
4 Einstein, Albert (1905). “Über einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt”. Annalen der Physik 17 (6): 132–148.
5 Einstein, Albert (1905). “Über die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen”. Annalen der Physik 17 (8): 549–560.
6 Tipler, F. J. “Refereed journals: Do they insure quality or enforce orthodoxy?” International Society for Complexity, Information and Design (2006).
Further reading: Why is it so hard to reform peer review? Robert J. Marks: Reformers are battling numerical laws that govern how incentives work. Know your enemy!
Anti-plagiarism software goof: Paper rejected for repeat citations: The scholar was obliged by discipline rules to cite the flagged information repetitively.