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Peer Review

Nov 01, 2006

Scholarship and research in library and information studies most often appear in journals, monographs, annual reviews, and conference proceedings. Those journals, especially the ones operating at the national and international levels, tend to be subject to editorial peer review – prepublication review.

The concept of a refereeing system can be traced back more than 300 years to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, when some members of the Society Council reviewed papers for publication. The purpose of this system of review was (and remains) to ensure a certain level of quality to published works, with those knowledgeable about the issue or problem
being analyzed or studied judging the work on its merits and making a recommendation (favorable or not) to the editor. Peer reviewing means that one’s “peers” shape the editorial decision and that the editor operates within that context; if this situation is altered and the editor disregards reviewer recommendations, peer reviewing becomes compromised.

For many journals their editorial boards serve as the reviewers. However, journals may invite others to review and, when they do so, these journals likely acknowledge these supplementary reviewers in the final issue of a volume. Editors ascertain the areas of reviewer expertise so that those individuals passing judgment have the necessary background and knowledge of the literature to make valid judgments. Some journals use “double blind” peer reviewing, meaning that the reviewers do not know the names, affiliations, or positions of the authors of the manuscripts they are judging, and the authors do not know who reviewed their work. Editors might even remove some references from papers if those references might reveal an author’s identity. The purpose of such an action is to ensure that a name or affiliation does not influence the judgment and that any contact between author and reviewer goes through the editor.

The concept of a refereeing system can be traced back more than 300 years...

How the Process Works

Someone – not necessarily within the profession – might write a paper that reflects either scholarship (analytical) or research. Here research is defined as an investigation that applies the components of the inquiry process: reflective inquiry, procedures (research design and methodology), reliability and validity, and presentation. That paper would be submitted to the editor, who selects the reviewers (most typically two or three). Those reviewers judge the paper on its merits. The problem statement must explain the value of the research or scholarship and demonstrate that the paper does not deal with an insignificant issue or problem. The literature review must demonstrate a command of relevant readings, regardless of discipline and nationality of authors. (Fortunately, today, publishers have the means to ensure that published papers appear in databases such as ScienceDirect that bring together works of different disciplines and fields of study for easy retrieval and use.)

The reviewers make a recommendation and call for: 1. acceptance without any changes or with minor changes, 2. outright rejection, or 3. revision. Upon completion of revision the paper should be accepted. Otherwise, needed revision might be so extensive that the reviewers recommend additional review by themselves or others. Sometimes the reviewers make the same recommendation and other times they do not. If they do not, some editors call on different reviewers to break any tie in vote, others might cast a vote themselves, and others might return the manuscript to the author, sharing the differences of opinion and asking the author to revise the paper to address the concerns raised. In such instances, the paper should be resubmitted for formal review.

In the case of the journals that I have edited, I copyedit all manuscripts and review all references for consistency with the editorial style manual – before the manuscripts go to peer review. Once the review decision has been rendered, that decision, together with the copyedited manuscript, is returned to the author. If the review outcome was favorable, the author is encouraged to make the changes quickly and to return the paper so that it can be scheduled for an upcoming issue. The final paper should be accompanied with a disk containing the paper and any tables/figures.

Peer reviewing means that one's 'peers' shape the editorial decision and that the editor operates within that context...

Prior to submission of the paper, it is best to review a recent issue of the journal, the author instructions, and any material at the journal’s website. The peer review process itself might be handled electronically. It might be completed within a short time (a couple of weeks), a month, or longer depending on the editorial practice. Library & Information Science Research does the reviewing and copyediting within three weeks, and the other journals I have edited did these within one month.

Conclusion

The prestige of a journal is associated with the quality of its contents. Evidence of that quality comprises the journal’s impact factor (the extent of distribution of citations and “downloading” to all the articles appearing in the journal), rejection rate (the assumption is that a healthy rejection rate demonstrates that the journal separates “the wheat from the chaff”), the number of subscriptions, the extent of downloading of articles, and, most importantly, whether or not the journal is peer-reviewed.

I know of numerous cases in which faculty members only gained institutional recognition for works that appeared in peer-reviewed journals. Note that within peer-reviewed journals, an institute or department may recognize a hierarchy of journals. I am fortunate to have always been associated with the higher tier of those journals. Clearly, prestige is associated with editorial peer review and the quality of those reviewers and their judgments.

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