Governing our scholarly output, the peer review system is a much-discussed component of the academy’s publishing nexus. Following our Easter break, Surgeons reconvened to explore the history of peer review as it manifested itself in the Royal Geographical Society’s Journal, before benefiting greatly from some excellent advice given by staff emerging from their experience as reviewers, editors, and authors.
The historical emergence of peer review and the value of considering the system’s historical development has been demonstrated in some excellent accounts by historians of science. The disparities of peer review’s emergence have been evidenced in the work of Alex Csiszar and Melinda Baldwin. Although Csiszar has dismissed suggestions that peer review began as early as the seventeenth century in the pages of Henry Oldenburg’s Philosophical Transactions, he has evidenced peer review emerging in the nineteenth century throughout London’s burgeoning learned networks and societies. Baldwin complicates the trajectory of peer review’s emergence by demonstrating how the respected scientific journal Nature eschewed a systematic approach to peer review until 1973. As such, the history of peer review is long, contested, and particular to disciplines and publications.
I understand the term ‘peer review’ itself to be a twentieth-century creature. During the nineteenth century, reviewing, refereeing, and referee were the commonplace terms. George Bellas Greenough—a founding member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830—is the gentleman whom Csiszar credits with introducing the term ‘referee’ to the scientific community, having done around 1817. Whilst Greenough is known for his work as a geologist, it was in his earlier training as a law student where he had first encountered the term. Throughout the 1820s, learned societies—including the Astronomical Society and Geological Society—had begun to experiment with reports on papers they received.
Given the Royal Geographical Society’s close and intimate relationship with London’s learned societies it is not surprising that reviewing existed in the Society’s publications from its establishment in 1830. The practice of reviewing papers submitted for publication in the Society’s Journal can be conceptualised in two distinct periods: 1830–1850 and 1850–c.1900. Quite how reviewing took place in the first twenty years of the Journal’s history is difficult to establish. Reviewers typically wrote a letter to the editor conveying their thoughts on the manuscript, some reviewers were involved in direct correspondence with authors asking them to answer a series of questions about their manuscript, and, I suspect, other reviews were delivered orally at the Council’s meetings. In this early period having a paper published in the Journal was not simply the product of receiving a favourable review—some manuscripts passed into the pages of the Journal without being subjected to independent evaluation. Even when receiving a favourable review, publication was ultimately decided on by the Council who voted on each paper. Reviewing at this point was largely in the hands of those closest to the Society, often council members themselves.
The arrival of Norton Shaw as Secretary of the Society and Editor of the Journal in late 1849 brought a change to the Society’s reviewing practice. Shaw proposed a so-called ‘referee’s circular’ at the Council’s meeting on 14 January 1850. The minutes of the meeting record that with “some alteration” it was to be printed. Shaw’s circular asked reviewers to evaluate the paper on the basis of four predefined questions that related, variously, to the manuscript’s originality, its potential for publication, its possible abridgement, and whether it should be accompanied by any illustrations. Now each manuscript—whilst still being reviewed by a single fellow of the Society—was subject to the same evaluation criteria. Before sending the circular to the reviewer, Shaw would write the title of the paper and the name of the author on the sheet, and as such any notion of anonymity was largely lost in this closed network of geographers.
Shaw’s circular and the increasingly formalised networks of review at the Society continue into the twentieth century. Here, then, we begin to see the emergence of system which resembles our contemporary practice—this also extends to author’s and editor’s frustrations and anxieties. One referee, George Long, returned his circular complaining that the manuscript that had been sent to him was too long and “had taken up a great deal of his time”. Occasionally authors objected to suggestions or corrections. On return of his manuscript marked with reviewer’s corrections, Robert FitzRoy penned a letter to the editor stating:
Some of your suggestions I have more or less adopted with thanks—but others I not only cannot concur in but should entirely oppose if I thought anyone would interfere in matters of opinion or statement for which I alone am responsible. We look at things through various glasses—& I may have reason for my views which do not occur to another person.
Other referees complained of being overworked or that the refereeing practice was antiquated. In 1845 one anonymous contributor to Wade’s London Review launched an attack on the reviewing system of the Royal Society (a system similar to that of the RGS). The Review saterised the internal reviewing culture of the Royal Society and the process by which papers were communicated and accepted. The critique culminated with a description of the possible fate of a manuscript in the hands of a reviewer:
The paper is referred, of course, to some person of the same class of pursuits, a rival for fame in the same line of inquiry, carrying on a similar course of investigation, meeting perhaps with obstacles which the ‘referred paper’ itself may have successfully removed; possibly, too, intending to make these topics important elements in his own communication to the society. The referee may be a man of integrity in general matters; he may have no personal animosity, no ‘green dragon’ in his eye; he may even soar above all personal feelings, and with a noble disinterestedness give a fair and candid report…On the other hand, he may be a very different person; he may be full of ‘envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness;’ he may, in fact, wish to ‘Burke’ or ‘Bank’ the paper which is submitted to him, and what is there to prevent him? His enemy is in his hands, the darkness of night covers the deed, no record can exist of the part he takes in the matter, and he is overcome by the temptation!
Following on from the discussion of peer review’s historical emergence and its nineteenth-century frustrations (which appear remarkably contemporaneous) we received helpful advice from around the room. Some of the top tips for academic authors included:
- Before you begin writing think about the focus of your article, where you want to publish, and how the two fit together.
- Keep your submission well within the word limit as it is likely that a revise and resubmit will require you to add words.
- Remember that you do not have to respond to every comment made by reviewers. When you are responding to comments, remember what the core of your paper is to avoid making so many alterations you receive another R & R.
- When first receiving feedback it can be helpful to bullet point the report to unpack the comments. This way you can make notes on the points you have addressed.
On the history of scientific peer review, see: Alex Csiszar, “Peer Review: Troubled from the Start,” Nature 532, no. 7599 (2016): 306–8.
On the history of peer review in the journal Nature: Melinda Baldwin, “Credibility, Peer Review, and Nature 1945–1990,” Notes and Records 69, no.1 (2015): 337–352.
On contemporary frustrations of peer review as an editor, see: Stuart Elden, “Editorial: The Exchange Economy of Peer Review,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26, no. 6 (2008): 951–3.
On the popular press and peer review, see: Elaine Devine, “Why Peer Review Needs a Good Going Over,” The Guardian (UK), October 28, 2015.