January 29, 2024

Exploring the history of peer review in scholarly publishing: From the 18th century to today

This blog discusses the historical evolution of scholarly peer review, spanning from its 18th-century inception to challenges and transformations in the digital age.It explores emerging models influencing the future of research quality and integrity in scientific publishing.

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Peer review is an essential component of the scholarly publishing process, ensuring the quality and credibility of research articles. It is a process where experts in a particular field assess the quality and validity of an author's work before it is published in a journal or presented at a conference. This blog explores the history of peer review in scholarly publishing, from its origins to the present.

Historians of science trace the notion (but not the actual procedure) of peer review as a means of evaluating written work back to ancient Greece (5th century BC) or Middle Eastern scholars (circa 900 AD). In one such account, it is suggested that “the first documented description of a peer review process” is probably in the book “Ethics of the Physician” by 9th-century Arab physician, Ishāq bin Ali al-Rohawi. In this book, the author writes that it is the duty of a visiting physician to make duplicate notes of the condition of the patient on each visit. The physician's notes were reviewed by a local council of physicians, who decided if the physician met the standards that were in place at the time.

Origins of peer review: The 18th century

The first recorded instance of peer review in scholarly publishing dates back to the 18th century, when in 1731, the Royal Society of Edinburgh initiated the practice to assess the quality of submitted manuscripts. This initiative marked a significant development in academic evaluation, as the Society recognized the need for expert assessment. In implementing their policy, the Society stipulated that papers should be sent exclusively to appropriate, anonymous members, setting a precedent for the importance of subject-matter expertise in the review process.

Although this approach laid the groundwork for the acknowledgment that reviewers should be experts in the areas discussed by the paper, peer review had yet to become a widespread practice in scholarly publishing.

Peer review in the 19th and early 20th centuries

In the evolution of scholarly publishing, the 19th century witnessed a notable increase in the prevalence of peer review as scientific journals began utilizing it as a method to assess the quality of submitted manuscripts. However, during this period, the process lacked formalization and was typically carried out by the editors of the journals themselves.

It wasn't until the early 20th century that a more structured approach to peer review emerged. In response to the expanding scientific enterprise and the proliferation of subspecialties, the need for external expertise became evident. Journal editors faced challenges in making informed decisions about publication without the input of knowledgeable peers. Consequently, a formalized system took shape, with scientists actively seeking evaluations from other experts in the field.

The momentum behind this trend continued to grow, and by the time the journal Cell was launched in 1974 by Ben Lewin, the practice of sending papers for external review had become commonplace before publication. This marked a significant shift in the dynamics of peer review, highlighting its crucial role in maintaining the rigor and quality of scientific discourse.

Additionally, after World War II, the number of scientific journals and research articles increased significantly, and peer review became more important than ever. In response to this, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to fund peer-reviewed journals in the United States. This helped to increase the quality and rigor of scientific research and facilitated the establishment of peer review as a standard practice in scholarly publishing.

Peer review in the digital age

The advent of the internet and digital publishing has had a significant impact on peer review. Online journals and preprint servers have made it easier and faster to disseminate scientific research, but they have also led to concerns about the quality and reliability of peer review.

One of the major challenges facing peer review in the digital age is the issue of paywalls and remuneration. The current model of peer review relies heavily on the voluntary work of researchers, who review manuscripts for free in exchange for recognition and prestige. However, this model has been criticized for being exploitative and unsustainable.

In response to perceived shortcomings in traditional scholarly peer review processes, various modifications have been proposed to enhance transparency and address issues such as lack of incentives, wastefulness, bullying, and harassment.

One alternative model aimed at addressing these concerns is the open peer review system. In this model, reviewers are compensated for their work, and their reviews are made publicly available, introducing a financial incentive to encourage thorough and thoughtful evaluations. Three common modifications of open peer review include open identities, where authors and reviewers are aware of each other's identity; open reports, where review reports are published alongside the relevant article; and open participation, allowing the wider community to contribute to the review process, not just invited reviewers.

Another approach gaining traction is crowd-sourced peer review, a public review process involving contributions from any community member. In this model, there is no limit to the number of comments or reviews an article may receive. This approach, embraced by preprint servers like arXiv and bioRxiv, leverages the collective wisdom of a diverse audience to improve the quality of manuscripts through extensive feedback.


Peer review has come a long way since its origins in the 18th century. It has become an essential part of the scholarly publishing process and helps uphold the quality, integrity, and reliability of scientific research. However, the digital age has brought new challenges and opportunities for peer review, and the current model of peer review is undergoing scrutiny.

Alternative models of peer review are being proposed and tested, and it remains to be seen which model will be most effective in ensuring the quality and reliability of scientific research in the years to come. Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: peer review will continue to play a vital role in the scholarly publishing process, ensuring that only the best and most reliable research is published for the benefit of scholars.


Mohammed Arief
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