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Institute for Biomedical Sciences: Scholarly Communication and Peer Review

A guide to library collections and access for students in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences.

What is Peer Review?

Peer review refers to the process by which a manuscript is accepted for publication by a scholarly journal (aka; scientific journal, academic journal, etc.)   The peer review process usually follows the following steps:

  1. An author submits a manuscript to a scientific journal
  2. The editor(s) for that journal will distribute the manuscript to several - usually 3 or 4 - peer reviewers (researchers who work on similar topics as that presented in the manuscript)
    • It's important to note that the peer review process involves a double-blind arrangement wherein the author's name is removed from the manuscript and the author is not told who their reviewers are - thereby protecting the author from the possible malicious action of a competitor who may be a reviewer, while at the same time protecting the anonymity of the reviewers
  3. These peer reviewers will read the manuscript and determine whether the manuscript is worthy of publication in the journal to which it has been submitted.   Manuscripts are judged on a number of criteria:
    • Is the research novel?
    • Is the research important?  Does it add to/extend current knowledge in that area?
    • Did the author use appropriate experimental techniques and protocols?
    • Did the author properly cite and consider all relevant research literature?
    • Do the conclusions reached by the author naturally follow from the experimental results?
    • Are there other possible conclusions which can be drawn from the evidence presented?  Do the authors need to rule out some other alternate explanation of their data?
  4. The reviewer's recommendations are the basis of the journal editor's decision - the editor(s) may:
    • Accept the manuscript
    • Reject the manuscript
    • Accept the manuscript pending revisions
  5. If the manuscript is accepted pending revisions, the author may alter the manuscript to address the suggestions of the reviewer or else they can decide to defend their original choices
  6. Thus, the peer review process can become a conversation in which the manuscript evolves based on this dialogue between the reviewers and authors

How Can You Know if an Article has Been Peer-Reviewed?

Many of the article databases owned by the Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library contain both peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed articles

It is not always immediately apparent whether or not an article has been peer-reviewed or not (peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed articles may look identical in terms of their format, authors, subject coverage etc.)

There are two main ways to make sure that you are only retrieving peer-reviewed results:

  1. Limit Your Searches - many databases allow users to limit searches by "peer-reviewed", "scholarly", "academic", etc. (these terms of often used interchangeably with 'peer-review').                   As an example, look at "Academic Search Premier" - in the 'limit your results' section you will see an option for "Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals" - selecting this option will remove all non peer-reviewed sources from your results
  • Ulrich's Periodicals Directory - this is available through Himmelfarb's electronic database collection - to determine whether an article is peer-reviewed, simply search for the title of the journal in which your article of interest is published in the search bar at the upper right (search as "title (exact)").   Look for the 'referee's jersey' - Ulrich's Periodicals Directory - to the left of the name of the journal ("refereed" is another synonym for "peer-reviewed") - the presence of the 'referee's jersey' indicates that all of the articles published in that journal are peer-reviewed.   If you do not see the referee's jersey, then you know that any article you find in that journal is not peer-reviewed.  

Primary and Secondary Sources

When looking up scholarly information, it's important to be able to distinguish between primary and secondary literature:

Primary

  • The author is sharing, for the first time in print, the results of research that they have completed themselves
  • Means by which authors share their novel and important results with colleagues around the world
  • Also allows authors to claim precedence for a given result or hypothesis
  • Written by/for 'experts' in a given field - therefore these articles can be difficult for a layman to understand as the authors assume that the reader is at least somewhat knowledgeable in the area being covered
  • Primary articles typically contain the following sections:
    • Abstract - short summary of the article
    • Introduction - background information on the topic to be covered
    • Materials & Methods - the experimental techniques and protocols used in the study
    • Results - a simple description of what was observed during the course of experiments
    • Conclusions - how the results alter or bolster the initial hypothesis
    • Discussion - an interpretation of the observations in the broader context of previously published results
    • Works Cited - a list of all articles, books, websites, etc. which have been referenced in the article

Secondary

  • The author is summarizing work that they and/or other researchers in a given field have accomplished
  • The intent is to give a broad overview of the current knowledge in a field of study
  • These articles usually do not present any novel (previously unpublished) results 
  • Usually contains all of the sections listed above for primary articles except for Materials and Methods (this is a common way of discriminating between primary and secondary literature if you can't tell otherwise)

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