Peer review: Troubled from the start

Nature, peer-review, science, knowledge, legitimation, public-perception, process, history, culture

‘Peer review’ was a term borrowed from the procedures that government agencies used to decide who would receive financial support for scientific and medical research. When 'referee systems’ turned into 'peer review’, the process became a mighty public symbol of the claim that these powerful and expensive investigators of the natural world had procedures for regulating themselves and for producing consensus, even though some observers quietly wondered whether scientific referees were up to this grand calling. Current attempts to reimagine peer review rightly debate the psychology of bias, the problem of objectivity, and the ability to gauge reliability and importance, but they rarely consider the multilayered history of this institution. Peer review did not develop simply out of scientists’ need to trust one another’s research. It was also a response to political demands for public accountability. To understand that other practices of scientific judgement were once in place ought to be a part of any responsible attempt to chart a future path. The imagined functions of this institution are in flux, but they were never as fixed as many believe.