The Rise of Peer Review: Melinda Baldwin on the History of Refereeing at Scientific Journals and Funding Bodies

Robert Harington:

What led to your writing this article about the history of peer review?

I think my peer review project started when I discovered something really unexpected about Nature: that it hadn’t employed systematic external refereeing until 1973! When I first learned that, I assumed Nature was unusual, but as it turned out, a lot of commercial journals did not consult referees about every paper they published until well into the 1970s and even the 1980s. That seemed especially true outside the US. I didn’t have the space to explore that issue fully in my book on Nature, but as I wrapped up that project I knew I wanted to write more about the history of peer review.

What are the key highlights of your study that you would like readers of The Scholarly Kitchen to carry with them? Are there any stories you would particularly like to highlight?

One major takeaway point that I think might surprise Scholarly Kitchen readers is that peer review is much, much younger than we usually assume. There’s this story about Henry Oldenburg, the first editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, that claims he was the first person to consult external referees. Which would suggest that peer review has been part of scientific publishing ever since the first scientific journal.

But it turns out that’s not really true. The referee system as we know it today first started to take shape in the nineteenth century, and it developed very slowly and haphazardly from there. Refereeing was most common in Anglophone countries and among journals that were affiliated with learned societies like the Royal Society of London. Well into the twentieth century, commercial journals and journals outside the English-speaking world tended to rely on editorial judgment instead of referee opinions.