Peer Review as we know it today dates back to 1967, when the term was first used in the U.S. to describe “a process by which something proposed (as for research or publication) is evaluated by a group of experts in the appropriate field” (Merriam Webster, 2017). The term became widely used in English in the 1970s.
Prior to 1967, and for most of the history of scientific journals, the journal editor made most of the decisions regarding the selection, review, and evaluation of suitable manuscripts. However, journal editors such as Norman Lockyer, the founding editor of Nature, sometimes sought the opinions of their connections in the scientific community, which highlighted the limitations of relying on the judgement of a single scholar (Fyfe, 2015).
To limit the potential for bias, The Royal Society in London introduced editorial regulations in 1752 by setting up a Committee of Papers to evaluate contributions presented at the society’s meetings for possible publication. This committee had to reach its decisions collectively and therefore implemented a voting system. Around the same time, the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris appointed small committees comprising paid academics to investigate and assess the merits of inventions and discoveries by non-academics and report back in writing (Fyfe, 2105). Both of these systems ensured that more than one person was involved in the decision-making process and that expert judgement was sought.
The early nineteenth century saw the start of the practice we now recognize as “peer review,” over 100 years before the term “peer review” was born. The Royal Society, among other learned societies in London, started to seek reports from referees to ensure more expertise in the editorial decision-making process. After experimenting with jointly authored reports, from 1832 onwards, the Royal Society opted for independently written reports, which were used to inform the Committee of Papers’ decisions. Refereeing quickly became a normal part of the publication process at the learned societies, and by the mid-nineteenth century, George Gabriel Stokes, secretary of the Royal Society in 1854–1885, had developed the practice of sharing referees’ suggestions with authors and guiding authors on how to respond (Fyfe, 2015). In the late twentieth century, refereeing was rebranded as “peer review” and has remained unchanged for the best part of 50 years.