What is the role of refereeing?

Refereeing is a form of gatekeeping, or a way to manage what papers get published. It relies on the voluntary work of individuals who are thought to be knowledgeable in the topic of a paper under consideration. The Royal Society’s gatekeeping practices have not solely relied on refereeing as a way to safeguard against publishing papers thought unworthy of consideration by the Society and its members. From 1752 (?) all papers to be published had to be read before the Society. Only papers received from Fellows were accepted. A non-Fellow could ask a Fellow to communicate a paper for them. Communicators were therefore responsible for ensuring that submitted papers were suitable. All papers that were ‘read’ at a meeting of the Society were mentioned in the report of that meeting in Proceedings. So the Communicators role was very important to ensure appropriate papers got through. Even before reading, the Secretaries, and sometimes the President, decided if a paper was appropriate for reading. The Society’s ‘rejection rate’ – in terms of papers formally received and read, but not subsequently published in either periodical – was, consequently, very low (usually, below 10%). Despite the role of communicators, and the President and Secretaries, and the Committee of Papers, in 1832 the Society added an extra element to the process of choosing papers. Papers were to be sent to at least one, later two, individuals (referees) who were to be Fellows of the Society, in order for them to write reports on their suitability for the Transactions. These reports were then set before the Committee of Papers who decided on the outcome of papers. Papers were either published in Transactions, or not published (thus appearing in Proceedings only). The use of referees was instigated as a result of a series of criticisms the Society was facing over how the Committee of Papers chose papers to be published in Transactions. Referees presented a way for the Society to rely on individuals who were considered knowledgeable in the topic covered by a paper. Refereeing became standard practice, increasingly relying on two individuals. From the mid-nineteenth century, refereeing was increasingly used to allow for revisions to be made to papers, rather than simply as a process to protect the Society from criticism of unfair judgement on papers. Papers for the Society’s publication from 1830, Proceedings, were not systematically referred until much later in the twentieth century. In fact, refereeing was not widespread among many other publishers. It was largely used by learned Societies, commercial publishers relying on the expertise of the named editor(s), or on close acquaintances. On in the 1960s and 70s was refereeing adopted by commercial publishers, eventually becoming “peer review” as we know it today.