HealthAugust 31, 2019

What is a peer-reviewed journal?

Let’s take a closer look at what the peer-review process is, what sets peer-reviewed journals apart, and how you can identify these journals.

By: Rose Guerrieri, MLIS, RN, Library Director and Assistant Professor, Kent State University Trumbull Campus, Warren, OH

Peer review, a hallmark of scholarly literature, is a process designed to present the best evidence for practice.1,2 Peer-reviewed journals may also be called refereed journals or juried journals. The peer-review process isn’t specific to medicine and nursing; other disciplines and professions also use it in the publication process.

What’s the peer-review process, what sets peer-reviewed journals apart, and how can you identify these journals? Let’s take a closer look.

A closer look at peer review

The purpose of peer review is to provide sound, up-to-date scientific information. With peer review, articles authored by specialists in a field are judged by their peers—other specialists in the field. When an author submits an article to a peer-reviewed journal, the journal editor asks several of the author’s peers (sometimes called referees) to evaluate the article, not only for clarity of communication, but also for scientific validity. The process is “blind.” In other words, the reviewers don’t know who the author is and vice versa. The reviewers may recommend that the submitted article be published as is, returned to the author for revisions, then reconsidered for publication, or rejected for publication.3 To summarize, here are the steps in the peer-review process:

  1. An author writes an article to disseminate research or professional practice.
  2. The author submits the article to a journal for publication.
  3. Withholding the author’s name, the journal editor sends the article to one or more peer reviewers for feedback.
  4. The peer reviewers independently read and evaluate the article and recommend whether it should be published. To ensure objectivity, reviewers don’t know who else is reviewing the article.
  5. The journal editors also review the article and, based on their own judgment, knowledge of their readers’ needs, and the recommendations of the peer reviewers, decide whether to publish it.4

Not everything published in a peer-reviewed journal necessarily undergoes the peer-review process. For example, news items, editorials, letters, and book reviews may not be peer reviewed.1

What does blind mean?

Most peer review is double blind, which means the reviewers don’t know who the author is or what the author’s institution is, and the author doesn’t receive any information that might identify the reviewers. Reviews are blinded to eliminate bias for or against particular authors or institutions.

Some peer review is single blind; this means that the reviewers know who the author is, but the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. Reviewers who know who the author is may be biased by the author’s past publications or institutional affiliation. Double-blind peer review is done to eliminate this bias. In nursing journals, peer review is usually double blind.5

Confirming status

How can you determine if a journal is peer reviewed? You may find this information on the page of editorial information, usually at the beginning of the journal or with the table of contents. You can also check the journal’s instructions for authors, which describe the article submission process. These instructions may be found in the front or at the very end of a journal or on the journal’s website.

If you can’t find the information, you can e-mail or call the editor. To confirm that a journal is peer reviewed, your librarian can look it up for you in publications such as Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory or Medical and Health Care Books and Serials in Print. You can give your librarian a call for this information—a trip to the library isn’t usually needed.

Sorting out peer-reviewed articles

Don’t confuse an article from a peer-reviewed journal with a review article. A review article describes the current state of research or practice on a particular topic. If you search the PubMed database at, you can limit your search results to review articles but not to articles from peer-reviewed journals. The PubMed database is produced by the National Library of Medicine and is freely accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

If you have access to the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) database, you can limit search results to the peer-reviewed journal subset. CINAHL is available by subscription and is most likely to be accessible through your hospital or university library.

More signs of peer review

Although peer review is a hallmark of scholarly literature, other characteristics are common to scholarly journals. For example, they may be written in the technical language of a field and not easily understood by someone outside that field. Typically, sources for scholarly articles are clearly referenced with footnotes or endnotes. Articles also provide the authors’ affiliations, such as the hospital or university where they work. Many peer-reviewed journals provide an abstract (brief description of the article) below the title of the article.6


  1. Yudkin B. Critical Reading: Making Sense of Research Papers in Life Sciences and Medicine. London and New York, NY: Routledge; 2006.
  2. Kearney MH, Freda MC. Nurse editors’ views on the peer review process. Res Nurs Health. 2005;28(6):444-452.
  3. Oermann MH, Hays JC. Writing for Publication in Nursing. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company; 2010.
  4. Miracle VA. The peer review process. Dimens Crit Care Nurs. 2008;27(2):67-69.
  5. Baggs JG, Broome ME, Dougherty MC, Freda MC, Kearney MH. Blinding in peer review: the preferences of reviewers for nursing journals. J Adv Nurs. 2008;64(2):131-138.
  6. Collins H. Creative Research: The Theory and Practice of Research for the Creative Industries. AVA Academia; distributed in the USA and Canada by Ingram Publisher Services; 2010.

Reprinted from Nursing Management: August 2012, Vol. 43, No. 8, p. 47-50.

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