A Personal Perspective on 30 Years of Peer Review
Psychological Medicine (PSM) was started as a journal in 1970, so is a fairly ‘old’ publication. This was of course before online peer review systems existed, indeed before even computers in offices existed. Typewriters were the norm, and at that time mostly still manual although electric ones did exist. I do not know exactly how the reviewing was done in the very early days, but certainly in the 1980s authors were required to provide multiple typescripts (usually three or four), and if further copies were needed then it was usually possible to photocopy. Special forms were provided (I guess by the Press) for the reviewers to use. These were triplicate self-carboning affairs, and the idea was that the reviewer would keep one copy and return two copies to the journal editor, so that the editorial office would then keep one and send one to the authors. Of course many reviewers did not use these forms, or did not have secretaries to type up their comments, so a single sheet of handwritten comments was not in the least uncommon.
When I first started as editorial assistant I started with a change of editor and I took over from someone who had been with the founding editor of the journal. I inherited several boxes of randomly packed unsorted manuscripts in various stages of their journey, and spent many ‘happy’ hours finding things when authors contacted me (usually by phone or letter; I did have a computer but it was mainly at that time used as a word processor). Email was just about in its infancy and connections were by dial-up and incredibly slow. Not only that, but in fact only one computer in the department at that time was on a network anyway! And it was not mine! I did start a database to log submissions but it was a lot of data entry and only initially for record keeping. I did start to collect manuscripts on floppy disks in addition to paper (most manuscripts I see these days would not fit on the standard floppy disk of the time). Email attachments came later as bandwidth and speeds increased. It was not possible to add attachments to early emails. Also in those early days, prior to being able to look people up online in institutional directories, I used to avidly collect directories of society memberships (e.g. RCPsych, CINP) so that I would have addresses and phone numbers for potential reviewers.
My predecessor had been in the habit of not using a photocopier although I know for a fact that one was available to her. If she received only one copy of reviewer comments – either because only one of the copies of the form had been returned, or more often because the forms had not been used at all and comments were either typed or even handwritten on a blank sheet of paper, then she would cut the relevant comments out of the page to send to the authors – I literally found ‘filed’ pieces of paper with big square holes in them where the reviewer comments for authors had been. Also there was often no copy of the original manuscript saved – a title page if I was lucky, or maybe just the cover letter which originally accompanied the submission or a scribbled note of author and title on a piece of scrap paper. All the copies had been used to send to reviewers, who only very rarely returned them (postage costs played a big part). Therefore I would receive a revision and have nothing of the background to work with so would then have to go back to the authors to request a copy of the original manuscript (if they still had one!) and the original reviewer comments (if they had been kept) and hopefully a copy of the editor’s letter inviting the review – sometimes not even that was kept on the record. My first 3-4 months on the job were largely an exercise in guesswork.
Once email and internet became a bit more widespread, and more useful with faster speeds and greater bandwidth, (in the late 1990s) then it was possible to communicate more usefully via email, although submitting via email still had to wait a while, but a great many people still did not have internet access so it was still a very mixed bunch of paper and disks.
Compare all that to the relative speed and efficiency of online submission and peer review today – all in no more than 25 years!