To understand the peer review process, one must first have an understanding of the concept of a journal.
What is a journal?
Scholarly journals exist to disseminate information within an academic or professional field. Journal articles are written by experts in a particular field, and aimed at an audience of other experts within that field.
Doctors sharing their research finding with doctors and other medical professionals in the Journal of the American Medical Association
Sociologists writing for sociologists and other behavioral scientists in the pages of the Journal of Family Studies
Philosophers sharing their ideas and research with other philosophers in the Journal of Ethics
How can I identify a journal?
It is common for journal articles to include an author's credentials right alongside her name, because credentials are very important in scholarly publications. Journal articles are often substantially longer than articles in magazines and newspapers, are very specific in terms of subject matter, and contain discipline-specific vocabulary and concepts. In addition, authors of journal articles cite their sources, so you're likely to see a bibliography or footnotes.
Journals sound intense!
The specific nature of journal articles, combined with the use of specialized vocabulary, means they are not always easy to read for the non-expert. It it is recommended that students have some basic knowledge about their topic before delving into scholarly information. This basic knowledge might be gleaned, for instance, from some of our Background Information databases.
Where does peer review fit into all of this?
Peer review is a process that some scholarly journal publishers use to ensure the articles they publish represent the best scholarship currently available. Peer-reviewed journals are sometimes called "refereed" journals. When an article is submitted to a peer-reviewed/refereed journal, the editors send it out to other scholars in the same field to get their opinion on the quality of the scholarship and its relevance and importance to the field. This means that when an article is finally published in a peer-reviewed publication, there is a consensus among experts that the information communicated in that article is of the highest quality.
Not all scholarly publications are peer-reviewed, though it is very common for professors to request peer-reviewed articles to ensure you are exposed to the most credible information within your discipline.