Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, Volume 2, Number 1, 2009 © Springer Publishing Company 5
Peer Review Agreement or
Peer Review Disagreement:
Which Is Better?
Sven Hemlin, PhD
University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Peer review is generally considered the cornerstone of the scientific control system. Hence it is critical
that peer review works well. The empirical finding that reviewers often disagree among themselves is the
starting point for an analysis of peer review. Depending on the reasons for such disagreements, I argue
that disagreement, as well as agreement, among reviewers can have both positive and negative effects
for science. The empirical research on peer review is analyzed according to a categorization of review
objects (manuscripts or research applications) and review outcomes (approval or rejection) and draws on
psychological judgment and decision-making research. Moreover, bias in peer review is scrutinized. The
conclusion offers implications for the peer review system and for scientific research.
Keywords: peer review; citations; (dis)agreement; bias
lthough the peer review system is the basis of
quality control in scientiﬁ c research, it is some-
what surprising that reviewers often disagree
about the merits of many research submissions. Peer
review studies have typically found disagreement is
common among reviewers on research presented in
manuscripts for scientiﬁ c publication and in grant ap-
plications. Moreover, research ﬁ nds that for various
reasons reviewers are often biased in their judgments
on submissions. This article attempts to clarify why
peer review disagreement occurs, to explain the na-
ture of peer review bias, and to suggest implications
of such disagreement and bias on peer review and
scientiﬁ c research. Psychological research on cogni-
tive judgments will be applied in the analyses.
The most striking report of peer review disagree-
ment is probably the Peters and Ceci study (1982).
For this study, the authors resubmitted 12 articles to
the psychology journals that had previously published
them. Of the 12 articles, 8 were rejected on method-
ological grounds (with high interreferee agreement),
3 were detected as already published, and 1 was
accepted. The Peters and Ceci study caused a heated
debate among scholars (Harnad, 1982, 1985) result-
ing in the paradoxical conclusion that reviewers, who
should be expert reviewers, actually are not (Millman,
1982). If they had been in agreement on the decision
to approve or reject we could ideally—at least if ar-
guments were good—conclude that they were expert
reviewers. However, this is not the whole story, as
will be evident later on in this article.
Other studies raise more problematic issues con-
cerning the peer review system. First, some authors
argue that the outcome of peer review is foremost a
question of which reviewers are chosen for the re-
view (Fuller, 1995). This is primarily an issue for
editors and research grant committees who choose
reviewers and a warning that they be careful in their
choices. Reviewers should be experts in the ﬁ eld of
research being reported or applied for. In addition,
recent discussions in such major journals as Nature
and The Scientist have asked whether the peer review
system is near collapse because of too few reviewers
for the many manuscripts submitted. The concern
is that this situation may lead to poor peer review
quality and biases. Second, another problem con-
cerns individual and group decision biases. Experts
may be biased in their decisions. For example, a re-
viewer (or a review committee) may with or without
awareness be more positive to a manuscript from her/
his (their) own university or ﬁ eld than from others.
Third, and in addition to the reviewer disagreement
debate, a concern has grown about the function of
the peer review system in science in general, particu-
larly as it relates to the prevention of fraud, decep-
tion, and misconduct in science (Chubin & Hackett,
1990; Cicchetti, 1991; Cole, Cole, & Simon, 1981;
Daniel, 1993; Hargens, 1988; Hemlin, 1996; Judson,
1994; Marsh, Jayasinghe, & Bond, 2008; Sandström
& Hällsten, 2008; Weller, 2001; Wennerås & Wold,
1997). This debate concerns another cornerstone in
peer review connected to research ethics, namely to
guarantee that errors, deliberate deception, fraud,
and sloppy research are not published and spread in
the scientiﬁ c community.
There are now a number of peer review studies that
reach the same conclusion as Peters and Ceci’s (1982)
classic research. In a review, Cicchetti (1991) reported
surprisingly low interreferee agreements, from as low
as .18 to a more acceptable .57. Weller’s (2001) re-
view, restricted to editorial peer review, also supports
these results. Weller reported ﬁ ndings of wide-ranging
peer agreement among reviewers for various journals,
from 14% (or 86% disagreement) to 98% (or 2% dis-
agreement) and an average of 49% agreement (or 51%
disagreement). Many studies Weller reported on were
in the ﬁ eld of psychology, although about 50% were
in the medical ﬁ eld. It should be noted that Weller
presented the results as agreements among reviewers,
although disagreements might have been presented.
In addition to her ﬁ gures, I have added the disagree-
ment percentages as well.
Furthermore, it does not appear that peer review
disagreement is a diminishing historical phenom-
enon in contemporary science. Recent studies of peer
reviews of grant applications still report low agree-
ment ﬁ gures (kappa = .36) in medical research (Mayo
et al., 2006). Pearson correlations of .15 for single-
rater reliabilities of the quality of grant applications
in a cross-disciplinary database of the Australian
Research Council (Marsh et al., 2008) support the
general picture of peer disagreement.
Given this widespread disagreement on the mer-
its of an acceptable journal article or acceptable grant
application, there is concern about the implications
for scientiﬁ c research when reviewers do not agree on
what good science is. Yet we know science is always
developing and theories are not permanent. The issue
becomes whether agreement or disagreement among
reviewers is preferable in scientiﬁ c research. This
issue is further elaborated on in the following four
sections of this article. In sum, one might presume
that agreements and disagreements in peer review
are welcome if the reviews are done by experts in an
unbiased way. In the case of a disagreement it should
be clear to the author what the arguments are for the
In the ﬁ rst section of this article, I review a num-
ber of peer review studies and analyze various rea-
sons for peer review decisions. In the second section,
I distinguish between research grant application re-
view and manuscript review and between approval
and rejection decisions in peer reviews. In the third
section, I discuss bias and ethical issues in peer re-
view research. Finally, I draw conclusions about some
implications of the (dis)agreement in peer review for
scientiﬁ c research as well as offer suggestions on how
to improve the peer review system. In addition, I draw
on psychological judgment and decision- making
research in the analysis throughout the article.
WHICH IS BETTER: PEER REVIEW
AGREEMENT OR PEER REVIEW
We propose the following hypothetical examples
to address the issue of whether peer review agree-
ment or disagreement is preferable. First, consider
the situation where reviewers agree on a manuscript,
a grant application, or other object (e.g., candidates
for professorships, lectureships, or scientiﬁ c prizes).
For manuscripts, a favorable agreement may be ratio-
nally explained by reference to the scientiﬁ c merits
of the submission. The results may be new, the re-
search methods sound, and the conclusions valid. An
unfavorable agreement, conversely, may rationally be
explained with the counterarguments that the results
are not new, incorrect methods have been used, and
the conclusions are invalid. For grant applications,
PEER REVIEW (DIS)AGREEMENT 7
a similar rational logic in the acceptance/rejection
process would be used.
However, if the favorable agreement is reached
nonrationally, either for manuscripts or for grant ap-
plications, we would suspect that in some way the
reviewers were biased toward the author, the subject,
and/or the results. Unfavorable agreement, reached
nonrationally, may be the result of prejudice, hostil-
ity or competition. The conclusion is that rational
agreement is positive and nonrational agreement is
negative. To counteract bad reviews and to increase
reliability in peer review, editors and grant applica-
tion committees take precaution by using several in-
dependent reviewers. However, peer review validity
is still not resolved.
Second, consider the situation where there is dis-
agreement among the reviewers. If the disagreement
is rational, the reviewers may disagree on the mer-
its of a manuscript or of a grant application because
they have applied different quality criteria. Using
manuscripts as an example, one reviewer may be im-
pressed by the novelty of the results, though another
doubts the reliability of the data in the study. This
example demonstrates that cognitive judgments are
not perfect in human reasoning (e.g., Slovic, 2001).
The nonrational disagreement may be explained by
the same biased reasoning found in the case of non-
rational agreement. Similarly, the conclusion is that
rational disagreement is positive and nonrational dis-
agreement is negative.
TWO CRUCIAL PEER REVIEW
Peer reviews are either ex post judgments, such as
manuscript peer reviews, or ex ante judgments, such
as grant application peer reviews. An ex post judg-
ment is done after research is carried out, whereas an
ex ante judgment is done before research is conducted
(Hemlin, 1999; Montgomery & Hemlin, 1990). The
division between manuscript and grant application
review is consistent with the historical evolution of
peer review reported by Burnham (1990, 1992). Con-
tradictory results from studies concerning degree of
agreement among reviewers on both ex post and ex ante
judgments were reviewed by Cicchetti (1991), Hemlin
(1999), and Hemlin and Montgomery (1990). Some
studies reviewed showed a low to moderately high in-
terreferee agreement (e.g., correlations of .19–.54 for
manuscript reviews), and others demonstrated consis-
tently low ﬁ gures (e.g., .15–.37 for grant reviews).
One conclusion from these reviews is that it is
probably important to divide peer review disagree-
ment into two categories: whether the reviewers’
conﬂ ict concerns completed research ( ex post ) or pro-
posed research ( ex ante ). For instance, it may be more
problematic to understand fully the potential of a pro-
posed research project than a completed research task.
Judgments in the ﬁ rst case are clearly more risky than
in the second case. Following this, a seminal study of
peer review of grant applications showing that con-
sensus was low and chance high in reviews (Cole et
al., 1981) was corroborated by Marsh et al. (2008). Let
us examine in more detail ex post (manuscript) and ex
ante (grant proposals) reviews of peer evaluation and
agreement and disagreement among reviewers.
Two reviews of empirical investigations of peer re-
views of manuscripts (Cicchetti also for grant pro-
posals) submitted for publication reveal a remarkable
lack of reliability and validity in refereeing (Cicchetti,
1991; Weller, 2001). Burnham (1992) proposed a
provisional explanation of this result, namely that
the standards against which manuscripts are judged
vary between disciplines and between journals. Some
studies also show this. Social science journals have
had generally higher rejection rates (e.g., 87% in the
ﬁ eld of sociology according to Hargens, 1988, 1990)
compared to hard science journals with their con-
siderably lower rejection rates (e.g., 19% for nuclear
physics and 22% for condensed matter). However,
general ﬁ elds in the hard sciences have higher rejec-
tion rates than more specialized ﬁ elds in the hard
sciences, making rejection rates in their journals al-
most similar to general social science journals. For
example, 30% of the papers are rejected for gen-
eral physics (Cicchetti, 1991). Studies by Hargens
(1988, 1990) showed that disciplinary differences
in consensus on research priorities and procedures
contribute to variations in the journals’ peer review
systems. For instance, physics for a long time pe-
riod (1948–1956) relied on a single referee for each
submitted manuscript to its leading journal Physical
Review (Cicchetti, 1991). A possible explanation for
rejection rate variation may be that there is gener-
ally a higher degree of consensus on trustworthy re-
search reported in the hard sciences than in the soft
sciences (social sciences and the humanities). More-
over, the common picture of higher rejection rates in
the social sciences than in the hard sciences is largely
supported by Weller´s (2001) review of manuscript
peer review. However, as noted earlier, this observa-
tion is not valid for the general hard science journals.
A number of researchers have attempted to explain
differences in acceptance and rejection decisions in
journal peer reviews (Cicchetti, 1991; Van Lange,
1996). Cicchetti found that manuscript reviewers for
scientiﬁ c journals agreed on accepted manuscripts
in speciﬁ c and focused disciplines, or subﬁ elds
(e.g., nuclear physics and behavioral neuroscience)
and disagreed on submissions in general and diffuse
disciplines, or subﬁ elds (e.g., general ﬁ elds of medi-
cine, cultural anthropology, and social psychology).
Van Lange (1996) found there was greater agreement
about acceptance than rejection of manuscripts in
social psychology. Furthermore, according to Van
Lange, social psychologists, when acting as review-
ers, believed their own manuscripts to be superior in
quality to other manuscripts. However, Van Lange’s
study was restricted in sample size (48 participants)
and used a simple method (ratings of quality of
Finally, it is possible that the more consensual
peer evaluations in the focused disciplines of the
hard sciences reﬂ ect their degree of formalization.
This is to some extent supported in recent research
on scientiﬁ c creativity by Simonton (in press) where
he argues that a hierarchical organization of scientiﬁ c
disciplines can be done on a dimension from the logi-
cal, objective, formal, and conventional disciplines
(e.g., nuclear physics) to the intuitive, subjective,
emotional, and individualistic disciplines such as the
arts and literature disciplines.
Regarding grant applications, there is, according to em-
pirical research, less difference in acceptance/ rejection
rates between the hard and soft sciences (Cole et al.,
1981; Marsh et al., 2008). In addition, studies on grant
applications have shown that reviewers are generally
more unanimous in their agreement on rejected ap-
plications and less on accepted ones. Cicchetti (1991)
concluded that the criteria for rejections are more reli-
able because of this greater agreement. This unanimity
on rejections could also mean that the characteristics
of a rejected application are more distinctive than the
characteristics of other applications during the initial
phase of the decision-making process. However, Cole
and colleagues (1981) argue that reviewers of grant
applications may disagree, even when using the same
evaluation criteria. The reviewers in their study of
National Science Foundation (NSF) grant applications
simply disagreed on the nature of good science as pre-
sented in grant applications.
The differences between manuscript and grant
application reviews must be taken seriously when
studying the decision process in peer review. In
manuscript reviews it is clear that there are differ-
ences between natural and social sciences as well as
between ﬁ elds within the two main areas. According
to Cicchetti’s (1991) empirical studies of peer review
decisions, there is more consensus on manuscripts
in certain hard sciences (specialized physics) than
in others (general physics, medicine, and the behav-
ioral sciences). In addition, manuscript decisions are
often made by one individual (the editor), and grant
application decisions are typically made by groups
(scientists). However, this difference is not clear in
many of the studies referred to above. Moreover,
acceptance decisions appear to be more difﬁ cult than
rejection decisions, with the possible exception of ac-
ceptance decisions on social psychology manuscripts.
As noted previously, there is generally more con-
sensus on grant application rejections than on accep-
tances. More recently, Niemenmaa, Montgomery, and
Hemlin (1995) found support for the claim that grant
application acceptance and rejection decisions in psy-
chology differ. They found that the academic degree,
previous grants, and certain ﬁ elds (cognition, percep-
tion, psychophysics) differentiated between granted
and nongranted applications in psychology in Sweden
during a 6-year period. Gender only indirectly inﬂ u-
enced decisions because more females than males were
represented in the ﬁ elds of psychology (social-clinical)
that were less often granted. In a recent study, Marsh
et al. (2008) generally found no differences between
the hard and soft sciences in peer reviews of grant
applications. This is perhaps a bit surprising given the
PEER REVIEW (DIS)AGREEMENT 9
ous rejection of a valuable manuscript in physics (see
also Kassirer & Campion, 1994). Horrobin (1990),
who compiled a list of 18 manuscript and grant ap-
plication rejections of innovative research, mainly in
medicine, stressed that the aim of peer review is not
only quality control but also tracking of innovations
in science. Campanario (1996) analyzed the 400 most
cited articles in Current Contents to identify problems
in publishing innovative research articles. He found
that 10.7% of the 400 articles had originally been re-
jected or severely criticized, although eventually they
These studies focus on the difﬁ culty of achieving
a balance between quality control and the encourage-
ment of new ideas in science. A problem arises when
reviewers focus more on the former task than on the
latter. One possible explanation for this imbalance is
that it is more difﬁ cult to support a new idea than to
evaluate whether research is acceptable by scientiﬁ c
standards. As a result, conventional research is sup-
ported more often than innovative research (Sigel-
man & Whicker, 1987). Cognitive judgments may
favor the known to the unknown because they may
be effects of conﬁ gurative thinking rather than piece-
meal analysis (Fiske & Pavelchak, 1986).
It has also been shown that cognitive particular-
ism is prevalent in peer reviews of grant applications.
This means that one subﬁ eld is unfairly favored over
another (e.g., cognitive psychology over personal-
ity psychology). One study that reveals this bias was
based on research council protocols in the Swedish
Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sci-
ences (HSFR) group for psychology in the years 1988–
1993 (Hemlin, Niemenmaa, & Montgomery, 1995;
Niemenmaa et al., 1995). As previously reported, the
reviewers favored cognitive psychology, perception,
and psychophysics to clinical and social psychology.
The results showed that applications were granted
in those ﬁ elds in line with the reviewer’s own ﬁ elds.
In another study based on observations and tape re-
cordings of 10 meetings of the Science and Engineer-
ing Research Council (SERC) in Great Britain (Travis
& Collins, 1991), grant applications that were ap-
proved tended to be from the same cognitive ﬁ eld as
the peers who evaluated them. As suggested by these
two studies, the cognitive similarity of applicants and
reviewers is important in explaining success in grant
applications. However, empirical data are few, and
differences in peer review decisions on manuscripts in
natural and social science journals.
In conclusion, it is clear that the current under-
standing of decision making in peer review is limited.
However, we can conclude that there are three fac-
tors important in evaluating peer review results:
(a) grant application peer review or manuscript peer
review, (b) disciplinary (hard-soft) or subﬁ eld direc-
tion (general-special), and (c) acceptance or rejection
BIAS IN PEER REVIEW
A number of investigations of peer review bias have
been done by funding organizations in various coun-
tries (e.g., National Institutes of Health [NIH] in the
United States, Canadian Institutes of Health [CIH]
in Canada, and Medical Research Council [MRC] in
Great Britain). According to an investigation by the
General Accounting Ofﬁ ce in the United States, peer
reviews were deﬁ cient in the following respects: a
bias against younger applicants, women, and minori-
ties, unarticulated judgment criteria such as expecta-
tion of results, the Matthew effect, and halo effects
(see LaFollette, 1994; Mayo et al., 2006).
Bias stemming from researchers’ rank and
departmental/institutional status was reported by
Cole, Rubin, and Cole (1977). These ﬁ ndings mean
that younger scientists and scientists from less pres-
tigious institutions are disadvantaged. Two related
problems that are particularly inﬂ uential in peer re-
view of grant applications are the “old boys’ network”
and the Matthew effect, both of which favor estab-
lished and higher ranked scientists (Merton, 1973).
Moreover, Wennerås and Wold (1997) found in-
stances of sexism and nepotism in a study of a Swed-
ish funding organization in the medical sciences. In a
replication of this study 10 years later, the sexist bias
was reversed (men were disfavored), but nepotism
still prevailed (Sandström & Hällsten, 2008). More-
over, a recent Australian study reported no gender
bias across research areas in the sciences and social
sciences (Marsh et al., 2008).
In addition to these examples of bias, peer re-
view has been revealed to be deﬁ cient because of its
rejection of research innovations. Ruderfer (1980)
described an example in his case history of an errone-
the borders of a scientiﬁ c ﬁ eld are not clearly deﬁ ned
in these studies.
In summary, as these various studies indicate,
the peer review system appears somewhat unreli-
able. Whether reviewers agree or disagree, a number
of reviewers appear subject to biases, with the result
that some manuscripts are accepted and some grant
applications are awarded, not on their own merits but
according to the personal prejudices of the review-
ers. Of course, like people in general, reviewers may
also tend to be guided by stereotypes and prejudices
(Fiske & Taylor, 1991). In the next section, I exam-
ine the implications of peer review (dis)agreement
and suggest how to improve peer review in scientiﬁ c
IMPLICATIONS OF PEER REVIEW
Two related questions are addressed in this conclud-
ing section. First, what does it mean for scientiﬁ c
research if disagreement is as likely, if not more likely,
as agreement among reviewers who review a scientiﬁ c
endeavor? Second, taking evidence of peer review bias
into consideration, how can peer review be improved?
In the following discussion, I assume that peer review
decisions are rationally and positively grounded in
sound reasoning. Nonrational decision making in peer
reviews should be fought by stricter peer review proce-
dures but is set aside here as invalid and negative.
Disagreement, frequent among reviewers in the
scientiﬁ c community, may be a sign of weakness in
science. One could argue that this is more common
in the social sciences than in the natural sciences be-
cause disagreements are more frequent in the former
(Simonton, 2006). This could be explained by the
social sciences’ weak paradigms, which are character-
ized among other things by high journal rejection rates
and particularism in grant application reviews (Glick,
Miller, & Cardinal, 2007) and the connected idea of
a hierarchy of sciences where physical and other hard
sciences rank higher than all social sciences (Simon-
ton, 2006; Simonton, in press). If we cannot agree on
what good or bad science is, it appears that the criteria
for evaluating science are not absolute but relative. Or,
as is perhaps the case, scientists have different criteria
by which they evaluate science. With either explana-
tion, the result is disagreement in peer review.
Conversely, if reviewers were to agree in al-
most all cases, then the implication may be that the
standards of good science were clear and agreed on
and that reviewers were merely rule-followers. One
possible beneﬁ t of such scientiﬁ c standards would be
that all authors submitting manuscripts to journals
and making grant applications to funding organiza-
tions would know the expected criteria. However,
studies on editorial peer review where standardized
procedures and explicit criteria were used have re-
sulted in more agreements only to a limited extent
(Hemlin, 1996; Weller, 2001). Also, in another study
on grant applications, reviewers disagreed even when
the criteria were used to promote the review (Cole
et al., 1981). Perhaps reviewers would disagree de-
spite the most explicit criteria and most rigorous
procedures. As a consequence of this disagreement
among reviewers, scientists may spend many useless
hours on writing grant applications instead of doing
Ultimately, peer review is a human judgment
process that is far from perfect. We know from psy-
chological decision-making research that people are
sometimes nonrational and fail to follow rules (e.g.,
Tversky & Kahnemann, 1974). People are compli-
cated because of their use of a number of heuristics
and because of the inﬂ uence on them by a number
of internal and external factors. Yet such nonmecha-
nistic rationality characterizing human judgment
may affect scientiﬁ c research positively in the long
run because it diminishes completely streamlined
and predictable scientiﬁ c results (Hemlin, 1996).
Essentially, scientiﬁ c research, which is about the un-
known, should push the boundaries of the unknown
The second question, posed above, concerns the
problem of peer review bias. A number of remedies
to improve peer review have been suggested in the
literature. First, it is clear that reviewers should be
changed frequently and should not be appointed
by the tools of nepotism and the old boys’ network
(Fuller, 1995; Weller, 2001). Second, quality crite-
ria in scientiﬁ c research should be discussed and
changed occasionally to discourage lockstep rule-
following and unoriginal, mainstream research, par-
PEER REVIEW (DIS)AGREEMENT 11
ticularly because we know that many scientists are
experts at meeting organizations’ funding criteria. It
is critical to keep the discussion alive on what repre-
sents good science. Third, as some authors propose,
it is necessary to use additional quality indicators
such as citations, impact factors, and h-index (i.e.,
the publication-to-citation ratio) to support the peer
review process (Shadish, 1989). Such a possibility ex-
ists, but as is often pointed out by scientometricians,
indicators are suitable only at the aggregate levels of
scientiﬁ c research and not for individual scientists
(Cole & Cole, 1973).
The psychology of peer review in science is a subset
of the larger ﬁ eld of the psychology of science (Feist,
2006; Gholson et al., 1989). Psychological factors,
cognitive, motivational, and social processes, inﬂ u-
ence all stages of science, including its evaluation.
Disagreement in peer review will no doubt continue.
This situation has its drawbacks, but in fact it can
be beneﬁ cial to scientiﬁ c research. However, there is
beneﬁ t in disagreement only if such disagreements in
the peer review system are based on rational grounds.
A complete agreement in peer review will never be
realized because scientists are not perfect decision-
makers or judges. Biases in peer review will never be
zero, but stricter peer review procedures initiated by
editors and grant committees will be needed. Moreover,
it is even not desirable to eliminate all disagreement be-
cause it would soon lead to streamlined research that
would stiﬂ e scientiﬁ c development. All other disagree-
ments in the peer review system based on nonrational
grounds must be fought against ﬁ ercely.
In the end, there is still a need for systematic and
thorough research on peer review. Our knowledge in
this ﬁ eld is still limited (e.g., less is done on grant
proposal review), fragmented (some disciplines are
not investigated much while others are), method-
ologically unsophisticated (e.g., poor statistics have
been applied), and poorly calibrated, which means
that coordinated research in this ﬁ eld is rare. Finally,
much more psychological research could be done to
promote peer review studies and peer review as an
effective quality control in science.
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Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to
Sven Hemlin, PhD, Gothenburg Research Institute, School
of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothen-
burg, P.O. Box 600, SE 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden. E-mail: