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Scientific Autonomy, Public Accountability, and the Rise of “Peer Review” in the Cold War United States

This essay traces the history of refereeing at specialist scientific journals and at funding bodies and shows that it was only in the late twentieth century that peer review came to be seen as a process central to scientific practice. Throughout the nineteenth century and into much of the twentieth, external referee reports were considered an optional part of journal editing or grant making. The idea that refereeing is a requirement for scientific legitimacy seems to have arisen first in the Cold War United States. In the 1970s, in the wake of a series of attacks on scientific funding, American scientists faced a dilemma: there was increasing pressure for science to be accountable to those who funded it, but scientists wanted to ensure their continuing influence over funding decisions. Scientists and their supporters cast expert refereeing—or “peer review,” as it was increasingly called—as the crucial process that ensured the credibility of science as a whole. Taking funding decisions out of expert hands, they argued, would be a corruption of science itself. This public elevation of peer review both reinforced and spread the belief that only peer-reviewed science was scientifically legitimate.