As a scientist you’re likely using the word ‘review’ every day. “I hope my article makes it through peer-review”, “We’re thinking of submitting to Physical Review A”, “I read a really good review of this field”, and so on. You probably gave little thought to this humble word, but interestingly it has slightly different meanings in all these examples. Why is a review article called as such, and why do we call the peers who referee our papers reviewers? And above all, why was the Physical Review called a Review in the first place, when it did not publish review articles, nor was it peer reviewed in the beginning?
I confess I only recently asked myself these questions after reading a survey. Some respondents answered the question “What is your main source of reviews in physics?” with “Physical Reviews Letters”. Yes, it makes you wonder, but the confusion is not entirely ridiculous, because most physicists are not aware of the origin of these terms.
Take peer-review, although the practice itself was thought to date back to the 17th century workings of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, more recent research suggests that it emerged in the 1830s at another Royal Society publication, the Philosophical Transactions. For many publications, including Nature, peer-review was not standard practice until well into the 20th century and Einstein’s indignation and subsequent refusal to submit to the Physical Review after the editor dared send his article to an anonymous expert shows how little scientists knew and cared about the process. The term peer-review came up in the 1960s in the medical community, not in journals, but in relation to funding applications. It stood for the review committees looking into proposals and awarding grants. The term was later adopted by other scientists and editors in the 1970s and despite criticisms it is now an important and integral part of scientific publishing in all disciplines. For a brief history of peer-review check Melinda Baldwin’s “In referees we trust?” appeared in Physics Today.
What about review articles? Their origin and naming are not entirely clear. Although the genre existed in 19th century scattered throughout various publications, including a special section of Physicalische Zeitschrift, the large reviews of the Encyklopädie der Mathematischen Wissenschaften or book series (Handbuch der Physik), Nature, Science, Journal of the Franklin Institute, there were no dedicated journals until the 1920s. The Reviews of Modern Physics (1929) likely followed the model of Chemical Reviews (1924), or the earlier Physiological Reviews (1921).
“I think that the history of the review article as a genre still needs to be written. In doing so, one should ask when and how review articles became a different genre with respect to handbooks and textbooks as well as whether and to what extent the creation of journals completely dedicated to review articles were important to establish the genre itself.” Says Roberto Lalli, historian of science at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
The use of the plural in journal titles signals that the publications are dedicated to review-type articles. The plural meaning is quite clear, but the singular stands for something else. Back to why the Physical Review got its name, the journal was established in 1893 by Cornell University and was originally called The Physical Review: a Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics. J. Gould Schurman was then the president of Cornell University, and coincidentally, or not, he was the editor of two other journals: the Philosophical Review and School Review. The word review almost certainly comes from the French revue, with its Latin-language equivalents rivista (Italian) or revista (Spanish). It was a popular name for periodicals towards the end of the 19th century.
“The word ‘review’ often indicated a periodical with long, intellectually weighty articles.” Says Melinda Baldwin, historian of science and Books Editor at Physics Today.
Physicists are perhaps more prone to confusion around the word review because of the numerous journal titles containing the word: the Physical Review … titles, Annual Reviews of …, Living Reviews in …, Review of Scientific Instruments and so on. But Surface Review and Letters (yes Review not Reviews) probably wins a prize for the most misleading journal title, as it seems to be an exception to everything mentioned before. It leaves the reader wondering what Review could mean in this context. As for Letters, that is another abused term whose story I wrote about a while back.