Best Practices for Peer Review
The AE’s Choices about Why, When, and How to Conduct Peer Review
- When does the peer review process begin?
- What are some exceptions to the general practice of seeking peer review before offering a contract? Is peer review ever waived?
- Do different types of books require different types of peer reviews?
- Do different disciplines have different types of peer reviews?
- Do multimodal projects such as digital platforms, apps, and enhanced ebooks require a different type of review than do printed books and standard ebooks?
- Confidentiality and anonymity in the peer review process
- How many reports should be solicited and in what order?
- How many times does a manuscript need to be reviewed?
The initiation of peer review depends in part on the stage at which a project reaches the press. If a project first is submitted to or invited by the acquisitions editor (AE) at the proposal stage, peer review offers the AE a chance to develop a project, to stave off competition from other presses, and to shape the project to best fit the press’s editorial program. If a project is placed under contract at the proposal stage, it is good practice to have the full manuscript draft peer reviewed when it is complete as well. Works initially submitted as complete manuscripts receive one or more rounds of review. It is especially common for first books to be subject to several rounds of review and revision, depending on initial reviews and manuscript and audience aspirations, whereas the work of more experienced authors may more commonly receive only one round of peer review.
Regardless of the stage and circumstances under which peer review is successfully completed and a contract for a book signed, university press contracts usually specify that publication is contingent upon both peer reviews of the complete manuscript and the project’s acceptance by the press’s faculty or governance board. AEs at most presses will not present a work to the faculty or governance board for final approval unless it is in a penultimate or final draft.
Each press has its own criteria for deciding which types of books can be put under contract prior to peer review. Sometimes a decision to offer a contract is time sensitive: situations involving an agent or competition with other presses may not allow sufficient time for complete review of a proposal or manuscript. But even under pressured conditions, the AE will often draw on his or her advisory network for a quick or informal vetting of the project and the author’s reputation. Projects placed under contract prior to peer review normally will later be presented to the faculty board, and at that point, peer reviews of the full manuscript will be required.
AEs may also proceed without peer review when working with new editions of previously published works, copublications with international publishers, translations, and occasionally works intended for general readers. Even in these cases, the AE may wish to solicit reviews to assist with revising such manuscripts or positioning them in the marketplace. Projects should be excused from peer review rarely and only for carefully considered reasons.
Scholarly monographs, general interest (trade) titles, textbooks, reference works, professional volumes, art and architecture books, fiction and poetry are distinct genres with different readerships. Since one goal of peer review is to evaluate a manuscript’s appeal to its intended audience, the review process should be aligned with the specific expectations for these different types of books. For instance, a textbook for classroom use would not be expected to focus primarily on cutting-edge research in the same way that a monograph would. Peer reviewers of a textbook might be asked about the accessibility of the writing and about classroom potential in addition to the currency of the content. Reviewers of a trade project might focus on the project’s contribution to a broader public conversation or on the author’s narrative skill, as opposed to its engagement with contemporary scholarly discourse. In general, the AE should formulate questions for the peer reviewer that clarify the work’s intentions and guide the reviewer in assessing its strengths and weaknesses in light of its intended readership. (See Guidelines for reviewers below.)
Different disciplines work with distinct materials and methods, and so it is inevitable that they will bring different criteria and conventions to the process of evaluating books. A review of an edited volume in economics, for example, might address a decidedly different set of questions than a report on a monograph in literary criticism. AEs are typically attuned to such variation, as are faculty board members, who take it into account in their assessment of a work.
All projects that bear the imprint of a university press, including digital projects and publications, should be peer reviewed to ensure that they are aligned with the mission of the press. The timing and choice of reviewers will vary greatly, however, depending on the scope of the project. Large or multimedia projects may require an editorial board that guides development from the proposal stage onward. In addition to scholars in the field, technical experts may need to be enlisted to make sure that user interfaces comply with state-of-the-art technology and best digital practices. Whether a digital project will be presented to the faculty board for approval, and at what stage, will vary from press to press and may depend on the nature of the project. Scholarly digital initiatives are producing new modes and forms of publishing, and the dynamism of these developments requires ongoing assessment of conventional peer review processes.
University presses typically promise anonymity to their peer reviewers with the intention of assuring a candid discussion of a project’s weaknesses and strengths. In contrast to the review of journal articles, the book manuscript review process is not generally double-blind, given the challenges of masking an author’s identity in full-length manuscripts. Book manuscript peer reviewers also assess the standing of an author’s work in his or her field, the place of the current manuscript in an author’s oeuvre, and the reception of previous publications as part of the overall project assessment.
In some cases, peer reviewers may wish to reveal their identity to the author whose work is being reviewed. It is good practice in these cases for the AE to first show an anonymous version of the peer review to the author, so that the author's first response is not influenced by the identity of the peer reviewer. Once the author has had a chance to consider the report, the AE may then choose to reveal the reviewer’s identity but is not obliged to do so. It can be fruitful for an author and reviewer to be in contact, either directly or via the AE, for additional consultation on revisions.
To assure confidentiality, AEs may need to make minor edits on a peer reviewer’s text. These could involve rephrasing references to a reviewer’s own work or deleting mention of areas of expertise or a specific institution with which the reviewer is associated. Reviewers are not always aware they are divulging their identity, and it is the AE’s responsibility to read reviews carefully with confidentiality in mind. However, AEs should take great care to ensure that their edits do not threaten the integrity of the reviewer’s comments. When in doubt, it is best to send a marked-up document to the reviewer for review prior to distribution.
Even though anonymity is maintained throughout the review process, presses will often approach reviewers at later stages to request permission to use quotations from the reviews in promotional copy or to include mention of a reviewer in a book’s acknowledgments. At many presses, the AEs make these requests as the original contact with the reviewer.
Generally, AEs seek two simultaneous reviews of manuscripts they wish to pursue. Interdisciplinary works may benefit from additional readings to represent the full range of expertise in the project itself and to gauge the potential readership across different fields. Textbooks, reference works, and translations may benefit from more than two reviewers for analogous reasons.
But when the AE is uncertain about a project or about press acceptance of a project contingent upon the response from a particular readership, he or she may start with one review and follow it with a second only if the first is favorable. The evaluation of the first reviewer can also assist the author with plans for revision prior to the commissioning of a second review. This process adds time to the publication schedule but conserves AE and press resources.
An additional review may also be beneficial in cases in which the peer reviewers provide widely varying assessments of a manuscript. But it is also important for an AE to be able to advocate for a worthy project, even if it receives an equivocal or even negative review: path breaking scholarship is often controversial, and the AE has a vital responsibility to articulate how each project fits the mission and aims of his or her list.
Some completed manuscripts also undergo several rounds of review. On occasion, particularly with revised dissertations and first books, a peer-reviewed full manuscript is put under contract with the stipulation that the work will be reviewed again after extensive revision—either by one of the original reviewers or by a third independent reviewer, depending on the AE’s or the faculty board’s preference and reviewer availability.
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