Section 1

The AE’s Choices about Why, When, and How to Conduct Peer Review

When does the peer review process begin?

The initiation of peer review depends in part on the stage at which a project reaches the press. If a project is first submitted to or invited by the acquisitions editor at the proposal stage, peer review offers the AE a chance to develop a project, stave off competition from other presses, and 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. Works initially submitted as complete manuscripts receive one or more rounds of review. At times a book is subject to several rounds of review and revision, depending on the content of the reviews and what manuscript work the editor considers necessary in order to present the project for faculty board approval.

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, editorial, or governance board (hereafter we will use the terms faculty board and faculty editorial board interchangeably). AEs at most presses will not present a work to the faculty board for final approval unless it is in a penultimate or final draft.

The AE should keep an author informed before peer review begins and as the process progresses. This will include ensuring that the author is aware of any materials being sent out for review, what any given stage of the process entails, and what the stage of peer review may indicate about the press’s commitment to the project.

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What are some exceptions to the general practice of seeking peer review before offering a contract? Is peer review ever waived?

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 high-pressure or competitive conditions, the AE will often draw on their advisory network for a quick or informal vetting of the project and the author’s qualifications. 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, 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.

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Do different types of books require different types of peer reviews?

Scholarly monographs, trade nonfiction, textbooks, reference works, professional volumes, art and architecture books, fiction, and poetry are distinct genres with unique readerships. Because 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.)

The decision to publish a translation may be made on the basis of peer reviews of the source text, published reviews of the original work, or some other supporting materials. The translated text should be peer reviewed to ensure the quality of the translation. The review process for translations should be aligned with the expectations for a specific book. A reviewer of a translated poetry book, for example, might be asked to focus on the literary quality of the poems in translation while a reviewer of a translation of a scholarly text might be asked to focus on the accuracy of the translation and its relation to contemporary scholarly discourse. AEs should select reviewers who have expertise in the source language.

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Do different disciplines have different types of peer reviews?

Different disciplines work with distinct materials and methods, and so it is inevitable that they will bring diverse 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 would 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.

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Do multimodal projects such as born-digital publications, platforms, apps, and enhanced ebooks require a different type of review than do printed books and standard ebooks?

Digital projects and publications should be peer reviewed. 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.

The peer review process for digital projects may also follow a trajectory different from the one for peer review of a traditional monograph. Peer review questions may need to be customized to ask readers about the usability of the project in addition to its scholarly merit and structure. If the project is a serial, or is multimedia based, editors will likely find it useful to have sections or particular multimedia elements peer reviewed during the creation process rather than waiting for the final product. Given the costs associated with developer time, an editor would not want to see a project progress too far if certain elements will not be favorably reviewed by peers. Platforms for digital publication may allow for scholarly objects to be revised, updated, or transformed over time in sometimes invisible ways, which becomes a challenge for peer reviewing. It is important to track versions across the development and peer review process (and potentially beyond that, past publication, if changes will continue to be made).

AEs may also consult scholars in the digital humanities who have been working on best practices for evaluating and preserving digital scholarship. The “Annotated Bibliography on Evaluating Digital Scholarship for Tenure & Promotion” compiled by Cheryl E. Ball, Carrie A. Lamanna, Craig Saper, and Michael Day offers many potentially useful resources for AEs.

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Confidentiality and anonymity in the peer review process

University presses typically promise anonymity to their peer reviewers with the intention of assuring a candid discussion of a project’s strengths and weaknesses. In contrast to the review of journal articles, the review of book manuscripts is generally not fully anonymous, given the challenges of masking an author’s identity in full-length manuscripts. Book manuscript peer reviewers also assess the contribution of an author’s work in their 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.

n some cases, a peer reviewer 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 reviewer’s identity. 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 should remove any identifying metadata and may need to make minor edits to a peer reviewer’s text. This 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 that 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 approval.

Even though anonymity is maintained throughout the review process, presses will often approach reviewers at a later stage 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 staff member in regular contact with the reviewer.

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Should all peer review be anonymous?

As noted above, maintaining reviewers’ anonymity is often beneficial, since it allows reviewers the opportunity to offer candid feedback to authors. However, there are various ways to approach the peer review process, each of which offers its own benefits. Most scholarly presses use a partly closed or partly anonymous process, where the reviewer is informed of the author’s identity, but the author does not know the identity of the reviewer(s). In journals publishing, editors frequently employ a fully closed or fully anonymous process, where neither the reviewer nor the author knows the other’s identity. These have commonly been referred to as “single-blind” and “double-blind” review. However, we recommend that AEs discontinue the use of these terms, as they are ableist.

Some presses have started employing other, more open forms of peer review that draw upon a larger community of reviewers and readers to offer feedback on a project. Open peer review may rely upon a platform such as CommentPress or Hypothesis to organize and curate feedback from reviewers. On these platforms, the AE can stipulate the terms by which reviewers may contribute their comments (e.g., with names or anonymously). The AE may also decide to conduct a more traditional peer review alongside this more open format. There are various forms of open review, including community review (where the work is made available to an invited set of scholars); crowd review (where the work is made visible and accessible to anyone who would like to offer feedback); managed crowd review (a crowd review moderated by a community of scholars); published review (where a traditional partly anonymous peer review is made visible to others); and consultative or peer-to-peer review (where author and reviewers interact and collaborate in their discussion of the work).

An AE’s decision to use an alternative approach to peer review should be made in consultation with press leadership and the author to ensure that everyone agrees on the aims and methods of the process.

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How many reports should be solicited and in what order?

Generally, AEs seek two simultaneous reviews of manuscripts they wish to pursue. However, at times this may be insufficient to support the diversity of perspectives that a rigorous evaluation and development process requires. AEs may want to solicit additional readings to represent the full range of expertise in the project itself, to gauge the potential readership across different fields, and to invite a broader range of feedback. Textbooks, reference works, and translations may also benefit from more than two reviewers for similar 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, they 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 before the AE commissions 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 divergent assessments of a manuscript. AEs should be aware of their responsibility to amplify the work of historically underrepresented scholars as well as to help a discipline become more diverse and should let those considerations inform their decisions about seeking out additional readers or assessing the value of any one report. It is important for an AE to be able to advocate for a worthy project, even if it receives an equivocal or even negative review: pathbreaking scholarship is often controversial, and the AE has a vital responsibility to articulate how each project fits the mission and aims of their list.

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How many times does a manuscript need to be reviewed?

Completed manuscripts may undergo multiple rounds of review. On occasion, 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 or both of the original reviewers or by a third independent reviewer, depending on the AE’s or the faculty board’s preference and reviewer availability. The number of rounds of review will depend on the needs of the project and the established practices set by the press and its faculty board.

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