Section 3

Working with Peer Reviewers

Guidelines for reviewers

Resource Note: AUPresses Members can access a shared library of sample reviewer questionnaires for a variety of project types in AE Resources on UP Commons.

Presses often provide reviewers with a list of questions to guide their evaluation of a project and to highlight the issues most pertinent to a press’s publication decision. This list should prompt reviewers to focus on key areas such as the quality of argument, evidence, and writing in the context of subject-specific, audience-specific, and manuscript-specific issues, as well as to address issues of equity and marginalization, whether those are around methodology, citational diversity, or perspectives. Just as different reader criteria are brought to different projects, so too is it useful to have a range of reviewer questions tailored to particular kinds of projects, such as scholarly monographs, edited volumes, course books, trade nonfiction, fiction, or poetry. (See Do different types of books require different types of peer reviews?) In addition to the standard list of questions, AEs may add questions meant to call reviewers’ attention to specific areas of concern (e.g., length, contribution to a particular scholarly debate). The list may end by asking reviewers to recommend whether a project should be (1) rejected, (2) revised and resubmitted, or (3) accepted for publication (either with or without additional revisions). Though important, such opinions should not outweigh the AE’s own judgment of the manuscript’s potential and their assessment of the reviews. It is not uncommon for two reviews to offer similar feedback and yet make different recommendations about publication.

AEs should explain to reviewers, either in the initial query or when sending the materials provided for the review, that their reports will be confidential and their identities concealed from the author, unless the reviewer explicitly requests to have their identity revealed to the author. The query or the review guidelines should specify who will see the reports (such as AEs and their assistants, the author, faculty board members) and who will know the reviewers’ identities (AEs and their assistants, other press staff, faculty board members). (See Confidentiality and anonymity in the peer review process; and Besides the AE, author, and press staff, who is permitted to see anonymous peer reviews?)

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How should readers be remunerated for reports?

Presses generally offer readers an honorarium in return for their evaluations of projects. Conventionally the compensation is considered an honorarium, not a fee, to highlight the fact that peer review is a form of service that academics and other professionals offer to their communities. The term also points to the fact that a press is not buying an expert opinion in the way that, say, a defense attorney may pay an expert to offer a particular reading of evidence. A peer reviewer is expected to provide an unbiased, candid, well-supported evaluation of a project’s merits.

An honorarium generally takes one of two forms. A reviewer may be offered a cash payment or a selection of books from a press’s catalog up to a certain dollar amount (usually larger than the amount of the cash payment, as the unit cost of books is significantly lower for publishers than for retail buyers). Some presses offer a combination of cash and books. AEs should tell a potential reader what the honorarium is in their initial queries, before the review begins. If certain categories of books are ineligible for selection, such as distributed books from other publishers, this should be noted on the honorarium form.

Honorarium amounts vary widely by presses, and AEs should be familiar with their own press’s conventions. The amounts should reflect the scope of the work the reviewer is being asked to do; honoraria are typically larger for full manuscripts than for proposals. In addition, asking a peer reviewer to evaluate a particularly long manuscript or to provide a report in an unusually short amount of time often warrants increasing the amount of an honorarium. Honoraria are paid on receipt of reports. Also, if the press ultimately publishes the work in question, the reviewer typically receives a gratis copy.

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What is a reasonable amount of time to allow a peer reviewer to read and report on a project?

While it is generally in both an author’s and a press’s interests to receive reports as quickly as possible, AEs should be aware that properly reviewing a manuscript is both time and labor intensive. It is customary to give peer reviewers at least six to eight weeks to review a full manuscript and three to four weeks to review a proposal, although in competitive situations an AE may request a faster turnaround. It may be necessary to allow more time for particularly long or complex projects. AEs and reviewers should agree on a deadline before the process starts, and it is generally recommended that an AE or assistant check in with reviewers as the deadline approaches. AEs or their assistants should track due dates for reviews in some kind of database—an essential tool, given the volume of projects an AE may have out for review at any given time.

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What should an AE do when a peer reviewer fails to produce a report within an acceptable period of time? Can compensation be withheld in such cases?

Given the time it can take to secure appropriate readers for a project, AEs should accommodate modest delays. Reasonable requests for additional time are the norm, and AEs should be respectful of the reviewer’s efforts and commitment to a project. That should be balanced with timeliness and the author’s needs. AEs should exercise caution in granting longer extensions. If a second deadline passes without a review, the AE should consider securing an additional or replacement reader rather than risk longer delays for the author. A new reader should also be found if a reader does not respond to follow-up queries. In such cases, the AE should notify the original reader that the press no longer expects a report and will not compensate them. There is always the possibility, however, that a late review will surface, and an AE will need to decide whether to provide the normal honorarium and whether to take the review into consideration.

In light of the enduring challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, AEs should be generous in tone in recognizing the difficulties for reviewers in meeting deadlines, even if the AEs are not always able to be generous with deadline extensions.

As challenging as the lack of review can be, AEs also face situations in which a review is unsatisfactory: either it fails to address the questions posed, it does so without sufficient detail, or its assessment is unclear. AEs should first try to encourage the reviewer to flesh out the report, but if a full review does not materialize, the honorarium may be prorated. Similarly, if a reviewer fails to submit a review, the press is not obliged to pay the honorarium. If, however, the press decides it no longer needs a commissioned report (for example, if a project is lost to another press in competition), the reviewer should still be offered the honorarium, even if the report has not yet arrived.

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What should an AE do about a problematic or biased report? Can a commissioned report be disregarded?

Peer review is meant to provide an honest and rigorous assessment of the merits of a project. The ideal report offers constructive advice for helping a project realize its fullest potential. It is the AE’s responsibility, in turn, to assess the reviews to ensure that reviewers have met expectations. The decision to address a flawed review directly with the reviewer can be a vexed one for AEs, who should discuss such reports with their supervisors before proceeding.

Upon receipt of an opaque or inadequate review—for example, a review that does not engage with the content of the work or offers insufficient support for a reviewer’s criticism—the AE should request amplification or clarification for the sake of the author and the press. Specificity is important in such situations. The ultimate goal is to secure a suitable review, and so giving the reviewer an opportunity to revisit the report is in most cases worthwhile.

If the report is hostile to the author’s disciplinary or methodological approach, the AE should consider it in the context of the scholarly discipline in question. If the field is deeply divided and the author and reviewer are on opposing sides of that divide, then the review may help the author anticipate and address criticisms. Ideally, the AE will be aware of such disciplinary politics and will take them into consideration in selecting peer reviewers.

If the reviewer expresses personal bias against the author or the AE detects some other form of bias, the AE needs to decide how and whether to use the review. The review may include feedback that would be helpful to the author, and the AE may choose to edit or frame the report in a way that highlights the most useful elements of the report. However, if the review does not adequately assess the manuscript itself, the AE could choose to disregard it.

For the sake of expediency, it is often best to extend the usual courtesy to a reviewer and process their honorarium, even if the reviewer’s report is disregarded. If the AE chooses not to share the report with the author, the report may still be a part of the official review process. For example, presses differ in whether they include such reports in packets for the faculty board. If such a report is included, the AE’s statement should take care to contextualize the review and its criticisms and explain whether it has been shared with the author.

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If a report is delayed, what should the AE say to the author? Should the author be told that the reviewer is at fault, or is it best to simply cite unavoidable delays?

In general, transparency in the author-editor relationship is paramount, and the AE should tell the author about any delays in the review process promptly. However, AEs need not always reveal the source of the delay. In deciding whether to inform an author that a delay is due to a reviewer’s tardiness, the AE should avoid giving the impression that the report is hastily or haphazardly prepared. Peer reviews need to carry authority with an author because they form, at least in part, the basis of a press’s judgment about whether to accept or reject a project. If a reviewer submits a well-constructed but delayed review, its tardiness should not undermine its force. If a reader fails to submit a review, the AE should alert the author of the reader’s unresponsiveness, although ultimately it is the role of an AE to manage the peer review process as efficiently as possible.

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What if a reviewer jeopardizes a project by revealing their role to others in the field?

In spite of the press’s best intentions in assuring the confidentiality of peer reviews (see Confidentiality and anonymity in the peer review process), in some cases a reviewer may discuss the project with interested parties other than the author. The AE should consult with their supervisor to determine the best way to address the situation. The AE may decide to write to the reviewer to remind them of the need to maintain confidentiality about the project. The reviewer may simply be enthusiastic about the project and unaware that speaking about it to others could compromise the author and the press. If the AE suspects that the reviewer is acting in bad faith, they should consider finding a replacement reader for any subsequent round of reviews and/or they may choose not to solicit any more reports from the reviewer. If the breach in confidentiality comes to the AE’s attention through someone other than the author, the AE will need to determine whether to inform the author about the situation and how best to rectify any harm.

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