Webinar today + Best Practices for Peer Review
Hi Manuscript Workers,
First a quick reminder that I’m hosting a free webinar today called How to Publish a Book from Your Dissertation. The live Zoom presentation will be at 10am Pacific today (Wednesday, November 9th) and you can register for it here.
You don’t have to attend live to register — everyone who registers will get access to the recording and supporting materials, regardless of attendance. If you do want to attend live there are two things you can do to assure your spot:
Input a full name (at least first and last names) when you register so that you automatically receive the Zoom webinar invitation. Those who only input one name must be manually added and I may not get to all of those before the webinar starts. If you don’t receive the Zoom invitation, you will still be able to access the recording later, so don’t sweat it too much.
Plan to show up to the Zoom webinar a few minutes early. Zoom limits the webinar capacity to 500 people and there are many more than that registered. I expect that most of those registered aren’t planning to attend live, but if you do want to be there live, showing up early is the best way to make sure you get in.
See you soon!
The other topic I want to cover in today’s newsletter is peer review for scholarly books. This is prompted by the release of the updated edition of Best Practices for Peer Review from the Association of University Presses. This edition pays special attention to “the increased centering of equity, justice, inclusion, and belonging” in the peer review process across member presses, and I think it will be of interest to many of the people who read this newsletter.
I encourage you to read the whole document here if you’re interested. Below I’m going to cover a few of the basics/highlights.
Before I jump in, I do want to point you to this post in the Manuscript Works archive that covers some common misconceptions about peer review for scholarly books and offers some tips on writing your response memo when you are asked to by your publisher. The template in that post has helped many an author secure a contract when their book has gone up for approval by their press’s editorial board.
Ok, here are some things to know about how the Association of University Presses approaches the peer review process as related in the report. For some of these points I’ve included a bit of my own commentary in italics to highlight what I think authors should take away:
Peer review is ideally meant to add value to the finished work and help the author to strengthen it.
While there are some best practices that are encouraged among member presses, the AUP Acquisitions Editorial Committee acknowledges that peer review processes can be complex, nuanced, and adapted to individual situations. This means that your peer review process might not look exactly like someone else’s and it might vary from press to press or even within the same press.
Strong peer reviews are not the only factor that go into publication decisions. Presses (even nonprofit ones) will also be weighing projected profits and losses for the book, in hopes that a large enough readership exists to justify the production, distribution, and marketing costs that will be invested. Positive reviews do not always guarantee a contract (and some negativity in your reviews does not necessarily preclude a contract).
Author identities are generally revealed to peer reviewers both because of difficulties of preserving anonymity for a book-length project and because reviewers are asked to assess “the contribution of an author’s work in their field, the place of the current manuscript in the author’s oeuvre, and the reception of previous publications as part of the overall project assessment.” This part sometimes causes some panic among early career researches, but I hope it’s reassuring to know that expectations do tend to differ depending on career stage, so you are not necessarily expected to have the same kind of “oeuvre” or platform as someone more advanced in their career. (I thought the whole section on anonymity and confidentiality was pretty interesting, so I do suggest checking that out directly.)
Presses may opt to seek out more than two peer review reports in order to “support the diversity of perspectives that a rigorous evaluation and development process requires.” This may be particularly applicable for interdisciplinary manuscripts where input from multiple kinds of experts would benefit the author. The report also notes that editors “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.” This means that an editor can and should advocate for a “pathbreaking” project even if the peer reviews are not wholly positive.
Different presses, fields, and projects may require different kinds of expert opinion. Although in the past there has been an emphasis on established scholars as peer reviewers, presses are acknowledging that they may need to be flexible on who they ask to review in order to “prioritize soliciting reviews from scholars representing diverse perspectives and positions,” including early career researchers and those not in tenured faculty roles. The report observes that “underrepresented groups within the academy are often overtaxed by service commitments,” so editors “should be prepared to ask more people, give more time for conducting reviews, and generally accommodate the needs of readers.” The natural consequence of this commitment to more diverse peer reviews is that authors may have to expect a bit longer turnaround times for the review phase.
On the topic of what is expected of reviewers, including remuneration, timelines, and the granting of extensions, see the section of the report titled “Working with Peer Reviewers.”
The report offers specific guidance to editors on how to handle “problematic or biased” peer reviews. If you have found yourself on the receiving end of such a review, you may find this section useful for context and perspective. If you receive a peer review that you feel is problematic or biased you should be able to discuss that frankly with your editor. If your editor is not supportive or doesn’t at least try to understand your concerns and come up with a reasonable path forward, they are not the editor for you. (Again, the notes in italics are my opinions and interpretations, not direct references to the AUP report.)
According to best practices, you can expect that your editor will “keep [you] informed before peer review begins and as the process progresses.” You should be told which materials are being sent out for review and what will happen to them.
The AUP report also suggests that editors should let authors know “what the stage of peer review may indicate about the press’s commitment to the project.” From my experience working with authors, I think this last part is often unclear. This isn’t necessarily the editor/publisher’s fault, because they may not be able to be very committal until after reviews come in and the editorial board is consulted.
But I do try to reassure authors that if a press is investing time and resources in peer review, they would very much like to publish the book assuming the reviews are strong and the profit/loss calculations work out favorably. That said, there are no guarantees, and the AUP report suggests that it’s ok to ask your editor about “the press’s commitment to the project” if you’re feeling uncertain about it.
One of my biggest takeaways from the report echoes something I have tried to emphasize with authors: “A commanding author response can make a compelling case to pursue a project further, even in the face of strong criticism.” In other words, your written response to the peer reviews is not just a pro forma hoop to jump through — it can actually make the difference in whether an editorial board decides your book is worth proceeding with.
If you are looking for guidance on writing your response to the peer reviews, see this post from my archive or Chapter 13 in The Book Proposal Book. You may also want to check out this upcoming program being offered by Jo Van Every, which offers more hands-on coaching on dealing with reviewer comments.
You should also feel entitled to guidance from your editor on your response. At the very least, the AUP report says that the acquiring editor “should highlight the sections in the peer reviews that need to be addressed and that likely will be of most concern to the press and the faculty board.” If your editor doesn’t offer up this assistance on their own, it’s reasonable for you to ask. Remember that your editor is your advocate within the press and they want your project to succeed as much as you do. By asking questions and letting them know what help you need, you are helping them do their job more effectively.
Again, I do think the full report on best practices is worth reading if you can find the time (it’s not terribly long). A big thank you to the AUP Acquisitions Editorial Committee for their work on this report and to the Association of University Presses for making it publicly accessible.
If you enjoy these kinds of posts, let me know. I realize that most authors don’t have the time to do a lot of research to stay up to date on scholarly publishing as an industry, so I’m happy to provide more of these kinds of summaries in the future if they’re helpful.
See you next week!
I've been trying to register for this and it won't let me :(((