Best Practices for Peer Review

Section 2

Selecting Peer Reviewers


Who is qualified to write peer reviews?

With the goal of soliciting feedback to help craft excellent books, AEs should choose reviewers for their expertise in the subject matter of each individual publishing project. Peer reviewers are most often established scholars with relevant expertise. Scholars who have already published at least one scholarly book (or have a book forthcoming) are preferred, although an extensive record of journal publications on relevant topics is acceptable. Some presses prefer tenured faculty; however, with decreasing numbers of scholars (including experienced ones) on the tenure track, this requirement may be difficult to meet. It is also important to note that in some emerging disciplines or areas of study, the thought leaders are often still junior faculty. When reviewing a project intended for course adoption, extensive teaching experience at the level of the book’s intended audience may trump publication record or tenure. Journalists, civil servants and elected officials, professional writers, and artists outside the academy with relevant experience can also be used as peer reviewers in certain circumstances. The AE should be ready to speak to a particular reader’s expertise as needed to the faculty board, author, or press colleagues.

The criteria outlined above represent the primary concerns of an AE in selecting appropriate peer reviewers. Best practice would also include soliciting feedback from readers who might help promote the book later or adopt it for courses or who might themselves be potential press authors. (See Confidentiality and anonymity in the peer review process above.) The peer review process plays a critical role in building an AE’s advisory and author network. However, the reviewer’s relevant subject expertise is paramount.


Where do AEs find appropriate peer reviewers? Are suggestions from authors acceptable?

A vital part of the AE’s role is to develop a robust network of advisors. (See Who is qualified to write peer reviews above.) The AE’s reviewer selection process may be informed by, but should be independent of, suggestions from the author herself. An author’s suggestions may alert AEs to other experts in the field or signal an author’s conception of his ideal reader. If authors ask that some scholars not be asked to review the manuscript because of intellectual differences, the AE may wish to abide by the request but is not obligated to do so. The author’s list of potential reviewers or veto of others can reveal conceptual or disciplinary boundaries of the author’s work, highlight conflicts of interest the AE is not aware of, or flag reviewer directions that might be problematic. (See What should an AE do about an obviously incompetent, biased, or ad hominem report? below.)

Similarly, suggestions from trusted advisors, such as other press authors in the field, faculty board members, and series editors, can be helpful. Still, a degree of independence and evaluation by the AE is crucial. Other authors can have their own priorities and biases and, although these are rarely consciously manipulative, they can have a disproportionate influence on the verdict emerging through peer review.


If a project is intended for a series, can or should the series editor (or one of the series editors) act as a peer reviewer?

AEs should be attentive to the possible tension between the role of series editors as champions of work cultivated for their series and their role as potential peer reviewers. The simplest way to avoid this tension is to commission at least two peer reviewers and to ask the series editor to offer an assessment of the reviews along with summary comments on a project’s potential fit with the series. In cases where there are multiple series editors or a series editorial board, a core of expertise in the field is already gathered and so peer review by one of the series editors is acceptable. But such a review ought to be balanced by at least one review from a respected scholar who is not a member of the series board.

In cases where a series has a single editor, the series editor’s review may be the deciding factor when outside reviewers do not agree on a project’s merits. Otherwise, a series editor’s role ideally is to commission, vet, and possibly help develop projects. The series editor can comment on a project via a letter of endorsement, which will have a different status in the faculty board’s approval process than a full, independent peer review.


What constitutes a conflict of interest that would prevent someone from acting as peer reviewer?

Obviously, AEs should steer clear of relatives, existing or previous connections by marriage or serious relationship, and an author’s dissertation advisor. Best practice also dictates avoiding reports from colleagues at the same institution, members of the author’s dissertation committee, members of the author’s graduate student cohort, and close friends or collaborators. There are myriad gray areas that may require further discussion: the enlistment of former or preexisting collaborators, such as volume coeditors or paper coauthors, for example, should be weighed carefully. Best practice is to err on the side of avoiding perceived conflicts. In certain circumstances exceptions may be made in consultation with the AE’s supervisor.


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