Working with Your Editor: Ten FAQS about Book Peer Review

Dawn Durante's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

As Peer Review Week approaches, I wanted to share answers to some of the questions I get asked most often. The theme of #PeerReviewWk20 is trust. I hope these answers contribute to trust in peer review by fostering candid conversations about publishing in general and helping to demystify the peer review process specifically.

1. What is the purpose of peer review?

There are several purposes of peer review, which is the bedrock of scholarly publishing. Peer review helps to strengthen a book’s argument and apparatus, anticipates issues prior to publication, satisfies a press’s internal approval committee and faculty board, and legitimizes your scholarship (a byproduct of which is satisfying tenure and promotion committees).

2. What type of feedback do presses ask reviewers for?

It is standard for a publisher to provide peer reviewers with a set of guidelines. Each press will have its own guidelines, but the questions are rather similar across university presses. Peer reviewers are asked to assess if the book makes an important intervention, if the argument is sound and borne out by the evidence, whether the organization is effective, the level of engagement and documentation of appropriate sources and literature, and the potential audience and market. In addition, peer reviewers are also asked to make a publishing recommendation, which is usually a choice between options like strongly recommends publication, recommends publication after revisions, or does not recommend.

3. What is the difference between simultaneous submission and exclusive peer review?

Simultaneous submission is when you share your proposal materials or manuscript with multiple presses at the same time. Editors generally understand that authors might be gauging interest from multiple presses. Simultaneous submission of proposals is common. For some presses, simultaneous submission of manuscripts is less common and it is a good idea to ask editors you are in conversation with about press policy. It is always best practice to be clear when a project is a simultaneous submission and authors often specify this in their proposal or manuscript cover letter.

Many presses have an exclusive peer review policy, which means that you are proceeding to peer review with only that publisher. Exclusivity doesn’t mean you are agreeing for your project to be under review with one press forever, so it can be helpful to talk with your editor about what the press considers a typical exclusivity period, and what happens if the period passes and peer review has yet to be completed.

4. What do I submit for peer review? A proposal or a finished manuscript? 

Typically, the material you first share with an editor is your proposal. However, that does not mean that a proposal will go out for peer review. The proposal is generally a communication tool between an author and an editor, and you may decide to move forward to manuscript submission based on conversations about the proposal. Even editors within the same press might have different policies on reviewing proposals, so it can be a great question to ask an editor in early conversations.

5. Do the peer reviewers know who the author is?

Yes. While journal peer review is often double blind (meaning neither the author nor the peer reviewer is identified), book peer review is single blind. So, the peer reviewer will know who an author is, but the author will not know who the reviewers are, unless they voluntarily identify themselves. Sometimes a reviewer will remain anonymous during the formal peer review process, but reveal themselves later, say at a conference.

6. Can an author suggest peer reviewers?

Yes! Your editor will have ideas for reviewers, and an author can absolutely recommend peer reviewers for the editor to consider. For projects in a series, series editors may also recommend readers. Ideal reviewers have appropriate expertise for the project, have been through the book peer review process themselves (often meaning they have published a book with a university press), and do not have a conflict of interest (for instance, an author and reviewer have not worked at the same institution at the same time). People often wonder what to do if they are aware that another scholar is not receptive to their work. You can also talk to your editor about people you do not think should serve as peer reviewers.

7. How long does a round of peer review take?

According to the Best Practices for Peer Review: AUPresses Handbook for Monograph Publishing, it is reasonable to give a reviewer three to four weeks to review a proposal and six to eight weeks to review a manuscript. However, the process often takes longer than this. A peer reviewer and editor will agree on a timeline when the reviewer accepts the opportunity to review the project, and reviewers often ask to have longer, or reports are late. This is understandable given the many competing demands of the academy, the juggle of personal and professional commitments, and the strain of current events. I encourage authors to factor in three to four months for peer review, just to be realistic, and to be in contact with your editor if that timeframe has passed and your haven’t received reports.

8. How many rounds of peer review will there be?

The answer to this depends on the nature of the reports received in the first round of review. There could only be one round of review if the first set of feedback on a complete manuscript suggests minor revisions and overall recommends publication. If reports recommend more substantial revisions but confirm the merit of the project, there is likely to be a second round of review if you move forward with the press. At this point, an editor may offer you an advance contract, meaning that the contract is given in advance of additional peer review. Some projects require a third round of review or beyond, and your editor should be able to give you a sense of next steps at any juncture where you have received reader’s reports. 

9. Once I receive peer reviews, how do I respond to them and tackle revisions?

This question deserves a whole post for itself, but for now, here is the short answer. Peer reviews are not checklists. You do not have to take up every suggestion. Reviewers sometimes offer suggestions that either are not feasible or aren’t quite in the spirit of the project that the author intends. Read the reports in concert with one another, try to find the big picture issues that both identify, and formulate revisions that satisfy the main concerns of the reviewers and also stay true to the project. Your editor will be able to guide you through this process. 

After you receive reports, as part of the formal process for next steps with a press, your editor will ask you to craft a letter of response to the peer reviews. While you need not take up every recommendation reviewers offer, I encourage authors to think through every recommendation and decide where to push back when the author has a clear rationale, where to take up a recommendation but perhaps in a different way than a reviewer proposes, and where to follow the guidance of the reviewer. This letter usually goes to the editorial board, so it should be formal in tone.

10. Is there a good resource where I can learn more about peer review?

You can connect with peer review discussions by following the #PeerRevWeek20 hashtag or @PeerRevWeek. You can also consult the AUPresses’s Best Practices for Peer Review. It can be helpful to talk with colleagues about their experience with peer review, but don’t worry if your process is not exactly parallel, because each project is different. Your best resource is nearly always your acquisitions editor. They know the details of your project, their press’s process, and they have been through the process dozens—if not hundreds—of times.

In addition to being an essential resource for peer review, your acquisitions editor can also address all the questions above as well as many other publishing questions. Your editor will be best acquainted with the specific needs of your manuscript; how to navigate your book’s peer review with your particular tenure and promotion situation; and their press’s steps, expectations, and timelines. Publishing is a process, and while there are norms and standards, every process is unique because every project is unique. And this is great because we want processes that flexibly allow for the powerful and field-changing scholarship being done. 

Peer review can be nerve-racking, but it can also be rewarding and collaborative. Good luck as you navigate peer review! May both of your reviewers be engaged and constructive. And if they aren’t, next time you have the opportunity to serve as a peer reviewer, remember what would have been helpful to you.

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