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When asked what surprised her most about publishing after a summer spent working as an intern at one of our presses, a history graduate student replied, “In graduate school, we focus on tearing books apart. But I was impressed by how much you do in publishing to build up a book.”
Whether or not it reflects a common experience of graduate school, this observation speaks to the labor and expertise that goes into the creation of a university press book. Building up books—strengthening their contributions and helping them reach readers, shape debates and inform the broader public—is central to the overarching mission of university presses and at the heart of peer review.
It’s no secret that the peer-review process has been under stress in recent years, stresses exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Acquisitions editors for university presses (and journal editors, for that matter) report needing to make more requests to secure reviewers, reviewers needing more time to complete their reports and more reviewers backing out or ghosting.
As John Warner has explained in Slate, this “crisis” of peer review is linked to a much bigger one—namely, the ever-deepening crisis in the humanities and higher education more broadly. If, as he suggests, the academic humanities’ scholarly infrastructure has traditionally “operated as a kind of gift economy, where labor was provided with no explicit return of remuneration” [italics his], that economy “has broken down” amid adjunctification and the decimation of the tenure-track job market. The incentive to review book manuscripts is near nonexistent, and not just because the payment university presses are able to provide for this service, in the form of cash or books, is inevitably quite small compared to the time and thought required to give detailed, in-depth feedback. With no guarantee of long-term payoff, and with universities chronically undervaluing this kind of professional service even as they require it, we know all too well how significant an ask we’re making of potential reviewers, especially now.
Still, our commitment as mission-driven publishers to engage a broad scholarly ecosystem in the building up of scholarly books remains steadfast, even bolstered, in the face of these significant challenges. Those of us who work for university presses recognized over these difficult recent years that we needed to take practical steps not only to improve our processes but also to reflect on, articulate and further enact our values in our work—especially values of equity and inclusion. Scholarship is constantly pushing in new directions, and we knew how many people, perspectives and kinds of expertise were being left out of these important conversations about building better books. We knew the engine of peer review needed a tune-up.
The editorial community within the Association of University Presses, led by its acquisitions editorial committee, recently completed its review and revision of the association’s handbook, Best Practices for Peer Review of Scholarly Books. First published in 2016, these guidelines for evaluating long-form scholarship provide a resource for members, acquisitions editors, faculty editorial boards, authors and researchers, and scholarly publishing programs. They reflect clear expectations and a common set of values, as well as the lived experiences of editors who are experimenting and innovating every day, drawing on their expertise to do justice to each new book project. The Best Practices recognize the changing material circumstances of the publishing world, while supporting the enduring strengths of peer review.
This new edition of the handbook:
- Makes equity, justice, inclusion and belonging a key component of peer review. The handbook makes explicit that these values inform research of the highest quality and that acquisitions editors should be mindful of them throughout the process. It offers practical tips for how these values can be applied at every step, including when choosing potential reviewers, crafting reviewer questions and navigating biased and problematic reviews.
- Expands the profile of best-qualified reviewers. Traditional scholarly review emphasized seniority and scholarly rank. These standards have always been problematic but have become especially fraught as adjunct faculty and independent scholars have come to make up a growing share of academic labor. The leading experts in a field may not occupy tenure-track faculty positions or be employed in academia at all; while they may be disinclined to take on the work of peer review for that reason, it should not preclude their eligibility.
- Pushes editors to think about and contribute to disciplinary diversity. University presses have played an historical role in shaping existing disciplines and nurturing new ones. The Best Practices remind editors of the need to help their disciplines become more diverse and let those considerations shape their decisions about selecting reviewers and interpreting the contents of a peer-review report.
- Offers more guidance on reviewing different modalities of scholarship. Scholars are finding new and innovative ways to share their knowledge, from digital scholarship to hip-hop. The guidelines encourage editors to be creative in reviewing new forms of work, while also providing a rigorous set of expectations to ensure authority and reliability as well as usability of born-digital scholarship.
- Encourages creativity in peer review. In addition to traditional peer review—in which (at least) two thoughtful experts, both anonymous to the authors, offer constructive evaluations of the work’s methods and contributions—the handbook considers the utility of other forms of peer review: community review (where the work is reviewed by an invited set of scholars), managed crowd review (a crowd review mediated by a team of scholars), published review (where a traditional review is made visible to others) and consultative or peer-to-peer review (where authors and reviewers interact in discussion of the work).
- Acknowledges the consequences of COVID-19. As the global pandemic continues to impact all our lives and work, acquisitions editors should aim to keep the peer-review pipelines flowing while also being frank about the material and labor challenges to making it work. These guidelines recognize the ongoing consequences for presses and scholars and encourage transparency, flexibility and generosity in all interactions.
Updates to the way we manage peer review cannot solve larger crises in higher education. But these revisions do strive to recognize and respond to current realities while also pushing forward—formalizing further our principles of equity, justice, inclusion and belonging and giving publishers additional tools to help drive conversations within the academy and among the general public. Working always toward such ambitious goals is fundamental to fully embracing our mission to build up books, advance knowledge and continue to help lead the charge in making our shared scholarly ecosystem more equitable.