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An inside look at peer review

Academic presses invest a lot of effort in the peer review process. While most academics understand the process — either from personal experience or tales shared at conferences — less understood is how editors and publishers view peer review.

“The primary reason for peer reviewing manuscripts is to reinforce the publisher’s reputation as serious and professional,” said Jessica Gribble, an acquisitions editor at Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Individual editors also value peer review, she said: “We can’t be experts in every subject we acquire, so we rely on reviews to help us know whether the content of the manuscript is high quality.” Another goal of the peer review process is to confirm what the press believes to be the market for the book. “We’re getting both a content analysis and a market analysis,” said Gribble.

When she receives comments from her reviewers, Gribble said she highlights what is most important for an author to tackle and then she appends her own suggestions: “These tend to be more structural, say, chapter order or whether the titles actually work. We’re trained to see those kinds of things, and we’re good at it because we look at so very many manuscripts.” The industry standard is to obtain two reviews of each manuscript, said Gribble, unless it is being done through a division that handles very specialized projects, in which case there might be just one.

How an author responds to reviews can impact the manuscript’s future with the press, she said. She avoids discussion with authors who have just received their reviews because “people can be pretty emotional.” After a suitable time period has elapsed for an author to get beyond the emotions and actually respond to the reviews, she will contact him or her. “If I thought the reviews were smart but the author is still saying ‘this makes no sense, it is ridiculous and moronic,’ I get concerned that the author doesn’t take criticism well and his inability to see the flaws in his own manuscript will make him harder to work with,” she said. “Even though I’m trying to keep things professional, it definitely colors your relationship with the person.”

Gribble also pointed out a significant difference between the journal review process and the academic book review process: “Revises and resubmits are much rarer in academic book publishing.” Faced with less-than-ideal reviews, editors usually try to shut down the relationship and send authors elsewhere, she said. “Sometimes you just need a different editor who likes the kind of thing you’ve done,” said Gribble. “Plus, the author is suddenly working from a weakened state where I’m questioning whether the book is really as good as I initially thought. It takes a lot of persistence and hard work to overcome that new barrier.