Peering into the Dark Underbelly of Peer Review (or Practice Makes Best)

AAUP Best Practices in Peer Review_coverHow many acquisitions editors does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but she or he needs a group of expert advisers to help make the bulb bright enough, an editorial assistant to hold the ladder, and a faculty board to confirm the bulb is screwed in correctly.

That’s my poor twist on an old joke. A more recent version might be: how many acquisitions editors does it take to write a handbook on best practice in Peer Review? The answer is somewhere between 50 and 100, as I shall explain in this brief tale of our light bulb moments drafting the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) Handbook on Peer Review Best Practice.

As a member of the newly-formed AAUP Acquisitions Editorial Committee back in 2014, I participated in a two-year process that produced the peer review handbook.

So what is peer review and why is it so important? Peer review is essential to the university press mission of advancing and proliferating scholarship. It is the process through which university press acquisitions editors (like me) solicit evaluations from respected experts (“peers”) on the contribution to scholarship, teaching, and public discourse of a project being considered for publication. These formal evaluations are considered by press staff, and shared and discussed with authors as a crucial pre-publication step in an acquisitions editor’s evaluation of the merits of proposed projects. The process provides feedback that is both stringent and fair, enables an author to strengthen a work in progress, adds value and meaning to the work that is ultimately published, and helps inform the deliberations of press staff and faculty boards. So, yes, we think it’s a big deal and we wanted to offer some guidelines for new presses, editors, and for our “constituencies” of research universities, foundations, and scholars. Hence the need for a best practice handbook.

In another twist, this one more ironic than electrical, we created our handbook through a pretty rigorous process of peer review and revision. The original committee had eight members representing, we hoped, the breadth of university press “types” (types of press, types of editor). After some initial discussion and emailing, we crafted an outline and divided up the “first draft” duties among us. The work-in-progress resided on a shared site in the cloud so that we could all comment, correct, and commiserate together. Then we played musical editors and each of us revised a colleague’s assigned section. This may seem a bit fussy, but it meant that every section was drafted and then reviewed by at least two seasoned editors before any outside feedback. An additional upside to this process, we hoped, was that the document would seem less “written by committee,” as we worked toward one “voice” for the handbook.¹

These writing parties were followed by video-conference parties, where we hashed out some of the details and, more importantly, talked through our shared and unshared assumptions about the peer review process, editorial decision-making procedures, discipline-driven differences, and the proper care and feeding of faculty editorial boards. It became clear pretty quickly that the faculty editorial board piece of this puzzle was broad and deserved it’s own set of guidelines. That task remains on a growing “parking lot” of goals for the acquisitions committee. I have to say those “live” discussions were lively and very interesting from a conceptual point of view. To paraphrase Tom Stoppard talking about his plays, “I never knew there was so much in there!”

With a passable draft drafted, we went to the expert readers. Each committee member recruited five colleagues to provide detailed feedback and suggestions on the handbook.

With that feedback incorporated, we then hosted a “collaboration lab” at the AAUP annual meeting, where about 70 publishing professionals weighed in with questions, commentary, and suggestions for the fast-evolving project.

Six months later, we have the formally published handbook that is available from the AAUP. We’re very proud of this accomplishment, even as we worry away at additional details and plan new revisions that will add layers of guidance for editors and their presses.

Who needs this book?

That’s a fundamental question we editors ask potential authors when evaluating proposals and manuscripts for publication. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that anyone pondering the question, “what is so different about university presses?” needs this book. Perhaps a state legislator, a university administrator or academic dean; perhaps an author, weighing publisher options, or an academic planning his or her career path; perhaps a potential book buyer, contemplating a purchase.

So screw the light-bulb, read the book.

1. As an alert peer reviewer might tell you, I have plagiarized, shamelessly, portions of our committee’s “advocacy statement” in support of peer review in this paragraph.

Mick Gusinde-Duffy is the Editor-in-Chief at the University of Georgia Press. He served as chair of the 2015-16 AAUP Acquisitions Editorial Committee, which oversaw the completion of the AAUP’s Handbook on Peer Review Best Practice.

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