It’s Peer Review Week. In this guest post, our Editorial Director Ken Wissoker shares what he loves about this crucial, and sometimes misunderstood, element of academic publishing.
I love peer review. Many authors fear it, or see it as a necessary evil, perhaps good for others less accomplished than themselves. Many hope for it to be as quick and minimal as possible, or as with some commercial academic presses, done in a cursory and non-binding way. Enough of a review that the scholar can count their work as a peer-reviewed publication, but not so much that they would actually have to change their manuscript in light of what the reviewers say.
Those who fear peer review often think of its gate-keeping function, perhaps imagining a process like a job search or an award committee where the judges work to eliminate as many contenders as possible. There might still be journals somewhere that peer review everything that is submitted in that way, but I doubt there are many, at least in the humanities and social sciences. For book manuscripts, that would never be a plausible model. It’s a lot of work to read a three or five hundred page draft manuscript. It is even more work if it is a frustrating experience. A press that consistently sent out a lot of mediocre manuscripts or manuscripts that they know at the outset would not work in their list would soon have trouble getting reviewers to agree to read.
At Duke University Press, when we send a manuscript out for peer review, it usually means we would like to publish the manuscript, at least if it is as great as we think it is. We don’t expect it to be publishable right away, but we see the promise. I may have recognized something in an author’s idea or approach to a topic that seems smart and original. I want the reviewers to tell me if that’s genuinely new, or just new to me. Perhaps I’ve let my hopes for what the manuscript will accomplish get in the way of seeing how it actually reads. Other times, the reviewers’ knowledgeable assessment of the manuscript exceeds my own. Most of the time, the truth—and the manuscript—is somewhere in between. That’s where peer review makes all the difference.
I think of peer review as like a mini-test-screening for a film, where the viewers give honest feedback about what they saw. Where were they bored? Where were they confused? Which scenes seemed to go on forever and which rushed past? Did the plot make sense and unfold in a way that kept them attentive? Was it so predictable that the viewers knew what was going to happen the whole time? When did they look at their watch to see how much longer it went on?
In our peer review process, there are generally two such viewers. From them, we ask similar things. Was the argument convincing? Does the manuscript know its own argument and organize the evidence around that argument? Or, conversely, are there big generalizations sitting uneasily astride a detailed account of the object under study? Does it seem like there is enough evidence to support the points, or far more than was needed? Where was the reader bored or confused? Did the arc of the narrative make sense, or were there sections where the story was lost? Are all the chapters each contributing something to making the book a more convincing whole?
Some of these questions could be answered by any attentive reader, others require a knowledge of the topic or field. I like to choose readers whose interests will be complementary, who will see the manuscript from different angles. We want our books to be read by as wide as audience as possible. If the book is interdisciplinary, how does it look from the different interdisciplinary perspectives? One person might be an expert on the approach and the other on the object—or one person on the method and the other on the place. I want to hear what one or the other sees and misses in the book. Does it work equally well for the film scholar and the anthropologist? The Southeast Asianist and the feminist theorist? What would be needed to make the manuscript more legible and credible in each direction? What hits or misses for each? Surprisingly often, people chosen to represent different perspectives will see the same things working and not working in a manuscript, even if they might describe or frame those things in a different way.
Just as it wouldn’t makes sense to send someone who had never seen a Star Wars film to report on the latest one, or someone who hated musicals to comment on a new production, we want readers who can see the manuscripts and recognize their aspirations and methods. I look for readers who will hope that the book will succeed—but who will be honest about whether it does or does not. The reviewers might be invested in the intellectual project or the field and want new work to make a real contribution. They might be invested in the scholar themselves, perhaps having seen promising earlier work from a junior scholar, or admiring the project of a senior person in the field. The readers might be our authors, or otherwise attached to what qualities make a book seem like a Duke book. Whatever it is, I want that commitment to take the form of wanting the work to be better, to help improve it now, rather than letting it slip by with vague praise, only to seem half-baked when the book is published. The last thing I would want in a reader is someone who would be competitive, or more obviously, thought no work like the author’s could be worthwhile, no matter how smart or carefully done.
The readers are writing these reports for the Press. Often they may address the author directly in going over minor details, but the overall assessment is usually directed to us. The readers understand that the process is single blind. That means they know whose work they are reading, but that the author will not know who wrote the reports. I don’t reveal the identity of readers even when a reader says it is okay to do so. As soon as an author knows who wrote a report, the difference between how the reviewer thinks and the way the author thinks (or how the author understands that difference) too easily becomes the lens for viewing the reports. In our own reading, we all like books that go about their projects differently than we would had we written them. But, in the context of a report, the issues identified by the readers in the manuscript are attributed to differences in method between the author and reviewer. As long as the readers stay Reader #1 and Reader #2 they function better as a test audience—two people in a reasonable inner circle of possible readers for the book, who didn’t understand a particular turn in the manuscript. In this way I sometimes compare the review process to therapy. You can go out and talk about your problems with friends over a beer all you want, and wake up the next day with the same issues. Talking about them with a disinterested but attentive therapist is more likely to open up the possibility of change, even if in some ways one’s friends know you better.
Readers usually suggest fixes for parts of the manuscript that aren’t working. That help is offered with generous intentions, but it sometimes ends up distracting the author. The reviewer is trying to help the author solve a problem. Since the reader would probably approach the topic in a different way themselves, they try to imagine solutions that fit with their understanding of the author’s goals and methods. It’s brainstorming about potential solutions. “Did you try that?” Authors easily get stuck on bad guesses, suggestions that hit a wrong note. They become sure that the person who suggested such a course could not understand the book. I always urge a symptomatic approach. Why would someone suggest that something needed to be done at all? What wasn’t working that required a solution? It’s the author’s manuscript! They ought to be able to think of a better approach. If the readers’ ideas are helpful, great. If not, what’s a better way of ameliorating the problem?
This approach to peer review sees it as part of the writing process. It’s a valuable opportunity to take a manuscript that is the result of years of research and writing and be given a chance to see what is working and what isn’t before it is published. To improve it and make it better. While scholars are researching, they want to find all the evidence they can. When we are reading, if we are convinced by the first example, we rarely need to see three more. Writing—and even sharing one’s writing in a writing group or with a writing partner—is very local, focused on a chapter or section at a time. It’s hard to have a sense of rhythm and pacing and flow; hard to see the whole. The review process is the moment to step back and benefit from generous and invested colleagues willing to read with and for you, to give you the feedback that makes the path more intuitive and well-paced for future readers.
I’m not saying the process is always perfect all the time—nothing is. I can remember books that went through several rounds of peer review, only to be stuck with an intractable problem. Other authors might be frustrated by a tough review process only to end up with a book that goes on to win prizes. There are many paths to publication but, in itself, the review process helps an author write the best possible book. The process is a gift to the writer, not something to be dodged. It’s a gift to the Press and to our readers as well.