When one hears the words "peer review," many may automatically think of journal publishing. However, the peer review process is also an integral component to academic book publishing. While a Commissioning Editor will have a certain degree of subject knowledge, it is the peer reviewer who can give credence to the editor’s initial feelings of whether a project may have potential. As with journal publishing, it is the external peer review process which acts as a filter, to ensure that a high level of academic quality is maintained. As a result, several reviews are normally sought for each book project.
Finding our peer reviewers
Part of the art of working in a book editorial team is managing the peer review process, and liaising with the author about the reviewer feedback. There are a variety of ways that a peer reviewer may be found (and each editor has his/her own techniques for finding them), including consulting expert databases, advanced online searches, conference delegate lists, or word of mouth. As a rule of thumb, there are some key pitfalls to avoid when finding reviewers, including ensuring that the reviewers are all from different institutions, and that they have no direct links with the project (and if they do, they should flag up any competing interests). For a large edited collection on a niche area, however, it can be difficult to find willing expert reviewers who are not already affiliated with the book. It is also often useful to have a range of international voices, so reviews may be sought from around the globe. Remuneration for peer review work can vary depending on the type of project and review required, and can range from an honorarium, to a discount on books, and can sometimes even lead to a new book project with the publisher.
An external peer reviewer is normally thought of as a subject expert, or it is at least an area they feel comfortable commenting in. Although it’s worth bearing in mind that unlike journal articles, which by their nature tend to be shorter and focused on a specific issue or topic, a successful book review would normally have to be broader in scope (as a successful book would have to have a certain level of breadth, as well as depth).
On my own list of medical and health education, we commission reviews from a mixture of lecturers and student reviewers because our textbooks are ultimately aimed for the students reading them. While part of the review is on the content of the book, the reviewers also provide valuable information on a range of other issues, from recommended course reading lists, to suggestions for other learning features, potential competing titles or suggested additional digital components for the book.
The stages of book peer review
There are normally three distinct stages in a book’s life when the services of a peer reviewer may be called upon. The first is in assessing an initial book proposal (and perhaps sample chapter), which may either have arrived on the Commissioning Editor’s desk unsolicited, or be a project the editor was actively looking for. The second instance the peer review process can be used is once a book project has been contracted with the publisher, and the author submits a batch of chapters or even a complete manuscript to be checked. While this is not necessary for most books, it can be invaluable when the author or publisher need specific content checked for accuracy or readability. The final time the peer review process is most frequently employed is after a book has published, which is especially useful when considering improvements that could be made for a potential new edition.
In each stage, there are a number of key questions which tend to be asked of the reviewer, including the potential audience and market for the book, information about competing titles, the author’s suitability for writing the book, any crucial material lacking or areas superfluous, as well as commenting on the academic level and quality of the content.
It is this level of detailed feedback, from a range of expert reviewers, which ensures that academic book publishing continues to create relevant, cutting edge, and high quality products which are useful for students, teachers, practitioners, and researchers.
James Watson is a Commissioning Editor for Health Sciences books at Wiley.
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