By Fred Appel
This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment
A few years ago, I had occasion to place a manuscript under peer review. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I can say little about it, other than it was written by a mid-career scholar, and a cultural anthropologist, based in the U.S. The manuscript concerned a topic of great interest to me, and I had been tracking this potential book for some years, meeting with its author at scholarly conferences and checking in on the author’s progress on occasion, via email. The book project seemed like a good fit with my publishing program at PUP, so I was pleased to see its author finally sent me a first draft.
I had some reservations about this draft, but thought it worthwhile to send the draft out for review nonetheless. I invited the author to make suggestions for suitable peer reviewers, noting that I would need to avoid anyone from the author’s home institution, anyone who served on their dissertation committee years before, and anyone whom the author considers a close personal friend. I received some names from the author, considered other candidates from my own professional network in this field, and in the end I succeeded in persuading two scholars—whom I considered superbly qualified—to assess this work.
When my reviewers submitted their reports, I considered them carefully before sharing them with the author. In sum, the two readers recommended publication of the work, but only if the author made revisions to correct certain deficiencies. Happily, the assessments of the reviewers were in synch—an especially fortuitous outcome given that the two reviewers had quite different scholarly backgrounds and orientations. I shared the reports with the author and offered to discuss them. Within hours, I received an emailed response. The author expressed disappointment that neither reviewer understood nor grasped the importance of the book. In response to my invitation to consider the various suggestions for revision, the author, instead, proposed that we start fresh, with two new peer reviewers who would be better positioned to grasp the importance and special contribution of the book.
It did not take me long to reply that I did not wish to take up this proposition. I wished the author luck with their efforts to place their book with another suitable scholarly publihser.
This particular peer review episode had an unhappy outcome for both author and publisher. The reason for the author’s unhappiness is clear. They wanted to publish their book with PUP, and received reports that did not facilitate this outcome. What is more, the readers’ reports were—from the author’s point of view—useless, because the manuscript was sent to patently unsuitable reviewers, who—because of temperament, prejudices shaped by disciplinary training, or some combination thereof— were unable to understand and appreciate the author’s enterprise.
The acquisitions editor (a.k.a. me) was also unhappy with this outcome. Any acquisitions editor can tell you that once a decision is made to send a book manuscript out for review, the editor is invested in the book project and hoping for its success. After all, an editor must expend a significant amount of time and energy managing peer review. In addition to the time spent pondering potential candidates, there are thoughtful emails one must compose to such candidates, making the book in question sound as intriguing as possible; follow-up notes sent to those who don’t respond; negotiation on due dates with reviewers; further follow up with reviewers who are late and need prodding; questions posed to reviewers about passages in their reports that may be unclear and require clarification; and—something that did not occur in the aforementioned case—discussions with authors about the reports and negotiation of possible revisions based on readers’ recommendations. Commiting all this time and effort to the peer review of a single manuscript, without the satisfaction of publishing an important scholarly book that benefitted from all this scrutiny, is disheartening.
But peer review is an inherently unpredictable, sometimes humbling enterprise. One must be prepared for the occasional unhappy outcome. (The acquiring editor must hope that unhappy outcomes will be rare. If they are frequent, the editor might not last long in their job.)
An editor does what they can to ensure a positive, productive outcome by (among other things) recruiting reviewers who can bring more than just scholarly expertise and rigor to the manuscript in question. Ideally, reviewers ought to have the capacity to grasp the nature and intent of the project they’ve been asked to assess, and craft recommendations for revision that help the book succeed on its own—or perhaps we should say, on the author’s own—terms. All in the interest of making the book under review the very best it can be. As opposed to attempting to persuade the author to write a different sort of book.
To return to the aforementioned peer review episode, with the outcome so unsatisfying for both author and editor. Did I, as editor, contribute to this failure by selecting unsuitable reviewers? The author certainly thinks so. Perhaps they are right. But regardless of whether I erred in whole or in part in my selection of those particular reviewers, I would suggest that there is something troubling about the author’s wholescale dismissal of those readers’ reports. The reports, I reiterate, were not entirely negative. But they both—and independently—found flaws in the book’s structure and argumentation that any responsible author (to my mind) should carefully consider.
Authors need not, in the end, capitulate to their peer reviewers in every respect. There is ample room, in peer review, for principled disagreement. And, in the end, I am inclined to think that the author’s views should hold sway. (It is their book, after all.) But authors who wish to be published by scholarly publishing houses with standards to maintain must show some epistemic humility and, in discussion with their editors, address their reviewers’ concerns thoughtfully and responsibly. When this happens, everyone wins—author, publisher, and the wider community of scholars.
Fred Appel is a Publisher (Religion & Anthropology) with Princeton University Press. He publishes books in the fields of religious studies and social-cultural anthropology, and in history as it pertains to these fields. His aim is to publish imaginative books with interdisciplinary reach that are conversation changers in their respective fields, whether they are written for scholars, students, or general readers.