Advice on Peer Reviewer Best Practices

Peer reviewers are vital to ensuring that quality academic scholarship is published.

Mid-career scholars start to receive invitations to peer review from publishers but guidelines often assume familiarity with the role of peer reviewer. This advice aims to help those who are new to the role serve as a thoughtful peer reviewer:

Stage I. The Peer Review Request

When contacted by a book publisher, consider the nature of the peer review request carefully. Be certain before accepting or declining a review that you are doing so for the right reasons.

Consider the following:

  • Is the proposed book project within your realm of expertise? If not, is it close enough to your field that the author might benefit from your position as a scholar in a related or adjacent field or from a differing methodological standpoint?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the approach to a point that you do not feel that you would be able to offer an impartial assessment of the work on its own merits and in accordance with its own aims?
  • Will the proposed deadline suit your schedule? If not, will a proposed date that will fit your existing responsibilities be acceptable to the publisher?
  • Even if you cannot perform a peer review, an acknowledgment of the note declining the review is an important aspect of the peer review process. Many scholars view the process as having begun the moment they send their materials to the publisher. As such, the entirety of the review window stretches beyond the time it takes for the peer review stage to begin and end.

Stage II: Reading the Peer Review Materials

The reading stage is central to the assessment you will be able to provide. As such, be aware of your own preferred work style while evaluating the materials.

Keep in mind:

  • Irrespective of the author’s status, the work should speak for itself. While having a respectable record in the field may suggest that an author will successfully realize a project, all peer review should help to impartially review the merits and weaknesses that are inherent to any drafting process. On the other hand, authors new to writing book-length studies may quite successfully argue the thesis throughout the text. Do not discount or assume fault where the manuscript itself does not reflect this.
  • If you take notes while reading through a proposal or manuscript, keep in mind how those might be of a benefit to the author as well. Consider them a part of the peer review that might point to more specific examples of wider issues or address smaller issues in a more conversational way than the formal review document might allow. Of course, these will be blinded should you send them on to the publisher and state that they are fine to send on to the author.
  • Be mindful of the deadline of the review and let the book editor know with as much advance notice as possible if you might be delayed in sending it in.

Stage III: Drafting the Peer Review

Always consider what would best benefit the author and the book project when composing your peer review. Recall what types of reviews have most benefitted your own work.

Aspects of the peer review that often benefit authors most:

  • Be sure to keep constructive criticism at the core of the peer review. Even positive reviews should go into detail, for example why the project is so well-crafted will help the author to ensure that the quality elements are maintained throughout the entirety of the work. Negative reviews should include examples to support the points of disagreement or weaknesses.
  • Be sure that you understand the aims of the study and that you review it based on that criteria. If there is an issue with those aims, is it something that could be overcome or not? Would the aim itself be beneficial to the area?
  • Offer thoughts on other resources, references, and literature that might help to build upon the strengths of the study.
  • Be thoughtful of the specific questions the press is asking you to address when composing the review. While you need not follow the guidelines exactly, the questions asked are elements that have been specifically picked out both for the benefit of the publisher and its decision and for the benefit of the author as the author considers all aspects of the project – ranging from content to market and beyond.
  • Offer a brief recommendation that sums up your assessment of the project, follow it with a detailed recommendation that clearly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the work.
  • Be aware of where your expertise in the subject or point of analysis might be limited. Are there aspects of the project that you would recommend the press seek another reader’s advice on that you do not feel that you can fairly review? If so, recommend that the press seek another review from a scholar with different expertise to complement your own. If the approach is ultimately something that you do not agree with, be clear on the point and do your best to assess the project accordingly. Do you take issue with the approach due to a flaw in the design or methodology, or because the nature of the approach or methodology is one that you inherently are not convinced by irrespective of the author’s execution of it?
  • Remember that at the center of the project is whether or not the book makes an original contribution to the academic discourse it seeks to engage with. Does the project overall achieve the goal of arguing the stated thesis? Do the various chapters bear this out? Does the book engage with current scholarship on the topic?

Stage IV: Sending Your Review

When sending in your review be sure to query the publisher on whether or not you’ve addressed all of the points that they’ve requested. Additionally, do not hesitate to ask the publisher anything related to the proposed book project that might come to mind. Book editors are there to serve authors and peer reviewers alike and to serve as resources for the academic community broadly.

Some final thoughts before and while sending:

  • After completing the review, put it aside briefly and come back to it. Do you still agree with all of the points you’ve raised in response to the project? Did any other literature come to mind that might benefit the project? Do you agree with your initial evaluation of the project? Once you have thought this over a second time, send it on to the publisher.
  • Feel free to convey notes to the book editor that you might not wish to put in the peer review itself but do want to raise to the press’ attention.
  • Be sure to follow up with the book editor and the editorial assistant regarding any honoraria, final thoughts, your desire to possibly review other projects, and whether or not you might have a book idea of your own.

As the foundation that all academic publishing is built upon, quality peer review is at the center of original research output across fields and disciplines. We hope that these thoughts on serving as a peer reviewer prove helpful as you begin contributing to the academic discourse in new and exciting ways.

Shaun Vigil serves as Editor of Film, Cultural, and Media Studies in Palgrave’s New York office. You can learn more about the peer review and publishing processes from our editorial team.

Read Gabriele Bammer’s thoughts on peer review for interdisciplinary research in her recent article: “What constitutes appropriate peer review for interdisciplinary research?” published in Palgrave Communications.