One of the issues I am repeatedly asked about is peer review (hereafter, PR) of manuscripts (viz. sending manuscripts out to specialists in the field for evaluation prior to publishing). My impression from speaking with both scholars and administrators about this is that there are several misconceptions about PR.
1. What publishers routinely send manuscripts out for PR?
Many scholars and administrators I have spoken with simply assume that most publishers routinely send manuscripts out for PR. That is a serious misconception. PR is primarily practiced by university presses. There are a couple of reasons for this. a) It is an expensive process to pay outside readers for their detailed evaluations. Many U.S. academic publishers consider 500 to 1,500 projects per year, so this would be an enormous expense. Traditionally, many university presses have received major funding/underwriting from their universities, so they could take on this added expense. This funding has been seriously affected by the current economic downturn. 2) The editors at most U.S. university presses do not have graduate degrees in the field/s they are editing. Often one editor has to cover 4 or 5 major disciplines. Commercial publishing houses in religion (whether for profit [e.g., Eerdmans] or not-for-profit [e.g., Westminster John Knox]) very rarely send manuscripts out for PR. They generally only do so when a disagreement in the editorial board arises or they want the project and are not sure of the quality of the work.
2. What are the advantages of PR?
PR can be at least a small advantage to scholars as they are either trying to get their first position or get tenure and promotion. They may also get detailed feedback from a specialist to help improve their work or spot problem areas.
3. What are the disadvantages of PR?
One of the major disadvantages of PR is the length of time it may take. A friend of mine who works for a university press tells me that it can often add 12 to 18 months to the publishing process. Getting the manuscript back from a busy scholar/reviewer who is being paid a few hundred dollars is sometimes a very difficult process. This is clearly a problem for both the author and the publisher. The other disadvantage for the publisher is how will these costs be covered?
I would be very interested in hearing readers’ experiences with PR, and what they would add to my perspectives.