In today’s blog we have an in-depth view on peer review from Karl Fugelso, Professor of Art History, Towson University; editor of the annual volume Studies in Medievalism and co-editor of the series Medievalism, both for Boydell and Brewer.
In my roles as an academic author and editor, I find rigorous peer-review absolutely essential, not only for the direction it provides in processing a manuscript, but also for the confidence it instills in the participants. As a veteran editor for several publications that concentrate on post-medieval responses to the Middle Ages, not to mention as a long-time writer in the field, I have a wide range of knowledge about the standard approaches to medievalism and often have some familiarity with the particular subject of a manuscript. However, I’m far from an expert in, say, statistical surveys of Japanese video games, much less how they reference Arthurian armor. So, when I’m gauging the merits of a manuscript that employs such a method for such a topic, I find it invaluable to consult one or more specialists in that approach and/or area. Only they are likely to find the factual errors, bibliographic lacunae, and methodological deviations that could embarrass the author (and me, and the publisher) if they make it into print.
Moreover, even when I’m quite confident in my knowledge of a manuscript’s material and approach, I welcome the peer-review process as an opportunity to hear other perspectives. Though I always try to be aware of my biases and to minimize them, I can’t always be entirely sure I’m successful in doing so, and I think it helps to have them balanced, or at least diluted, by juxtaposition with other viewpoints. Indeed, even though my opinions may unintentionally play a part in selecting outside readers or otherwise arranging for a review, those prejudices are presumably at least somewhat offset or attenuated by the sheer fact that no two assessments are likely to be completely identical, that no two readers will approach an essay in exactly the same way.
Certainly, as an author, I find myself much more accepting of a decision when I know that it isn’t solely that of an editor, when I’m confident that my work has also been vetted by at least one other reader. And when I receive a reviewer’s explanation for their reaction, I’m always grateful for that feedback, as it presumably comes from someone who is thoroughly acquainted with my particular subject. Though I may not always agree with it, I appreciate knowing how at least one other expert perceives my work and how I may adjust it to better suit their understanding of our shared subject. Indeed, after thirty years as an academic writer and seventeen as an editor, I can’t imagine submitting an essay to, or editing for, a publisher that doesn’t invest in a rigorous peer-review process.
A good review also requires sufficient time to compose the response and to find the best reader. Every reviewer should be an expert in the material, approach, and/or as many other aspects of the manuscript as possible. Moreover, every reader should possess a thorough awareness of their own biases, as well as a willingness to work around them in the pursuit of a fair and professional assessment. And they should have extensive familiarity with the publication/publisher and its target audience, though any gaps in that knowledge may be offset by another helpful ingredient for a good review – a questionnaire or some other editorial guide. These are especially helpful when they are closely tailored to the particular manuscript and the role it’s to fill in the journal, serial, book list, etc., but they should invite the reviewer to assess: 1) the strengths and weaknesses of the overall argument, 2) the thoroughness and accuracy of the evidence and sources, 3) the logic, clarity, and general cogency with which they are stitched together, 4) the flow and beauty of their packaging, 5) the awareness of possible or actual alternatives, and 6) the correctness of grammar, punctuation, etc.
Of course, even the most flexible of such guides can be somewhat confining and lead to repetitive answers from one reader to the next. But even when peer reviews have accidentally overlapped, I’ve found them extraordinarily helpful for my writing and editing. More than once they’ve revealed omissions or (other) errors I’d overlooked, and I can hardly count the ways they’ve given me new perspectives on a subject that I thought I knew as thoroughly as possible. Moreover, they’ve almost always helped me tighten my organization and logic, correct my grammar and punctuation, and smooth out my style.
I’m particularly grateful to the many readers who have covered all those areas in responding to my work or to that of my authors. Even without editorial prompting, most reviewers know to remark on the general coherence of a paper, as well as on any content or bibliography for which they have some expertise, but, as I’ve indicated above, the ideal response pushes beyond that. All of which is to say that I can hardly imagine working with a publisher who doesn’t at least welcome such feedback, and I’m very thankful to edit for one who actively supports it.