How to assess the quality of book manuscripts.

The need to change how a manuscript is reviewed

The standard for quality control within academic publishing since the beginning has been peer-review. In 1665 the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society first was published. The publisher of this journal, Henry Oldenburg, then the secretary to the Royal Society, began sending out manuscripts to experts who could their quality before publication. Since then publishers worldwide haven been using this mechanism to judge quality.

A quick review of the existing approaches to Peer Review

The most common form of peer-review is single blind peer-review. Single blind denotes that the author does not get to know who the reviewers are. With double-blind peer review also the reviewer does not know who the author is and where the publication comes from. This method of peer review has been deemed by many to be, in theory, more fair as the reviewer won’t be biased by the affiliation of the author. One could imagine that a paper from Harvard, Oxford University or ETH in Zürich would create a more positive mindset with the reviewer than the same paper originating from the ‘University of Faraway-istan’.

Opposite of single- or double-blind peer review is open peer review. Here both the author and reviewer know each other’s identity. Also, this seems to be a double-edged sword; there is the argument that reviewers will be more tactful and constructive. The counterargument is that because it is in the open the scorned author can vent his anger at the reviewer who caused the rejection of their paper. Certain journals, like the EMBO journal published out of Heidelberg, Germany go further and publish the review reports alongside the article. Embo does not even allow confidential referee comments. Helen Rowe from University College London, UK and reviewer to EMBO press feels that because of transparent review ‘… resulting published articles might be considered more rigorous.[1]

Problems with the current Peer Review process: Double cost to readers and researchers

There always has been focus on the cost of peer review and especially on who bears this cost. The argument for Open Access has always been a scientific publication is often the end-result of publicly funding research. Now handing over that end-result (the manuscript) at no cost to a commercial party who, once published, sells it back to a publicly funded library does not make sense. Publishers in general, do not pay for scientists to review manuscripts. The logical argument for this is that the cost of administering a multitude of relatively small payments would, comparatively, cost a fortune. Nevertheless, researchers often perform reviews as part of their academic work. It has been calculated that the total annual cost of peer review is around 1.9 billion pounds Sterling annually[2]. Quite a sum of money….

Problems with the current Peer Review process: The time crunch for reviewers

A major drawback for peer-reviewing books lies in their size. A typical journal article might run to 3.500 words and would take a typical reviewer, say, 2 -3 hours to review. A serious undertaking but doable. Now books regularly are running beyond 100.000 words. That is not something you can ask a scientist, out of the blue, to review. How are other publishers tackling peer review and quality in books?

You regularly see that an author has to write a book proposal: a few pages of description of his work together with a table of contents and, if applicable, a list of co-authors. This, together with a sample chapter or abstracts for each chapter is sent for peer review. Often the quality is vetted through the reputation of the author; should the author be an editor to a reputable journal then a lot of publishers will see this as ‘good enough’.

The Aldus Press solution to Peer Review problems: Peer Review by Endorsement

At Aldus Press we are working with a different model. We are asking the author(s) to come up with several researchers who are willing to review and endorse the book publicly. Our thinking is that authors know best who their peer are. By openly publishing the name, affiliation and review of these reviewers the reader can make the best assessment. An endorser will ‘not laud a crappy book’ as by doing such his own reputation will be affected negatively. This is, in essence, a variation on the master thesis. The reputation of a master thesis comes, in no small part, from the reputation of the university and the thesis supervisor. Both are published prominently in each thesis.

We publish the complete review files and the iThenticate report as supplementary online material to publication. Obviously, Aldus Press will ensure actively and rigorously vet the identity of the endorsers. This way of assessing quality was independently developed by online publishing expert Jan Velterop for ScienceOpen.[3]

We discuss the details of our Peer Review by Endorsement procedure here.