Two weeks ago, I challenged all of us to speed up the editorial process at the William and Mary Quarterly. I noted my own efforts in this regard, and laid part of the problem at the feet of our readers —tireless volunteers that they are— and their understandable but deleterious habits of, first, not responding quickly to editors’ queries (mine included), and second, delaying the submission of any reports they do agree to write.
Now, thanks to Caroline Sloat and her excellent question, I can further this challenge by delineating what constitutes a good peer review.
“As the former editor of a peer-reviewed journal, I appreciate the way that [you] lay out the situation of managing these peer reviews. Yes, the schedule is tight; but it puts our responsibilities as a reader into perspective in terms of the machinery. Perhaps, you would like to elucidate this further with some of the hallmarks of a useful peer review?”
While publication formats have expanded, at the WMQ the definition of a truly useful peer review remains the same. So much so in fact that I can think of no more concise response to this question than the one published in Uncommon Sense over a decade ago by my predecessor, the inimitable Chris Grasso. Chris wrote:
“Referees know that their reports need to serve two different functions. First, they must make a recommendation to the editor about publication: accept, reject, or reject with the option to revise and resubmit. (Few articles are accepted in the first round, and we make a final decision in the second.) Helpful reports don’t just make a judgment about an essay; rather, the referee presents a persuasive argument, based on evidence drawn from the paper, showing why acceptance, rejection, or revision and resubmission is the right course of action. Second, reader’s reports provide feedback and constructive criticism to the author. Referees who choose to sign their reports signal that the author may contact them to continue the dialogue about the paper or the broader topic.
Reports vary in length from a single paragraph to several pages, but the best usually have four parts. The reader clearly states his or her recommendation for the editor. The report then briefly summarizes the aims of the essay and its thesis. The main part of the report is a discussion of the essay’s major achievements and/or weakness, with suggestions for improvement. Finally most referees add a list of remarks on smaller matters keyed to particular pages, paragraphs, and sentences.”
Plain and elegant as the truth. And, as ever, fundamental to the very production of excellent scholarship.