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An Interview with Series Editors – Peer Review Week

Berghahn Books has been a rigorous peer-reviewed press since its inception in 1994 and has always considered this essential both for assuring the quality and scholarship of our titles but also for providing insightful feedback for our authors to enable them to improve, refine and develop their work. Supporting early career academics is an important part of our mission and the constructive guidance that is offered by skilled peer reviewers can often be vital when developing a first publication. We extend our deepest appreciation to peer reviewers for their tireless commitment to ensuring the high quality of academic research in general and for the support and contribution they make to our publishing programme at Berghahn Books. 

Mark Stanton, Books Editorial Director 

To celebrate Peer Review Week, Berghahn Books coordinated several interviews with authors, series editors and journal editors to explore what their views of our process are and to thank our peer reviewers for the valuable work they do.

An interview with Howard Louthan and Roberto E. Ballios

How important is peer review for selecting books to appear in your series?

RB: Peer review is very important and I consider it to be an essential part of the scholarly process. Peer reviews not only help us conduct quality control and fact checking as editors, it can also serve as an important learning experience for authors, especially those beginning their careers. Some of the best recommendations for writing academic articles came from peer reviewers during the early days of my own career.

HL: I was unaware that there was an annual “Peer Review Week” highlighted in the industry. As an editor of a Berghahn Book Series, I am very pleased that we do have an opportunity to highlight and salute the work of these unseen and all too often unsung heroes. Nearly all peer reviewers are hard pressed to find the time to manage their own career responsibilities. The demands of modern university life are incessant—from teaching responsibilities to administrative work, not to mention the research projects most scholars are involved with. Taking on this extra responsibility of review, though critical for the industry and profession, is so often invisible and many times a significant hardship for overworked professors. But without it, our work, our series, would simply not be possible.

I should note as well that the advice peer reviewers provide can also help us as we think about the future of a series. Reviewers alert us to trends in the field, emerging scholars, or topics for future monographs.

How do you view Berghahn’s peer review process and what impact does it have on the quality of the books in your series?

HL: Berghahn editors that I have worked with spend significant time tracking down experts in the field for manuscripts that are considered for our series. I have worked with a number of different publishers over my career, and I have been very impressed with particularly the number of reviews solicited and the quality of those insights. I could also point to a few times when a specific peer review report was relatively thin and did not rigorously address the manuscript under consideration. Without hesitation, our Berghahn editor would begin searching for another reviewer to complement the series of reports we already had in hand.

RB: I think Berghahn has a very good peer review process and it helps us verify or enhance the quality of the books we publish.

How important is the selection of peer reviewers for manuscripts?

RB: Very important. A bad peer reviewer can be petty or dogmatically attached to a particular analytical approach, inhibiting the publication of materials that they do not agree with on ideological grounds. A good peer reviewer can serve as a mentor to a junior scholar. They encourage improvement of ideas and theses that have merit and recommend revisions that will only enhance the author’s analytical and argumentative abilities.

HL: As a general editor for a series that chronologically covers more than half a millennium and geographically stretches over a significant swathe of the European continent, I do not have the expertise or experience to evaluate all work that is submitted to the series. Berghahn editors work assiduously to find those specialists who are best positioned to evaluate the specific manuscript under consideration.

If peer reviews are critical or negative, what steps do you think are necessary as follow up to that? Please elaborate.

HL: I have been general editor of the series “Austrian and Habsburg Studies” for nearly a decade and have seen a wide range of manuscript reviews. In all cases reviewers offer some level of criticism. That is simply the nature of scholarship. For those reviews that are more negative, Berghahn has often been quite effective dialoging with authors who are offered an opportunity to respond to the critique. As an outside observer of this process, I have been encouraged by many instances when authors take the peer review reports seriously and thoughtfully respond to their criticism. Not all points are accepted, but authors often see how they intend their subject to be expressed is not always how it is received and adjust accordingly. Such dialog when done properly creates stronger books!

RB: As series editor, I do consider myself to have a general expertise on the subject matter of the books we publish. I am also generally acquainted with the field and its practitioners, their academic politics, and personalities. The first thing I do with critical or negative peer reviews is triage them into one of two categories: warranted and helpful and unwarranted and, on occasion, petty. If I categorize a negative review as warranted and helpful, I will encourage the author to recognize that critique is an integral and indispensable part of the creative process and that engaging the reviewer’s comments is an essential part of academic growth. If I find the critiques to be unwarranted, petty, or based on academic politics (is the reviewer beholden to a particular analytical or theoretical approach that inhibits them from recognizing the merits of different analyses? Is the reviewer doing boundary-keeping, either keeping other researchers from writing on a topic or area they feel ownership over? Did the reviewer simply not understand the research questions, hypotheses, and methods of the author?), I will encourage the author to simply acknowledge the critiques but to emphasize in their text whey they are following a particular analytical trajectory or stylistic preference.

Read more from our Austrian and Habsburg Studies series, edited by Howard Louthan here.

Read more from the Catastrophes in Context series, edited by Roberto E. Ballios, Crystal Felima and Mark Schuller here.