Scholarly peer review is a quality control exercise in which a journal editor decides which competing scientific papers should be published in the limited number of pages available. The number of scholarly journals has increased, in part, to accommodate the much greater (and rising) number of scholarly manuscripts that meet a broadly accepted minimum quality standard for publication. In science, publication is essential for having one’s research taken seriously.
But some peer review activities are motivated by other considerations. Colloquy, the quarterly review published for alumni of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, has published a cover article on Barry Gewen, a GSAS alumnus (history of American civilization, 1972) who is a preview editor for the New York Times Book Review. For 17 years, he has decided which books in foreign policy, history, economics and current events are sent out for review. He describes his job as bing a “cultural gatekeeper.”
The New York Times has the second-largest circulation of all newspapers in the US (1,627,062). Only USA Today (2,524,965) and the Wall Street Journal (2,068,439) are higher. In 2005, the Audit Bureau of Circulation estimated that it has 4,635,200 (M-F) to 6,369,000 (Su) readers in its primary reader profile study area. Nielsen reported in 2005 that the Times had over 11 million online readers — tops in newspaper publishing. This dominant position makes the Times’ Book Review a “cultural gatekeeper” in the world of published ideas. Historically, a favorable Times review often was the springboard to success; hence, the power wielded by men and women such as Barry Gewen.
In the Colloquy interview, Gewen says the Times receives “many hundreds” of review copies and galleys (time period unstated) for review. These go through an initial weeding performed by editor-in-chief Sam Tanenhaus and two other editors. Gewen “sees 20 to 25 books every week, and he gives only about 25 percent of them to a reviewer.” A limited number of reviews appears in each Sunday’s edition. On July 23, there were several articles on and a review of the last Harry Potter book, and another nine reviews. Being in the 500 or so books reviewed each year is extremely valuable professionally and financially.
Gewen reveals that the process used by the Times to decide which books to review is not free of bias:
It is impossible for him to read each book he receives in its entirety, he said, and though “in an ideal world, every galley stands an equal chance with every other galley…it isn’t precisely true.”
Galleys from major publishing houses—Knopf, Random House, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, for example—may be given more time compared to those from, say, a small university press because, Gewen said, they’re geared to a popular audience rather than an academic one. “That’s not to say that, for example, the University of Kentucky Press doesn’t get a fair shake,” he pointed out.
Of course, that’s exactly what it means if “fair shake” means equal opportunity to be selected. Gewen admits that all academic presses are not considered equal:
[S]ome university presses are comparable to trade or commercial presses in terms of their books’ accessibility for the general reader, he said. In that select group, he included the presses of Harvard, Yale, and Oxford and—in a second tier—Princeton, the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California, among others.
The selection of a book reviewer also is crucial. Gewen relates an anecdote in which a prospective reviewer was considered conflicted because he had written a blurb for the dust jacket. Presumably, such a reviewer cannot be expected to be fairly critical, but only a small fraction of predictably favorable reviewers would be so noticeable; writers who make a living in criticism don’t write jacket blurbs. And Gewen does not dwell on the opposite type of conflict of interest: reviewers with an animus toward the author that is just as likely to cloud judgment.
Though scholarly peer review and book reviewing appear to be similar activities, they differ in crucial respects. First, scholarly peer review occurs before publication and book reviewing afterwards. The importance of this obvious distinction is often missed: a rejection in scholarly peer review may deny the author access to the world of ideas, but a negative book review only reduces sales and readership.
Second, scholarly reviews are conducted blind so that the reviewer does not know the author’s identity, and vice versa. This tradition is sometimes not followed (authors quietly select their own reviewers) or inadvertently violated. For example, the increasingly technical nature of scientific scholarship, combined with various pressures to reveal sources of funding, can enable reviewers to be fairly certain they know authors’ identities. Sometimes, authors can read the reviews they receive and be fairly certain they know who wrote them. But the purposes of anonymity are reasonable: to eliminate (or at least reduce) the propensity of reviewers to adjust their opinions based on the identity of the author, and to maximize (or at least increase) reviewers’ willingness to be candid. Book reviewers always know authors’ identities, and often are chosen precisely because they are familiar with the authors’ prior work or public history. Both kinds of peer review are “gatekeeping” functions; what’s different is the nature of the gate.
Gewen describes his role as a “cultural gatekeeper,”but the influence of the New York Times Book Review appears to be limited, and perhaps declining. Of the top 16 nonfiction hardcover books on this week’s best seller list, the Times reviewed nine. Of the top 16 fiction hardcover books on this week’s list, the Times reviewed two. Best-seller lists measure sales, so the gate that the Times is keeping leads to a relatively small pasture