Blurbing and Peer Review

12Feb16

I’ve griped about the problems with closed peer review in academic publishing before, whether in the black box of tenure reviews, or celebrating the open review for Complex TV, or wondering about Why a Book?, or envisioning new possibilities with MediaCommons. My unifying frustration in all of these gripes is that throughout academia, the strongest elements of peer review — the dialogue that leads to higher quality scholarship, the labor that goes into providing thoughtful commentary on other scholars’ work, the contextualization of placing scholarship into particular conversations and subdisciplines, the validation from particular peers you respect praising your work — is kept completely invisible from readers. What is left is simply the gatekeeping function, where we either see the fact of publication and are left to assume it must have been deemed worthy by someone for some reasons, or know nothing of what gets rejected and why.

I believe in open review, and have tried to practice it whenever I can – right now I’m participating in a great open peer review process for the new Debates in Digital Humanities volume, with contributors commenting on each others’ essays. But such experiments are far from widespread and still viewed skeptically by many traditionalists. The one place where a modest form of open peer review is broadly practiced is book blurbs.

Blurbs are far from typical peer review: they are solicited after a book has been fully approved for publication, they offer no opportunity for feedback or revision, and they are designed to simultaneous promote the book and highlight the blurber’s ability to offer praise in a consise and pithy way. And yet, they offer something that other forms of peer review do not: openness.

In a blurb, both the author and the blurber know who each other are, as do readers. While this might seem like it would foster conflicts of interest and opportunities to simply promote your friends and colleagues, the openness provides a counter to this. Consider the great new book Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial by Scott Higgins. I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript and offering this brief blurb: “Matinee Melodrama manages a mean feat: making a mostly forgotten, formulaic format seem new and exciting, shining an informative, fascinating light from film history onto today’s television, comics, and videogames.” I had a lot more to say about it than fit in such a sentence (all good, of course!), but the point of such a blurb is less about what I say than that I say it – we read blurbs for the people who write them, and how their praise informs our perception of the book’s quality and appeals. Perusing the blurbs for Higgins’s book, you see my comment next to Steve Neale, Charles Wolfe, and Leonard Maltin, suggesting that the book will be of interest for film scholars, media scholars, and popular critics. These four signed sentences tell you much more about the book’s potential appeals and merits than the far more substantive and lengthy anonymous peer reviews, of which we know absolutely nothing (except that they endorsed publication).

As for conflicts of interest, I think open review can be more honest than blind review. Scott Higgins is actually an old friend of mine from graduate school, and it is true that I would not feel comfortable saying something negative about his work in an official capacity. In a closed blind review, I could easily praise the shoddy work of a friend (not Scott, whose work is never shoddy) and nobody would be the wiser. In an open review or a blurb, I am staking my name publicly on the integrity of my judgment—if Matinee Melodrama were a weak book, readers would wonder why I praised it so. (I can think of such an instance, where a really bad academic book was blurbed by a scholar I quite respect; to this day, I wonder what she was thinking…)

Similarly, open review can help temper perceived conflicts of interest between author and publisher. I will have a videographic essay published in the next issue of [in]Transition, a journal for which I serve as project manager for MediaCommons. My video went through the journal’s standard practice of open peer review, and thus there will be two signed reviews published alongside the piece to justify its publication; perhaps some might wonder whether my piece was treated favorably by the editorial team, but two notable videographic creator/scholars will have publicly endorsed it, making the rationale for publication transparent. Would they sign lengthy positive open reviews of a bad project, just to appease the editors’ favoritism? I know that I wouldn’t.

I’m not saying blurbs should replace peer review, but they highlight how little readers know about the actual peer reviewers and their thoughts about any given work. The fact of publication is not enough to ensure its quality and value, and knowing the perspectives and positions of those who vetted a work is important context that is left invisible within closed review. But until more publishers and journals adopt open peer review standards, blurbs are the most transparent comments we have.



2 Responses to “Blurbing and Peer Review”

  1. 1 Michael J.

    I sincerely hope you’re not advocating for a genuinely open peer-review process. You say you’re not, but that does seem to be what you’re driving at in much of this blog post. This would allow nearly unfettered cronyism, nepotism, and bias into the process — the stuff that blind peer review is designed to eliminate, even if it seldom does so (or do so fully) in practice.

    Similarly, it would exacerbate the general back-slapping discourse endemic in the humanities, where scholars, more interested in getting along with peers than in subjecting arguments to rigorous scrutiny, end up allowing bad ideas to fester. Open peer review would in many cases reinforce this tendency, of people offering only the most demure criticism lest they seem “uncollegial.”

    The benefits of “open peer review” as you describe them seem awfully modest compared to what we gain from blind peer review.

    A side note: blurbs are as often as not drawn /from/ the peer review process. It’s typical for a press to ask a reviewer if they can quote the (presumably positive!) review in publicity material.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment! For me, open peer review works by having two components of “openness” – non-anonymous, and published. The second is more important, as it forces reviewers to go public with their assessments. I think this runs counter to cronyism & bias more effectively than blind review does.

      As for lack of rigor, that feels like it requires a cultural change. The idea that one is willing to be rigorous under anonymous cover but won’t own that critique is a fault in people’s attitudes, not one that we should design systems to accommodate. I would rather say something harsh under my own name than publicly praise something I think is shoddy – that’s the choice that an open review system sets up.

      And yes, blurbs are drawn from peer review often, but we readers don’t know when. Looking at Scott’s book, I assume that some of the other blurbers were referees, but there’s no transparency there. I’d love to read a full assessment from such peers, helping to contextualize the work and what it offers the field.


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