What constitutes peer review for textbooks — and who cares?

May 17, 2012, 12:15 pm

Via Inside Higher Ed, The University of Minnesota has started a web site to curate “open source” textbooks in a variety of subject areas. Right now, the mathematics selection consists of 15 titles, many of which can be considered open-access classics, including Strang’s Calculus, Bob Beezer’s “A First Course in Linear Algebra”, Tom Judson’s excellent Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications, and the Whitman Calculus book. In other words, these aren’t new titles created specifically for this website. But it’s nice to have these all curated in the same place. (I don’t know if UMN plans on solicit new works specifically for their website.)

The claim here is that open-access books** tend to have slow adoption rates because of the lack of “peer review” (and also because many faculty don’t know that open-access resources are out there), and the UMN website will provide some of that review by way of reviews solicited from UMN faculty at the somewhat astonishing compensation of $500 per review. This raises some interesting and, IMO, important questions about peer review.

First of all, is this the sort of “peer review” we typically associate with academic publishing? It seems different. When we speak of “peer review”, say for a journal article or conference talk, we usually mean something that happens before publication, where knowledgeable experts — for better or for worse — act as gatekeepers for anything that might purport to advance the discipline. That’s pretty clearly not happening here (unless, again, UMN has plans to eventually peer review books prior to posting them). In fact right now, none of the 15 math textbooks have any reviews at all posted, although you can find reviews elsewhere if you wanted.

What UMN is providing is more of what we might call peer validation, where knowledgeable experts “review” the material post-publication. So, second, is peer validation good enough for people who really care about peer review? If you’re considering adopting a textbook and need some sort of certification that it’s a good piece of work, is an Amazon-style post-publication review going to fit the bill?

Third, just how common is it for people to really use formal peer review in a textbook decision at all? I don’t think I’ve ever sought out peer review on a book to make a decision about it, unless it’s informal word-of-mouth “reviews”. My decisions are mostly based on what I personally think of the book (regardless of what others think), reputation, and whether the particular book is required by the department. If UMN’s website provides some measure of legitimacy to the review process, will it matter?

Finally, what about the authors, who might be going up for tenure or promotion? Will UMN’s system of “peer review” pass muster with personnel committees? If this sort of review process becomes widely accepted as scholarly peer review, then UMN’s website might really take off. Otherwise, it’s hard to say, although the $500/review rate is pretty enticing. (And potentially another issue here — who’s reviewing the reviews to ensure that they contain $500 worth of information?) In my department, we’re discussing whether peer validation and peer review carry the same weight for tenure and promotion considerations; it’s not an easy call to make, and in many places certainly peer validation doesn’t count as much as actual review.

What do you think? Is UMN’s project doing what it claims to do — namely curating open-access materials in a peer reviewed setting?

** These tend to get called “open source” books, but that term refers to the ability to alter the content of those books if you choose, and not all open-access books have that option.


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