How Does Peer Review Work for Books in the Academic Discipline of History?

If the OP is asking that, then the nature of the peer review of this book isn’t really going to answer that question. Peer review has many purposes, but it doesn’t make a book credible or not.

I write this as someone who has published some incredible work that passed peer review.

Basically I agree, but I’d prefer to say that peer review wouldn’t establish whether the book’s conclusions were correct or not. Credibility is a subjective concept. It was really my delicate way of saying that the real question is whether or not the book was an utter pile of crap. Peer review basically validates some minimal threshold of methodological competence.

I don’t understand why this is so outlandish. The contention that Jesus either did not exist, or was a personage used as a name to give life to beliefs, or was a composite character, has a long history. It is not prima facie foolish and in fact would be the default assumption were it not for Christianity’s place in western society. The consensus that Jesus was real is based on nothing very concrete and mostly relies on supposition and assertion. I haven’t taken part in the many, many discussions about it because I have no expertise but, to be frank, I can think of no other subject here that would be accepted on the flimsy arguments made for the affirmative. It’s probably true that there is not sufficient evidence of any kind to prove the negative either, but that doesn’t make the attempt outlandish.

I’m certainly no expert, and no doubt the real story, if we could somehow ever know it, would be full of amazing surprises, and that’s why the whole subject of something so fundamental to modern religion is so fascinating. And it’s by no means certain that Aslan got it right, either, even in the most rudimentary outlines. But to me his main argument – that Jesus was a political rebel in a time that we know was politically turbulent and had many such movements – is a persuasive one, and that he was subsequently deified by a combination of historical distortion and historical revisionism, notably by the Gospel writers in the process of institutionalizing Christianity, is typical of how this sort of mythologizing works. But to claim that Jesus never existed at all just runs contrary to most secular Biblical scholarship. The claims of “peer review” and the secretiveness surrounding it is suggestive of shady and shoddy work.

Authors typically submit suggestions for reviewers, but it’s the publisher’s job to select them, as well as to orchestrate the communication between author and reviewers which is theoretically anonymous.

One can’t send a book to a couple of buddies, hash out a few comments and suggestions, and submit it to a credible publisher as, voila!, peer reviewed.

In my case (history), my book was reviewed by two people, as were most articles. One was reviewed by four, but that was an unusual practice (and it took fricking forever).

Practices vary a bit by discipline, but I imagine every discipline has its less than credible publishers. I don’t know anything about the case at hand though.

It looks like in the present case the reviewers weren’t anonymous to the author. I don’t know that that’s fatal to the publisher’s peer review credibility, but it looks like it’s a little less credible than the standard methodology.

To me though, it seems like it’s saying quite a bit that there are two (albeit unnamed) “major NT scholars” who’d say “yes, with revision, the field needs a book like this.” As to doubts about how major the NT scholars in question are, I guess we can’t know for sure but the publishers themselves seem to stand behind the claim and I’d imagine they feel some pressure to be credible here…

It can be difficult to maintain anonymity. In small fields, people tend to all know each other’s work. It’s standard practice not to name the peer reviewers publicly though. Reviewers can, but aren’t expected, to reveal their identities to either the author or the public (via a book blurb or the like). One would not recommend against publishing crappy work by a powerful leading scholar who decided to start phoning it in (it happens) if the review wasn’t anonymous.

A lot rests on the prestige and credibility of the publishing house. Again, field dependent. But a publisher who published crap (as opposed to controversial but scholarly) work would not attract good historians. I’m speaking of the academic, not the popular, market here. I should have thought that a reputable scholarly publisher would have been willing to explain the per review process (although not reveal the names of the reviewer).

Before Oxford agreed to publish my book, they ran it by two academic reviewers. Only after they got their approval did they agree to publish. I’m not sure if it constitutes “peer review”, though. I think they just wanted to see if I tried to publish some howlers.*

Oddly, when I submitted the Optics book, they didn’t do anything of the sort. I guess they figured I knew enough about optics.

*Besides, I don’t have any peers. That’s not a brag – it’s just that there aren’t a lot of physicists writing about mythology. The follow-up to the book that came out a couple of months ago, however, did get “peer reviewed” by classicists, something which made me realize the difference between physicists and classical scholars (one thing, for your edification – classical scholars live and die by the Word. Make absolutely certain your etymologies and translations are absolutely perfect)

Ahh, a publishing house that replied:

Rather than just sending their editorial policies which, if they existed and sounded ok, would have been simpler than typing the quip.

This is not a big corporation we are talking about here. Although it is associated with a decent university, and needs to avoid publishing anything that might damage the university’s reputation, the publishing “house” is probably a very small organization (and I think probably a fairly new one), with only a handful of staff. It very likely does not have a pre-written policy document about reviewing, and dealing with this enquiry may well have been handed off to an unpaid and inexperienced intern.

FWIW, from the outline linked in post #2, the book looks pretty legit to me (which is not to say it is right, of course), but it is not my area.

The section for potential authors on Sheffield Phoenix Press’s website says, ‘Manuscripts offered by the author will always be sent for evaluation to a series editor or a reader for the Press.’

That’s absolutely standard for history books published by UK academic presses, although frequently it’s two readers, often one of series editors and an outside reader.

Series editors will be major experts in the field covered by the series. That they are the editors of a particular series is not secret. Typically the one who will read it will be whichever of them is most qualified. If a second reader is used, this will usually be an outside expert. The series editors then take a collective decision on whether to accept the book. Obviously the views of the one who has read the book tends to carry the most weight. Given that one of the readers’ reports will probably be by a series editor, it may not be too difficult for the author to work out who wrote that particular report. But the author will know that it’s the series editors who have the final say anyway. The author may well also find out who the other reader was, as this is where the publishers get their blurbs from. Or the reader may just tell the author.

The process for collections of essays in history is usually much the same. Most academic presses will send them out to one outside reader. That’s because the editor(s) of the collection will usually have invited the contributors to contribute and so cannot be considered independent.

Academic publishers will sometimes ask authors for recommendations for possible readers. But of course they do so in the full knowledge that authors will recommend names they think will be sympathetic. This can be used as a way of working out who not to send the book to.

Trade publishers are rather different. Some do retain prominent academics to read submissions. But this may involve them reading submissions on subjects on which they’re not really an expert. Indeed, what the publisher may want from them is not a thorough check so much as a general sense of its quality. Others trade publishers do not use academic readers at all.

In any case, saying that a history book has been peer-reviewed does not mean that what the book says is correct. Criticisms that a reader might make are not necessarily taken on board. An author is entitled to try to convince the editors that those criticisms are wrong, irrelevant or simply a matter of opinion. Yet those criticisms could still prove to be well-founded. It is also not unknown for readers to recommend publication while saying that they personally disagree with the author’s conclusions. Nor is there any requirement for a particular series or a publisher’s wider list to be consistent. I’m pretty sure that many of the other authors published by Sheffield Phoenix Press will strongly disagree with Carrier’s views. The only person involved in the whole publication process who must agree with Carrier’s views is Carrier himself.

Finally, the real process of peer-review of history books happens after publication, when the book gets reviewed in academic journals. The glowingness of the readers’ reports counts for little if the journal reviews are damning.

I should hope not! As someone who has served both as a publisher’s reader and a journal referee, I would consider myself to be acting seriously unethically if I recommended against a work solely because I disagreed with the author’s conclusions. (I have, however, recommended rejection of an article because I regarded the conclusions to be so obviously true, and widely recognized as such, that there was no justification for arguing them at such length.)

A series editor review is somewhat different from peer review. The series editor determines whether the book meets the standards of the press; the peer review determines whether the book meets the standards of the profession. You see the same distinction in academic journals where the journal editor accepts the paper and then sends it out for peer review. A bit oversimplified, of course.

Trade publishers operate strictly on a CYA basis. I learned that with my first book. Since I didn’t have a doctorate they sent the book out for an expert review, a nightmare line-by-line critique. After that I recruited doctors to sign their names to a foreward I would write. Presto, no review.

Not always. I’ve reviewed a book proposal from someone who not only had a PhD but who was very well known in the field. I think publishers often want second opinions.

However these kind of reviews, though paid, are usually not done anywhere near as completely as paper reviews (though it sounds like you drew an eager beaver.) If for no other reason papers go in when they are ready, but books have publication schedules.

YMMV. No generalization about publishing goes very far. It’s a profession in which idiosyncrasies are pushed to dottiness.