Monday, May 28, 2012
What Constitutes Peer Review for Textbooks — And Who Cares?
Robert Talbert / May 17, 2012, 12:15 pm
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. [snip].
The claim here is that open-access books .. tend to have slow adoption rates because of the lack of “peer review” ... , 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 ... . [snip].
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? [snip] My decisions are mostly based on what I personally think of the book ... , reputation, and whether the particular book is required by the department. [snip].
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? [snip]. 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?
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