Within scholarly work, the gold standard is to publish in an academic journal that is peer reviewed. Books published through academic publishers also undergo peer review. This means that before anything is published, experts in the area of study read the manuscript and decide whether it should be published.
Here are some of the basic facts about the peer review process in sociology:
- Most articles submitted to the top scholarly journals in sociology are rejected. According to the American Sociological Association, the flagship journal American Sociological Review (ASR) had an acceptance rate of about 5.9 percent in 2018. Other journals have higher acceptance rates, but the majority of papers submitted for review are rejected.
- The peer review process is blind. Once a paper is submitted, the editors of the journal or book publisher seek out experts in the field to review the manuscript. The reviewer does not know the author of the article, and the author does not know who reviewed their manuscript. This ensures an honest review—sometimes brutally honest. All of this communication takes place through on online platform that the editors moderate, so the authors never know the identity of the reviewers
- Articles can be accepted, rejected, or the author is asked to revise and resubmit. Sometimes papers are of such poor quality that there is no need to send them out for review. For instance, a paper that has little connection to the academic discipline, does not come close to the appropriate format and style of the journal, or any number of reasons can lead the editor to reject a submission. ASR rejected about 30 percent of submissions without peer review in 2019. And of those that were peer-reviewed that year, 85 percent were rejected.
Of those that were accepted, the majority were asked to revise and resubmit their papers, using the feedback from the reviewers. Less than half of all those published were accepted without a request for revisions.
- Providing a review is time consuming. Reviewers for journals are volunteering their time to provide feedback and are often asked to provide multiple reviews for the same article, if it is revised. Editors also may contact the same reviewers over the course of several years to provide reviews of articles in their field.
Typically, each reviewer is given 4-6 weeks to complete their review. This may seem like a long time, but this is on top of the reviewers’ regular day job—which probably entails teaching, research, participating in university committees, and their own writing.
Being a reviewer entails reading a manuscript—which may or may not be interesting or of high quality—and providing detailed feedback for both the editors and the authors. Reviewers need to assess the quality of the paper’s connection to previous theoretical discussions and may suggest to the author that they read and apply the ideas of a specific study or a particular theoretical concept in a revision. Reviewers must determine if the study contributes to the journal itself and the academic field as a whole.
Reviewers also have to assess the academic rigor of the research and see if the analysis of the data is sound. This might mean interpreting complex statistical models and seeing if there are any errors or problematic interpretations. In other words, the reviewer is fact-checking the results of a study. If that is not possible, then it often means the researcher left important information out of their paper that needs to be included before publication.
Providing a review for a book manuscript is even more time consuming, but it is unusual for reviewers to have more than 6 weeks to review several chapters from a potential book. Publishers often provide an incentive for reviewers, such as a small stipend ($50-$100, typically, or a slightly larger amount if the reviewer chooses to take their incentive in the form of the publisher’s books).
As with journal reviews, book manuscript reviewers are given a series of questions they must answer, and their responses are provided anonymously to the author. Unlike a journal review, a book review might ask if the reviewer would consider using the book in a course to gauge its sales potential.
In contrast to much of the content we find online, including, magazines, news sources, many books, and yes, even some journals, the peer review process provides some quality assurance to the reader that the publication is a trustworthy source. Consider whether a source you use is peer-reviewed before deciding whether it is a reliable one.