Appendix 4: Independent commissioned reviews

The independent review process

Commercial versus open publishing

Usually, before publishing an academic book or a textbook, commercial publishers will seek independent reviews at two stages of the process: when an author submits a proposal for a book, and then when the first complete draft is sent to the publisher. As well as external reviewers, the publishing company will have an in-house specialist editor who will be the main person in the decision-making process, and but even then an editor will usually take the final proposal to an internal committee or even a board meeting for final approval. Each of these stages can take up to three months, sometimes longer for the second stage, much longer if the author is required to make substantial changes before publication. Lastly, after the book is published, it may be reviewed, again independently, in academic journals specializing in the field.

Although this lengthy approval and review process can be very frustrating for an author, the process does ensure that the author gets a lot of feedback, and above all it is part of the quality control process, which is one reason why books count so much in the academic tenure and promotion process.

Self-published books need not follow any of this process, although open textbooks, such as those from OpenStax or the BCcampus open textbook project, are nearly always independently reviewed by faculty in the jurisdiction where these books may be adopted.

However, this book is somewhat different. It was written from scratch for a different market, faculty and instructors, rather than students, and it is not part of the BC government’s open textbook project that BCcampus manages. Although BCcampus offered essential technical services, they were not responsible for editing or reviewing the book.

I decided therefore to obtain three independent reviews, and, as with the BCcampus textbooks, these reviews would be published without changes as part of the book.

Criteria for selecting reviewers

In approaching potential reviewers, the following criteria were used:

Independence

Obviously, for an independent review it is necessary to find reviewers who will be as objective as possible. I needed to find professionals in the subject area who had not been closely associated with me during my 40 years working in the field and who would be seen as being objective and sufficiently ‘distant’ from me and my career.

Qualified or experienced in the subject domain

In terms of qualification, I needed reviewers who were also experts in the field of digital teaching and learning, instructional design, online learning or open education area. Although there are many who meet this criteria, they must also be seen to be independent.

Also, because the book is also targeted at faculty and instructors, it was important to find at least one reviewer who is a mainline faculty member interested in teaching and learning but who did not know or was not involved with my previous work, and who would judge it strictly from a faculty or instructor perspective.

Willingness and availability

The amount of work involved in reviewing a 500 page textbook is quite significant. Usually publishers pay a small fee for external reviewers, which no way compensates for the work involved, but at least it helps sweeten the pot. However, if I paid the reviewers as an author, that may have been seen as unduly influencing the independence of the reviewer.

I approached a total of four reviewers who met one or both of the two criteria above, and three immediately agreed to review the book. None of the reviewers I approached requested or even mentioned a fee. Each of the three who agreed to do a review submitted their review within one month of being asked. Brief descriptions of each reviewer is given as an introduction to the following reviews.

Guidelines for the review

Commercial publishers, when commissioning reviewers, usually send a letter or a standard document that sets out guidelines for reviewing a book in its first, full draft before printing and distribution, to ensure both consistency between reviewers, and to identify to reviewers what the publisher is looking for. Although sometimes the publishing editor will require responses to elements that are specific to a particular book, there are also a number of guidelines that are generic.

The situation is somewhat different for a self-published textbook, where it is the responsibility of the author to decide whether to get independent reviews and if so, to provide appropriate guidelines to the reviewers. Although I encouraged reviewers to use their own criteria, I sent them some suggested guidelines, set out below, adapted from the guidelines used by BCcampus for external reviewers of open textbooks:

  1. To what extent is the book successful in meeting the needs of its primary market (faculty and instructors)?
  2. Does the book meet the requirements of a scholarly work? Is it research and evidence-based, and does it provide a critical analysis of the key issues in the field?
  3. Does it provide evidence-based, practical guidelines for faculty and instructors that will help them improve their teaching?
  4. Does it cover adequately the main contemporary issues in teaching in a digital age?
  5. Is the book well written? Does it read well? Is it well organized and structured? Are there errors of grammar or serious typographical errors? Are the graphics and cases appropriately chosen?
  6. What major changes, if any, are needed before you can recommend this book? What minor changes would you like to see?
  7. If this book were to be offered to a commercial publisher, would you recommend it for publication?

Each of the book reviews is published separately, as received, in the following sections.