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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Expert Witnesses

We’ve been talking here about the possible value of having NF books for younger readers “vetted” by experts as well as reviewed by people whose expertise rests in knowing how young people read. To complicate that story a word of caution is in order. All of you reviewers have been trained to look at the acknowledgements to see if the author thanks Professor X and Prestigious Institution Y for reading the manuscript. But we have no way of knowing what the really means. I first ran into this back in the 1980s when I was editing the Land and People series. I would send the mss out to be read by academics, but then they would ask me what I wanted. They are used to peer review — where academics read each other’s work and submit the most detailed and direct comments and questions. But peer review takes place at a completely different stage — it is a way of determining whether the book (or article) should be published at all, or what changes might be required to make it stand as a real contribution to the field.

But we are not asking that question. When we send out a mss. it has been acquired and indeed written. We are asking for essentially fact-checking, proof-reading notes — was that date correct, is this interpretation of his motivations plausible? But that is not what academics know how to do — unless given clear instructions. And even then they may not have the time to do that. In turn, as Vicky mentioned here, what they are much more attuned to are the debates within their field — professor X who thinks dinosaurs did evolve into birds and professor Y who still insists that theory is not proven. So how can we locate their response in a book written for those not familiar with academic debates?

The answer is that we who ask for comments must be aware of what is reasonable to get. So, for example, send the mss to professors with opposing views — so that instead of looking for The Academic View — you are allowing partisans for all views to make their points and bring up their concerns. In turn, reviewers, do not take the “thank you professor X” note to imply the book is clean, safe, free of error. It means the author at least made an effort — but you the reviewer are still on your mettle to check yourself. Indeed you do not even know if the author paid attention to what the academic said. Turning to academics is a step, it is not a solution. We authors, and you reviewers, then need to take the next steps. But what are those steps — another debate for another blog.


  1. Six years ago I had an expert review a short magazine article. The scientist wrote something like “looks good.” Although I’d love to believe it was flawless, it left me wondering whether the review was thorough. I suggested to that editor that maybe I should throw in something incorrect and see if he catches it, you know, a little test. Although it was purchased, the article has not been published. I suspect this is the reason.