December 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA1

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Providing Program Review for Cooperative Extension Publications

This paper describes the peer review and publication decision-making process used by California Cooperative Extension. The goal of the system is to ensure that publications and other educational materials produced are high quality and meet important programmatic needs. It also deals with resource allocation and educational appropriateness. The system is relatively simple and has been accepted by most Cooperative Extension staff. It has improved the quality and quantity of CE publications.

Terrell P. Salmon
Cooperative Extension Wildlife Specialist
Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology
University of California
Davis, California
Internet address:

Claudia Myers
Information Technology Manager
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Communication Services
University of California
Davis, California
Internet address:


Cooperative Extension (CE) resources, including publications, must be focused on the highest priority programmatic needs. Critical decisions regarding publications include deciding what publications to write, the cost of production, and the publication's support of program needs. Like all Extension materials, publications need to be accurate, appropriate for the intended audience, and of high quality. Periodic review of publications in print is needed to insure accuracy in light of current information.

In California it is believed that these standards are necessary for a respected and vital CE publication program. With increasing pressure on Extension staff and their budgets, addressing these is more important than ever.

In the past, development of most California CE publications by the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources internal publication unit required several reviews and approvals to ensure the publications were of high quality. Even with these reviews, however, the publication process was often ignored by potential authors because of slow production, unavailability of specialists in specific areas, unclear decision making (determining which publication to print), and basic unfamiliarity with the process.

As a result, the vigor of the publications production system in California CE had declined to the point where many authors had simply stopped using it. Instead, many authors were using desktop publishing and outside sources to produce publications on their own. While this trend made it easier for people to publish and distribute Extension materials, CE review and approval of these publications was inconsistent, despite the fact that many carried the University banner.

Addressing the Problem

In 1993, the vice president of the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which includes Cooperative Extension, recognized the problem with CE publications and appointed an ad hoc committee of CE and external members to address it. This committee, through a facilitated process, addressed the entire communications need of the Division. One of the committee's major recommendations was creation of a complete communications unit by bringing the Publications group together with Visual Media and Agriculture Communications. Another recommendation was to establish a communications advisory board to advise the newly created unit.

A significant part of the ad hoc committee's work was the development of a more structured publication review process with the goal of ensuring quality publications that meet high priority program needs of the division. However, it was important that this review process not overburden division staff. The committee members also recognized the need to reward authors and reviewers for using and supporting the review system.

The key to the new peer review system is the associate editors who are program-based CE Specialists, Agriculture Experiment Station faculty, or county CE advisors. They are appointed for three-year terms in specific program areas such as natural resources, human development, pomology, 4-H Youth Development, and Spanish language materials, for example. There are 13 overall. They manage anonymous peer review and approve publications and other educational materials such as video or slide set scripts based on programmatic need.

The review can be of several levels, depending on the scope of the material. For example, one- to four-page publications are reviewed by one or two reviewers. More reviewers see lengthier publications. When publications are multidisciplinary, reviewers from other disciplines are also included. When appropriate, two or more associate editors work together with one taking the lead in the review process. Once the reviews are completed, the associate editor has the authority to approve, ask for revision, or reject the manuscript.

The focus of associate editors is on accuracy, appropriateness, and programmatic acceptance. They do not have to deal with issues of layout, style, or grammar. When the review is completed, the associate editor sends the manuscript to the Communications Services unit for editing, design, production and distribution.

In some cases, an ad hoc associate editor who deals only with a specific publication can be appointed. In this way, an individual familiar with the subject can spend the time necessary to coordinate review of a large publication, especially one by multiple authors.

Creating Flexibility

When developing this new review process, it was recognized that many people had gone outside the system for publication editing, design and printing, especially when extramural funds were available. In the new review process, this is still allowed. The associate editors manage the review of these manuscripts and, once accepted, turn them back to the author to produce outside the university system. Nonetheless, these are still University of California publications. They receive a division publication number, are indexed in the publications catalog, and can receive other marketing efforts as appropriate.

In the effort to capitalize on success, the communications advisory board can also approve alternate review processes such as those that had been in use prior to the development of the associate editor process. For example, the 4-H Program's curriculum committee looks at 4-H curriculum needs and reviews materials for appropriateness for 4-H. The communications advisory board approved this process because it met the overall goal of anonymous peer review of materials. This support of existing review processes has helped keep people engaged in and supportive of the new review effort.

Dealing with Resources

Once the technical review of publications is established, the resource issue must be addressed: which publications to publish. The communications advisory board and editorial staff determined the total number of manuscript pages the Communications Services unit could handle in a year. Each associate editor was then given an allotment -- known as a page block -- which consisted of a certain number of manuscript pages that they can approve for publication per year. This forces the associate editors to make priority decisions about which publications to publish. The associate editors have been encouraged to and are working with local program groups to help them make those decisions. Proposals for major publications (larger than 225 manuscript pages) require greater resources and are approved by the advisory board using its page block. After this approval, the manuscripts are sent through peer review by the appropriate associate editor(s).

Results of This Process

The new review process has been in place for about four years and, by almost all accounts, is working well. The associate editors are well engaged with program staff and decisions are being made according to publication quality and program priorities. There has definitely been a resurgence in large publication activity, which is attributed at least partially to the associate editors' discussions with work groups and others to encourage and discuss publication needs for Extension programs. In addition, because of the page block process, authors have a better sense of when their publications will be done.

Another important consequence is that existing publications and materials are being cyclically reviewed for accuracy. This cyclical review solves a long-standing problem because once publications were completed they were often never looked at again. Associate editors have the responsibility for all publications within their program areas, including deciding which to continue. They are also able to deal with publications needing revision in cases where authors have left or are no longer available. They have the authority to remove a publication from circulation or ask others to revise it as necessary.


This review process breathed fresh air into the publications program in the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in California. Its implications are tremendous. Not only has it improved authors' desire to work on written publications, but they are also now contributing to publications for the WWW and for other media such as video, slide tapes, and computer programs. The fact that the publications are peer-reviewed through an editorially managed process gives authors more personal incentive to write because the peer-reviewed publications look better for their merit and promotion package.

Work groups and other groups of Extension and Agriculture Experiment Station staff are taking more interest and ownership in publications within their program areas because they have responsibility and control. They are deciding when publications need to be discontinued and are working together to write new publications or other material.

One of the most important results of the associate editor review process is the demonstrated commitment by CE administration in the development of quality publications. This has also energized the Communication Services staff and brought them more closely into the programs of CE.

The associate editor review process was a major change that substantially turned around the publications program. It is resulting in more and higher quality publications that truly serve the needs of CE. The system is relatively inexpensive to operate and is driven at the programmatic level. It is not perceived as, nor is it, a major bureaucratic step that authors have to go through. There are some rough spots but already issues about how publications money is expended, why the process is what it is, and whether it meets program needs, are all being addressed by the associate editors. The system may sound complex, but it has worked.


The authors want to thank the Communications Ad Hoc Review Committee for their hard work, dedication, and foresight in developing the editorial review process. They also thank Ann Senuta and Sydni Gillette for reviewing early drafts of this manuscript.