In this era of “fake news,” when many don’t trust what they read, the need for verifiable, evidence-based scholarship is at an all-time high.

Amherst College Press, already a pioneer in making scholarly publications freely available to the public (an open-access press, its motto is “Free Thought”), is now leading an effort to standardize one of the hallmarks of trustworthy scholarship: peer review.

The Open Society Foundations recently awarded AC Press a $33,000 grant to host a conference on scholarly publishing. That conference, organized jointly with MIT Press, took place in January in Cambridge, Mass., with more than 30 participants. It was the first event of a group called  Peer Review Transparency, which is now working to draft unified standards for peer review, and a system by which readers are notified of work that meets this standard.

Over the next month, the group plans to contact university presses and scholarly societies to invite them to this voluntary effort.

Participating presses would share a standard marker for scholarly writing, certifying that the scholarship in the publication meets the stated criteria, much in the same way that food labeling assures that your milk is fresh or your chicken is kosher.

“It’s like an underwriter’s laboratory seal,” says Mark Edington, director of AC Press.

Edington’s interest in peer-review standards dates to 2013, when he joined the College as the first director of the new press. “Open-access,” he acknowledges, “is widely seen as lesser in quality or rigor,” even though all AC Press books are peer-reviewed: “There is no logical connection whatsoever between the business model of open-access and the review quality, but we realized pretty earlier on that we’ve got to address this reputation issue head on.”

Edington hopes that standard markers will make it obvious when a press does not do enough peer review. To put it another way, an effort by AC Press to define itself in the competitive market has resulted in setting a standard that may actually change the market.

“This little press has now made a partnership with one of the best presses in America, the MIT Press, and gotten a grant from the Open Society Foundation to convene a meeting about peer-review and scholarly publishing,” Edington says. “We're having a pretty big impact despite our small size.”

This effort is not the only indicator of the increasing momentum of AC Press. Recently, it added an additional faculty member to its editorial board. According to Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein, “More faculty participation on the board will broaden the range of disciplines and content areas represented, and can perhaps lead to new series and other ideas for the press.”

Leah Schmalzbauer, professor of American studies and sociology, chairs the editorial board. “When I was first asked to join the board and then learned that it was open-access and it was going to be this new model, I needed convincing,” she says. This is because she knew that print presses are struggling and that open access is largely untried. But seeing the press’s dedication to academic rigor warmed her to the concept.

“I have just been completely convinced by being a part of this initiative that this is the future,” she says. “This is the cutting edge of academic publishing. I think it has found its feet.”