Research Division 2004

The Research Division tends to be the least visible of the divisions, as it often deals in intangible aspects of the profession and the Association, since it oversees policies for the annual meeting, prizes, fellowships, and publications, and has a more general charge to promote historical scholarship. But over the past year this has produced a number of highly visible changes and activities.

One of the more significant changes in the life of the Association is the selection of a new editor for its flagship journal. We are quite pleased with the selection of Robert Schneider, who is currently professor and chair at Catholic University. He brings a strong scholarly record as a French historian, substantial administrative experience as a department chair, and a broad vision for the future growth and development of the journal. Schneider will take the helm this fall.

Mike Grossberg has set an extraordinarily high standard as editor of the AHR for the past nine years; but the search committee I chaired, the Research Division, and the AHA Council all felt that Schneider was someone who could build effectively on Mike’s achievements.

The Research Division also engineered sweeping reforms of the annual meeting, which should begin to be evident at the 2006 annual meeting. We proposed these changes to Council after 18 months of review and consultation with members and other scholarly societies, with the hope that we could generate a more dynamic and intellectually stimulating meeting for members. Our surveys of AHA members, past program committee members, and other disciplinary societies revealed that we were fairly late in taking up the issue of meeting reform. Most of the other disciplinary societies of our size had instituted reforms over the past 15 years, and our members were nearly unanimous in voicing their enthusiasm for substantive reform.

With that as encouragement, the division substantially revised the guidelines for the annual meeting, to lay out a range of new session types and behaviors we hope to encourage. We have also encouraged the program committee and the membership to be more proactive in developing a broad and diverse range of sessions and topics for future annual meetings. To assist in these efforts, we continue to invite members to write to us about the interesting and innovative sessions they have attended or organized. The AHA has also committed additional staff support for the Program Committee.

We hope these reforms will result in an expansion of the size of the meeting, as well as the diversity of topics and presentation styles. The AHA staff is already exploring ways to increase the number of sessions at the annual meeting. Ideally, we want to promote a more inclusive annual meeting that will regularly attract a larger percentage of our members. As part of that effort, the new guidelines eliminate the ban on appearing in two successive annual meetings.

The selection of a new editor and the reforms of the annual meeting were only the most visible activities of the division. We were also engaged in a number of other efforts as well. One of the more persistent problems we have had to deal with over the past year is the extension of institutional review board oversight over oral history. Institutional Review Boards were implemented to oversee abuses of human subjects by medical researchers, but over the past few years have expanded their authority to include any field that works with living human beings. This has become a significant problem for oral historians, as the methods they use bear little relation to the scientific techniques of the hard sciences, or even the survey and sampling techniques of the social sciences. We thought we had made a significant breakthrough in September 2003, when the head of the federal regulatory office that oversees these boards, agreed that oral history should usually be exempt from IRB oversight.

Unfortunately, that has had less effect than we had hoped. Since the policies that directly affect the lives of most historians are implemented at the local level, we have found that many college and university IRBs have been unmoved by the federal policy statement. And this problem has been exacerbated by mixed signals from the federal oversight office, which has offered some contradictory interpretations of the exemption. This fall, the AHA offices received almost weekly calls about problems with campus IRBs taking a hard line on the issue, and in some cases closing down research projects. In the coming year, the staff will undertake a more systematic survey and analysis of IRB policies at a wide range of colleges and universities and will present a detailed report in a spring 2005 issue of Perspectives. We also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Linda Shopes and Don Ritchie, who have been pressing this issue despite a number of set backs.

We have also been actively engaged on perceived problems in publication of history scholarship. We have gathered and reported on the available data on publication in our field and its effects on tenure in the field. Unfortunately, the nature and extent of the problem seems to recede as we try to get a grip on it. The number of history titles being produced is near an all-time high. History departments reported that only a tiny number of their junior faculty failed to publish or receive tenure. And in our contacts with publishers, they all agreed that they were not selling as many copies as they would like, but offered widely disparate explanations for why that might be. We will continue to explore this issue in the coming months focusing particularly on Latin American history, an area in which some have argued that publication is especially difficult. We are very eager to hear from members who have perspectives to offer on this topic.

Members of the division were also quite troubled by reports that the peer review process at the National Endowment for the Humanities and other federal agencies were being undermined by particular agendas. We are working to develop a set of principles for peer review in history, to better articulate our concerns and frame our response to these issues. We hope to finalize that this coming spring.

Beyond these larger concerns, the division is also working on a number of other related projects. The staff is working with Columbia University Press to develop a plan for the future of the Gutenberg-e project, which is now in its final year of funding from the Mellon Foundation. They are also negotiating with Oxford University Press about creating a digital version of the AHA’s Guide to Historical Literature.

In conclusion, let me thank the members of the division for their good efforts over the past year, particularly Larry Wolff and Victoria Harden who will be rotating off in the spring. I am also deeply indebted to the extraordinarily talented and dedicated AHA staff, especially Assistant Director Robert Townsend— and his research associate, Mériam Belli—whose tireless and creative efforts have been essential to our work over the past year.

Roy Rosenzweig (George Mason Univ.) is vice president of the Research Division.