Your Name in This Space: The Mysteries of Scholarly Publishing
Christopher Tomlins, May 2002
From the Publishing History column of the May 2002 Perspectives
Scholarly publishing disseminates the work through which we identify ourselves as scholars. It is the principal means by which we engage with each other in the public conversations and arguments that constitute historical knowledge and give direction to our discipline. Serious scholars want to ensure that their work makes its appropriate contribution to the general advancement of scholarly knowledge and discourse. They want, as they should, to see their names in print. But scholars also seek to publish because for decades our profession has measured our "productivity" with particular reference to our published scholarship. Whether we like it or not, productivity is the key to notice and advancement. For decades, assistant professors have found that out within a few months of starting their first job. But as every graduate student knows, this key now starts turning well in advance of receipt of the PhD. Graduate students are now encouraged, and often expected, to have published prior to landing a job. A published article has become an essential means of self-differentiation in the crowd of job seekers.
For one or other reason, or both, submitting work for publication simply must be done, early and often. Inevitably, it is a time-consuming and often frustrating experience. But there are major compensations. Submitting work for publication is an unparalleled learning process, for it is an education in the variety of the discipline's standards, evaluation procedures, and methods of assessment; it is also an intellectual process, in that one can begin (through the reactions of disinterested others) to determine how the potential of one's historical imagination can best be realized—in accepting and developing the discipline's main lines of argument, for example, or in challenging and resisting them. If handled correctly at both ends, by author and editor, it should be, no matter the eventual outcome, an overwhelmingly positive experience.
But the pragmatic question still remains: How can one maximize one's chances in the world of the journal and thus maximize one's chances in the contemporary profession?
Choosing a Journal
Authors should choose journals, just as journals choose authors. Never assume that only one journal is appropriate for your manuscript. Scholars tend to focus on flagship generalist journals—for example, the AHR and the JAH—or on particular others that, though more restricted in their focus, have achieved great prestige by their excellence or longevity, such as the William and Mary Quarterly or the Journal of Southern History. But there are many more journals than these—journals that explore a particular time period, geographic region, subject area, methodology, or a particular genre of doing history. Many journals interested in publishing historians' work may not even be history journals at all, a phenomenon that has become marked as disciplines exert more and more pull on each other and as more and more interdisciplinary journals appear. Many of them may not be U.S. based—a routine observation in the case of non-U.S. historians, but worth noting by U.S. historians as well.
All these journals are keen to receive and consider your manuscripts. The single best indicator to a journal's editor and governing board of its continuing relevance to scholarship is not simply the quality of the manuscripts it publishes, but the quality and also the quantity of the manuscripts it receives. In short, the chance of having your work published should not be judged on the basis of the acceptance rate of the Journal of American History. Prestige should not be discounted. Neither, however, should it be allowed to obscure other opportunities.
Because there are multiple opportunities to obtain a hearing for your work, it is essential to do careful research on the publishing outlets available and to rank them in a realistic order of preference. This is a bit like applying to colleges: balance those you would like to get into against those that honest self-appraisal and advice from others suggests you have a reasonable chance of getting into. Before you commit yourself, try to get a feel for the journal's openness and efficiency. What kind of advice to contributors does it provide on its web site or in its pages? Does it describe its manuscript review procedures? What kind of peer review—single-blind or double-blind—does it practice? What is its turnaround time on a manuscript? Does it consistently publish on time, or is there a lag in its volume and issue dates? Ask published authors for their advice and impressions. Remember that, in the world of peer review, submitting a manuscript to a journal can mean committing it for an initial period of anything from three to five months, maybe longer, before the journal can give you its first detailed response. Be careful not to waste your time on an inefficient journal, any more than you should on an ego trip. Assuming, as you should, that your manuscript may be rejected by the first journal to which you submit it, your research will help you plan for quick submission elsewhere.
Dealing with the Rejection Letter
Do not treat rejections as a violent rebuff to your ambitions or as an insult to your scholarship. I am absolutely certain that everyone in our discipline who has published work in a journal has also had work rejected by a journal. Simple averages alone are highly persuasive. The American Historical Review, for example, receives over 300 manuscripts a year. It publishes no more than 10 percent. The Journal of American History hovers around the same publication rate. At the Law and History Review we receive significantly fewer manuscripts, between 50 and 60 each year, as befits a more specialized journal. But of those we will eventually publish no more than one in six. Overall, lumping all U.S.-based history journals together, I doubt that more than one in every five manuscripts put into circulation by their authors is ever published at the journal of first choice. Nor should you conclude that rejection is disproportionately the experience of junior scholars. The beauty of peer review, properly undertaken, is that its results are generated without fear or favor. Successful, eminent scholars get their rejections along with the rest.
If the experience of rejection is a fact of everyone's professional scholarly life, then one should treat it as such and not be intimidated or paralyzed by it. Think of rejection as a resource to be used. If an editor is competent, and most are, rejections will be properly explained. They will arrive accompanied by the referee reports upon which the editor has relied for advice. Authors have an absolute right to a clear explanation of why their work has been rejected, not simply as a courtesy, but, more important, as a professional debriefing. Rejection is a sign that someone considers your work unacceptable for some reason. You are entitled to know why and in sufficient detail so that you can determine how or whether to make amendments. Hence, if you don't get an explanation, ask for one. If you don't get the reports, ask for them. You may not agree with what you are told, but the object of the exercise is not to comb the reports for their errors and biases, start a fight, demand reconsideration, and so on. You won't get anywhere. Rather, whether you like what they say or not, commentaries on your work from editors and from referees are precious input, simply because they are high-quality, free professional advice. Treated with respect, they should prove invaluable.
Peer review assures authors multiple careful readings of their arguments undertaken with the intention of advising both editors and authors of the merits of the work under examination. The Law and History Review, for example, conventionally solicits four reports, sometimes more, on all manuscripts considered (by the editor) appropriate for peer review. The reports generated are, in my experience, almost invariably honest, carefully considered, and deeply impressive analyses of the submitted work. Authors should take advantage of the attention their work has received. Referee reports are not judgments handed down from on high, they are collegial input—indicators of how a manuscript can be changed, reframed, refocused, or otherwise improved to better an author's chances of successful revision and eventual publication.
R&R Is Good News for Authors
Turning now to acceptance rather than rejection of manuscripts, it is important for authors to understand that, to a competent editor, the most satisfying aspect of the process lies in assisting authors to improve their work to the point of acceptance. Every now and then a journal will receive a manuscript so obviously outstanding that the editor will know before it goes to peer review that the manuscript will be published. But such obvious acceptances are rare. Most of the letters I write to authors after the first round of reporting on their work are detailed recommendations for revision and resubmission that gloss the referees' reports and offer guidance on how to respond to what may sometimes be contradictory referee advice. Most of the articles make the successful passage from submission to publication get there through an extended and essentially cooperative process of interaction between author, editor, and referees. Success demands commitment to the process from all those parties. It demands careful attention to the opinions of those commenting on your work when revising. It demands compromise and negotiation. It also demands patience, for the process can go on for a long time—perhaps 8 months, perhaps 16, perhaps longer.
Surprisingly, many authors seem to treat revise and resubmit (R&R) letters as if they were rejections. They don't enter into the interaction that the letter invites. Numerous authors to whom I have written encouraging R&Rs have simply failed to respond. So it's worth emphasizing that revision and resubmission is utterly commonplace in the process of getting published. Indeed, this is where the real value of peer review and of editing shows up. By sending you an R&R letter, the journal is committing itself to further consideration of your work, provided you first do. . . . This is not a promise of eventual success, but it is a step along the way, a foothold in the acceptance process that a determined author will properly treat as an invitation to a continuing exchange. Hence, try to follow the editor's advice as best you can. Discuss ambiguities or confusions with the editor. Outline what you plan to do. When you have finished your revisions, send them back with a cover letter detailing what you have done. Seriousness of purpose in an author builds an editor's confidence that in committing the journal to keeping a manuscript alive the editor has made the right decision.
The Mysterious Power of the Journal
Once outlined, all these processes seem pretty systematic and straightforward. So, why the pervasive assumption that the process of getting published is an elaborate and mysterious rite? One possibility is that scholars tend to believe that getting published is a process of discovering a secret formula and embedding it in one's work—a particular subject, a method of writing, a structure. To get the editor's attention you have to hit the right button. Inquiry letters sent prior to submitting a manuscript often suggest this attitude. An author will ask, often hesitantly, whether a manuscript on subject X might be "the kind of thing" the journal is interested in.
Some generalizations are clearly valid. Ask a question worth asking; organize your presentation to highlight your own originality and research; don't trash other scholars; by the same token, don't hide behind others and simply fill in the gaps they have left—knowledge is not a wall of coherence, but is more like a field of energy. Present your own arguments and contributions clearly and directly in the opening pages of your essay. Be willing to take risks. Be mindful of your audience—what do you want them to learn from your essay? What do you want them to learn about its author? But none of these generalizations is invariably true. For example, they seem to put a premium on originality and innovation, but in fact most of the work we do as scholars is patient, careful, and, above all, cumulative. For most of us, the first article we write will in some fashion be an offshoot of work undertaken under the supervision of our doctoral adviser. As such, it is likely already to be identifiable within a genre of scholarship, extrapolating upon it, refining it, or even filling a gap in it.
In short, there really isn't any secret formula. The hesitant inquiry is usually a waste of time: the question it asks is almost invariably impossible to answer without seeing the manuscript. If you want to draw the editor's attention to your work in advance of submission, better simply to write a letter telling the editor that your manuscript, about X, is on the way. When you actually submit it, write an abstract, or at least a short cover letter that abstracts the substance of the manuscript. This assists the editor by clarifying what your manuscript is about. One consequence may be to speed up rejection, another to speed up entry into peer review. In either case you are accelerating the process of making decisions, which is in everybody's interests, not least your own. What you want to achieve at this initial stage is a combination of the maximization of self-presentation coupled with the shortest possible commitment of time, so that if you don't succeed you can quickly move on elsewhere.
The only advice I feel confident in offering in relation to the substance of manuscripts is quite banal, no more than common sense: write about what interests you, do your research well, write clearly, and organize and format your work carefully. Editors are always on the lookout for innovative work, for imagination, particularly from younger scholars. But look at any journal and what you'll see accumulating over time is as much steady, careful research as flashes of brilliance. Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review, often quotes James Franklin Jameson's words of a century ago: "To evoke originality, to kindle the fires of genius is not [the journal's] function, but to regularize, to criticize, to restrain vagaries, to set a standard and compel [authors] to conform to it." Frankly, I don't agree with Jameson—I want to evoke originality, and kindle fires of genius. I abhor an imposed conformity. But that said, there simply aren't that many flashes of brilliance submitted in any given year, and in any case they don't need their fires of genius fanned. Far better to catch a glimpse of potential in a manuscript and try to help the author bring it out.
What, then, explains the aura of mystery? In my view, the aura is created and sustained by the multiple strategic roles that the scholarly journal plays in our profession. I have already referred to the centrality of publishing in the measurement of productivity, and of productivity in professional advancement. Simultaneously we accord the journal the role of gatekeeper and authorizer, of disciplinary standard-setting and of leadership. An author may be left wondering whether an article has been found wanting not because it is unmeritorious as history but because it does not exemplify what an editor and referees imagine should gain the journal's imprimatur as representative of the discipline's proper cutting edge.
The essential subjectivity of scholarly judgment, no matter how carefully organized the internal process of judgment may be, is perhaps the real source of mystery. Inevitably, authors feel vulnerable to such power and resent it. No amount of explanation or rationalization may suffice to dispel an author's frustration at being rebuffed, given what rides on an acceptance. An editor's abiding duty to an author is to realize this and to treat the author with respect. Journals owe authors procedural justice. But the only demystification they can offer is explanation. The principal safeguard the author has is the journal's professionalism. But the author's only constructive response to a rejection letter is: move on to the next journal.
Christopher Tomlins is senior research fellow at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago and the author of numbers of books and articles. For the past six years he has been editor of the Law and History Review. He has participated in the activities of the Australian journal Law in Context and subsequently held the coeditorship of the journal Law and Social Inquiry. Since 1994 he has edited a monograph series for Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society).