Confessions--and More--of the Editor of the AHR
Robert A. Schneider, November 2008
First Confession: Before I became editor of the American Historical Review in 2005, I was almost entirely ignorant of how this journal, or indeed any journal, functioned. And this was true even though I had published in its pages in 2000, had written many book reviews, and had been on the board of editors of another historical journal. To be sure, I was vaguely aware that the editorial offices were located at Indiana University, Bloomington; I had a sense from glancing at the front matter of the journal that it had a large staff; I was dimly appreciative that producing all those book reviews each issue required much work and mind-boggling organization; and I certainly knew that publishing in the journal was a big deal. But that’s about all.
I don’t think I was alone in my ignorance. And yet, the AHR, unlike virtually any other organ of historical scholarship, belongs, not to one field or even a single association and its membership, but rather to the entire community of scholars and teachers of history. How the journal functions, and especially how articles and book reviews make their way into its pages, should be common knowledge among historians. Here, then, is a short primer.
We receive nearly 300 article submissions a year, the vast majority of which are not commissioned. Each submission is read by the associate editor, who generates a report. Often this report is very brief—when, for example, the piece is much too long or too short, when the subject matter is patently too narrow for our broad readership, when it clearly does not qualify as scholarship, or when the material has been published elsewhere. But many other rejected submissions nevertheless receive a thorough in-house evaluation explaining why we think the piece is not suitable for the AHR. Many of these rejected submissions are eminently publishable, but in a more specialized journal than the AHR; when this is the case we tell the author, while suggesting ways in which he or she might recast the piece to make it more appropriate for our wide readership. If a submission is promising—if it is well-researched, well-written, novel in its analysis and approach, and wide in its appeal—we send it to two members of the Board of Editors (BOE) for review. In some exceptional cases, new submissions are sent to three outside experts at the same time. In most cases, however, this third step in the review process is only undertaken if the board members’ reports are quite positive. Usually, after this second stage, the manuscript is sent back to the author with the three reports (one from the associate editor and two reports from the BOE) along with a letter from the editor summarizing these reports and offerings suggestions for revisions. What this means is that very promising manuscripts—those ultimately published but even those which are not—receive six reports, reports which often run to several pages. Compare this—six reports on an 8,000-word article—to what authors of 80,000 book manuscripts usually receive—perhaps two reports? I think it’s fair to conclude that the level of informed feedback we provide authors is extraordinary.
As readers know, about half of each issue of the AHR is devoted to book reviews. Our coverage of contemporary works of historical scholarship is, I believe, the most comprehensive anywhere. Each year about 3,000 books enter our building at 914 Atwater St., in Bloomington; out of these, we can review only a third, approximately 200 books, in an issue. Because of this, the triage process itself is demanding, time-consuming and sometimes difficult. We have a set of criteria for determining which books should be reviewed: primarily monographs or other scholarly works, which means that most edited volumes, biographies, textbooks, documents, previously published material, and books aimed at a general readership are not reviewed. There are, of course, exceptions; and in general a significant number of books fall on the borderlines of these categories, meaning that some decisions are difficult. But our seven editorial assistants, who carry out this decision-making process under the supervision of Moureen Coulter, the book review editor, make a good-faith effort to send out for review all scholarly works for which we have space. Their work, of course, does not end there. Reviewers must be selected; the reviews themselves secured, and then edited. This complex and labor-intensive process—along with the fact that we edit all our articles in-house—in part explains why there are 13 people working at the AHR office in Bloomington.
Second Confession: The fact that we receive nearly 300 submissions a year does not mean that we have a surplus or inventory of publishable articles; indeed, there have been times during my editorship—and during the tenure of my predecessors—when the cupboard has been bare and when we have had to scramble to fill issues. Why this should be, considering the number of submissions, might seem puzzling, until one realizes that the AHR prides itself in publishing articles of a special sort: not only deeply researched or analytically challenging articles but those which speak across the profession to common interests, themes or methodological concerns—which means that many truly important, eminently publishable submissions will be rejected. Readers might question whether these standards are always met by what finds its way into our pages. The query is legitimate: sometimes we are more successful than others. But we always have this ideal in mind when we read manuscripts and we strive, as much as possible, to coax authors with promising material to attain it. What I have found is that this ideal is quite within reach for authors with the goods, who are willing to accept readers’ comments and work with us through several revisions.
Third Confession: Journal editors look upon the new realities of open-access and digital publishing with both delight and concern. Delight because readership is sky-high: never before has accessing material in journals—and not only recent issues but past archives of digitally available journal content—been so easy for so many people. And it’s free—at least to the user. Universities and other institutions foot the bill, of course, but once a reader has gained access through the user portal, the whole range of digitized journals is at his or her disposal gratis. Hence the concern: someone has to pay for the continued production of content, and yet readers themselves have every incentive not to pay through individual subscriptions or, in the case of the AHR, membership in an association like the American Historical Association. We hope that members see the value in supporting the AHA beyond delivering them the AHR; and for those who don’t we can make the case for membership based on other considerations. (This indeed will be the subject of future discussion both in Perspectives on History and elsewhere.) But the concern is still a lively one. One path leads to charging libraries higher fees based on readership: in terms of current usage, journals in the humanities are very much underpriced. I think most would agree, however, that we have to be sensitive to the budgetary constraints burdening these institutions. Another is to increase institutional subscriptions, which was one of our goals in choosing to establish a relationship with the University of Chicago Press. In short, I think that all avenues must be pursued as we feel our way into this new publishing environment.
Final Confession: Just as I was largely ignorant of the workings of the AHR before I became editor, I was also unfamiliar with much of the work of the AHA. Like other members, I was aware of who was who at the leadership level—the executive director, the president, Council members and the like. But I never appreciated the range and importance of what comes out of the offices on 400 A St., until I came to Bloomington (paradoxically, it took moving from D.C. to Indiana for me to gain that appreciation). As ex-officio member of the AHA Council and the Research Division, I have had the privilege of observing up close what our association does for all of us, for the historical profession, and for the cause of history. I can’t possibly summarize all of that here. Suffice to note what has struck me most: the fact that, beyond the extraordinarily dedicated and talented professional staff in Washington, D.C., the AHA has been able to draw upon the energy and creativity of the finest and most accomplished scholars in our field, who serve as officers and members of the Council and divisions. These are scholars who do not need another line on their c.v.’s, who could easily derive more individual rewards and recognition through additional publications, and who, in most cases, have international reputations which will not be elevated very much by service in a professional association. And yet they do serve, with energy and true sense of the common good. In an age when civic commitment is so much called into question, their service is truly heartening.
—Robert A. Schneider (Indiana Univ.) is the editor of the American Historical Review.