Publishing in peer-reviewed venues (academic journals, university presses, and the like) is one essential key to advancement in the academy—to the coveted first job, to tenure and promotion, and to job mobility—with pressure mounting already in graduate school. It represents a tangible, concrete, and empirical example of research and writing skills so highly valued in the profession. And it can be widely assessed by a set of generally shared criteria about what constitutes high quality written work: originality, organizational clarity, interpretive innovation and good writing style.
Why Peer Review?
Peer-reviewed journals are a distinctive forum for the dissemination of academic knowledge. And they differ from other newly emerging platforms for exchanging information and research findings. To be sure, in our complex media environment there are many new ways to publish one’s research: posting on Facebook, for example, or even tweeting out newly published work to one’s (many) followers, or joining a digital humanities platform like Clio and the Contemporary.
The peer-reviewed journal serves a unique purpose in the academy in its commitment to blind (or double blind) peer review—where the identity of the reviewer and the author is kept hidden. No matter what your publication preferences are, your vita probably should include several articles in refereed journals. These publications have cache, carry weight, and can help you not only advance in your own institution but move to another position. While, undeniably, teaching skills are becoming more important for academic advancement, it is still difficult to move to another academic post based on your teaching alone. And despite widespread popular myths about college and university life—we all have heard about how the publishing professors neglect their students—in my long experience, the opposite is true.
The best teachers are the consistent, active publishers because they regularly bring their ideas into the public arena and, thus, must keep up with the changing and challenging historiographies. They continuously test their ideas, assumptions, and interpretations through an active engagement in debate—this exciting process cannot help but seamlessly spill over and invigorate teaching.
So… publishing is an essential part of your academic career and journal publishing should be in the mix as well.
Here are some steps to consider as you decide to write a journal article in history. Remember, everything you write with your name on it is about your reputation. So, whatever you publish, make it the best piece of work you can possibly produce.
Things To Keep in Mind
Journal article writing is its own genre. It is not the same as writing a dissertation or book chapter. It has to be based on original research, yes, but it is self-contained, centering on a clearly formulated thesis that takes on and challenges existing interpretations in the field and presents a set of well-defined conclusions.
It is all about sources. Select a theme from your research that you can develop by highlighting a particularly intriguing set of sources, maybe something even unanticipated that showed up in your archival and primary source reading. Think about some of your most exciting research finds and make those documents and insights central to your article.
Submitting to a Journal
Carefully choose an appropriate journal and follow its criteria. Aim high (but not unrealistically so). Know the journal you want to publish in and know its overall reputation, the type of scholarship it publishes, and generally how long it takes editors to make a decision. Think about the articles that most directly shaped your research questions. What journals were they published in? What journals did you read in your favorite graduate seminars or workshops? Where do you go to find published work most directly related to your proposed article? At the start of your career, find a journal that you believe will enhance your reputation in the sub-field you are working in and make sure it employs peer review. That is, you don’t have to think about the American Historical Review geared to all member of the American Historical Association. It is prestigious, to be sure, but maybe not appropriate for your inquiry. And, remember, each journal has its own set of specific criteria which must be followed: footnote style, word length, etc. For example, the author guidelines for the Journal of Women’s History, which I co-edit with Elise Camiscioli at Binghamton University, lay out what authors need to do in order to submit an article for consideration. Every journal has a similar set of guidelines, so consult these carefully.
Workshop your article with peers and colleagues. We tend to think of writing as a solitary exercise—scholars hidden away in some sort of tower–but that is rarely the case. Even seasoned historians share their ideas and seek advice from colleagues close and far. Joining a writing group in grad school gives you a chance to exchange your work and get constructive feedback before you submit it to a journal. If you are a newly minted assistant professor, find colleagues at your institution who are willing to read your work. You can also expand your network of colleagues further afield by presenting your work at conferences and staying in touch with panel participants who share research interests.
Submit your article and wait…somewhat patiently! Once you’ve chosen an appropriate journal, follow the guidelines for submitting an article and write a short cover letter of explanation about your work, if called for. Make sure you get a confirmation of receipt—often you will get an automated message, but if you do not, you can double check. Once you’ve submitted, you can often track the status of your article online: whether it has been sent out for review, if the reviewer reports have been returned, and whether the editor is ready to make a decision.
Record this step on your curriculum vita, including full title of the article, date of submission, and journal you sent it to. Make sure you indicate word length in parenthesis so the observer can see this is a full-fledged article (that is, something at or over 8000 words).
If you have questions, do address them to the editor but try not to overwhelm the editor with requests for status updates. However, if it has been a while and nothing seems to be happening with your article you can write to inquire about the status of your submission. You might give the editor about a month to six weeks and then send a short inquiry.
Expect to revise and re-submit (maybe twice). Once the reviews of your article are in, the editor reads the evaluation of your work by the two expert peer reviewers and writes a decision letter, sending you the reviewers’ full evaluations as well. You will probably be asked to revise and resubmit, which is standard practice in journal decision making (for reference, most eventually accepted articles submitted to the JWH go through two or three revisions). In the decision letter, the editor will summarize the suggestions, indicate what changes need to be made, and offer additional suggestions (if the theme is in the editor’s area of expertise).
This is the unique and beneficial attribute of journal publishing—two experts in your field reading your work alone and offering suggestions for improvement. My experience of a decade of editing has been that by far most reviewers provide very constructive and useful suggestions for changes. They are specialists in your field and they are often excited to read a young scholar’s work. They themselves have profited earlier from more seasoned colleagues who read their work and want to carry the favor forward! Do not get defensive; read over the suggestions, take them in, think about them, talk to colleagues and then…revise accordingly. You are the author and the ultimate authority of your own work.
If you have any questions about the suggestions, write the editor for clarification.
Plan Ahead. Don’t wait to the last moment to submit a piece if you need to use your article to meet deadlines for tenure or promotion or any other reason (grant applications). You cannot rush the process, and neither can editors (who do not like to be pressured to do so). Sometimes reviewers get extensions which prolong the decision-making process; at other times (although rare) reviewers who agree to read an article simply don’t do it and the editor needs to ask a new expert and the clock starts again.
Time to decision-making varies by journal, but give yourself enough time for the process and recognize that something unexpected may happen. In my experience as co-editor of JWH, it takes about a year and a half to get an article through the review process—it can be quicker or slower, of course, depending on how many revisions are called for. But, bear in mind, after acceptance, your article enters a queue of articles ready for publication. Editors tend to follow the queue but not always since sometimes the coherence of an issue dictates jumping the line and putting articles accepted at different times together. Remember, too, that JWH relies on authors self-submitting their articles as opposed to a practice where editors solicit thematic articles for special issues. There might be randomness to our method but it works well and brings authors into a fruitful, if unanticipated, dialogue. This step means your article may be in the queue for a half a year, more or less. So, plan ahead.
And, of course, I wish you the best outcome possible and when it happens, celebrate!