Becoming A Historian
Becoming a Historian: A Canadian Manual

The Peer Review Process

The peer-review process means that when you submit your work – whether it is an article or book manuscript you are hoping to publish or a grant application and in some disciplines even conference papers – it will be carefully and rigorously scrutinized by established experts or specialists in your field, who confidentially evaluate the quality and value of your scholarship. Since many graduate students remain mystified by the actual process involved, here we cover in more detail the steps for publishing articles in journals and scholarly (edited) volumes, and for publishing books.

Journal Articles

The scholarly article that enjoys the highest prestige is a peer-reviewed article that appears in a prestigious or highly reputable journal. Once you submit a piece to a peer-reviewed journal, the journal editor(s) will solicit experts or specialists to assess your work. Each “reader” or “assessor” who agrees to evaluate your article will produce a reader’s report. This usually consists of a mix of numerical and qualitative answers to a set of questions (or guidelines) posed by the journal and pertaining to the quality and value of your piece. The number of reviewers varies from two to four (and even five) readers. You are not obliged to carry out all of the suggested revisions but you must take all of them seriously. When you finish your revisions and send in your revised essay, you may need to explain your revisions to the journal editor(s). Keep a list of substantive changes made, and be clear and precise about what you did and did not do.

The degree of revision required will depend upon the reader’s reports. The journal editor(s) considers all of the readers’ reports and determine whether your piece falls into one of several possible categories: publish as is; accept with revisions; revise and resubmit; and reject. If all the reports are in agreement, this is an easy decision. More commonly, the readers offer different rankings, which means that the editor(s) will need to decide on the most appropriate response. Different editors may carry out the process slightly differently but all are bound by the reader’s reports. They will usually send you the readers’ reports with information about how they have ranked your paper and perhaps some additional comments about which criticisms or suggestions seem the most pertinent. But they will ask you to attend to all of the comments raised.

Very few papers receive a “publish as is” ranking, so do not expect this to happen, especially if you are a new author. You will most likely be asked to undertake some revisions, from minor to major, and these can relate to writing, presentation or argument, or requests for more supporting evidence. Do not interpret “revise and resubmit” as a rejection. Certainly, it is a disappointment, but it is not a rejection. You are being told that the amount of work required to bring your paper up to rigorous academic standards is of a sufficiently high order that the paper must substantially change from its original state, and thus require another confidential review. The list of criticisms and suggestions for revision might be long. Most readers write helpful reports, but even if you come up against readers who uses the veil of confidentiality to produce a vicious or vindictive report, or to push their own agenda, you are obliged to respond to their reports in a meaningful way intellectually. Also trust that editors can recognize a self-serving or excessively polemical review. Usually, the revised and resubmitted paper will be assessed by at least one of the original reviewers and a new reviewer – but the pattern varies. The journal editors’ final decision will again be shaped by the reports. Journal editors are bound by the peer review process and so are you.

How long will this take? It will take much longer than you wish or expect. Several factors are involved. It make take longer for an article in the top journals, which often receive many submissions and have a backlog of accepted articles, perhaps as long as three years. But the prestige of the publication may be worth it. Another factor concerns the readers, who are usually given a specific deadline (for example, within three months of receiving the piece) but may not always meet it. Most people do this work as volunteer professional service, not for financial or professional reward, and their more immediate deadlines or hectic schedules may make for late reports. This is frustrating but a fact of scholarly life. You may slow down the process if you do not get your revisions in on time.

What of the non-refereed journal? Even in the case of journals that are not peer-reviewed, you will probably need to under-take some revisions, usually at the editor’s suggestion. But the review process will not be as extensive, which is why such articles carry less academic weight. So, when you submit to a non-refereed journal, be clear that you are doing this for compelling reasons, for example, a political commitment to the journal’s mandate or the chance to get your feet wet in the publishing world.

Book Chapters or Articles in Edited Volumes

The other major venue in which scholarly articles appear is the edited scholarly volume, or collection of articles on a major subject or theme. In contrast to journals, these are not routinely generated publications but instead initiated by a scholar or group of scholars who act as editors to the project. It is generally a good idea to participate in such a project especially if the editors are historians or scholars with established reputations.

But do keep a few factors in mind. You should know whether the volume will be peer-reviewed. If the editors already have a book contract or letter of interest from a university or academic press, the book will very likely be peer-reviewed, but ask to be sure. In this case, the review and revision process involved is similar to that for refereed journals, save for a few differences. Consider the editor’s status and track record for getting projects done. This is important partly because in contrast to submitting an article to a journal, which has an established infrastructure, there is no guarantee that a book project will come to final fruition. It depends on all or most of the contributors coming through. If the editor is a prominent and experienced figure in the field , and a good taskmaster, the chances are excellent that people will respect their obligations. Frankly, junior scholars will find it harder to pressure colleagues to produce their work on time. A late contributor may hold up production and, on occasion, a few delinquent contributors may even sabotage the whole project. It can be difficult for friends to pressure friends to meet deadlines – but it is certainly not impossible. Indeed, a book put together by a cohort of “up-and-coming” scholars associated with a new and exciting field may attract plenty of attention and even help make their careers. Some editors facilitate the production process by holding small conferences to “workshop” the book. There are SSHRC funds for occasional conferences that can be used for such workshops, which bring together contributors to discuss everyone’s submissions, agree on revisions, and move on to the next stage.

These articles are often called chapters in books, or book chapters, on the grounds that they appear as separate instalments in a singular volume that is edited by one or a few editors. But, remember, they are independent articles and, if the book is peer-reviewed, they enjoy a scholarly status similar to the peer-reviewed journal article. In addition to the volume’s editor(s), a press editor will shepherd the volume through its various processes and provide support. If the volume is being submitted to a particular series at a press – for example, Law and Society at University of British Columbia Press, or Studies in Gender and History at University of Toronto Press – the academic editor(s) of the series will work with the press editor and offer advice and support to the volume’s editors and contributors.

What are the relative merits of the peer-reviewed journal article and peer-reviewed book chapter? Generally speaking, the stand-alone peer-reviewed journal article carries more weight because it has been subjected to a greater degree of scrutiny, that is, several specialists have carefully reviewed it. By contrast, your book chapter article is submitted along with all the others. Usually, two readers assess the entire manuscript, which means they may not have scrutinized every article to the same degree or with the same authority. They might be more expert on some than on other articles. Also, the very strong articles, or those penned by senior authors, may help “carry” the weaker articles or articles by less-known authors.

The readers’ reports resemble the journal readers’ reports, and contain a mix of general comments about the whole volume and specific comments about each article. On occasion, a reader may recommend the rejection of one or two articles. Or recommend that the editor(s) recruit one or two additional articles to address serious or obvious “gaps.” If the initial reports are critical, a third reader may be recruited, sometimes even a fourth. On the basis of the readers’ reports, a determination will be made about the status of the volume and the degree of revision required. Once again, you must respect the readers’ reports. The revised book will then be submitted for final consideration. Or, if the initial verdict was “revise and submit,” another review process will need to take place.

As with the monograph, a Canadian university press hoping to publish an edited volume will apply for federal government subsidies, especially the Aid-to-Scholarly-Publishing Program (ASPP). This means that the press committee and the ASPP committee – both of which are scholarly committees – will assess the readers’ reports and determine the status of the volume. Those interested in editing a volume of essays should know that the ASPP frowns on general anthologies and conference proceedings; it requires that there be a strong thematic or methodological coherence to the volume.

If all of this sounds daunting, consider the plus side of being part of an edited scholarly volume. It can play a major role in announcing and establishing legitimacy for a new field and thus attract plenty of attention both at the undergraduate and graduate level. This can increase the profile of the junior colleagues enormously and make them highly attractive on the job market. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of how the arrival of the first edited volumes on a new “hot” topic captured the limelight for a while and made the reputations of young scholars. It is perfectly appropriate, then, for a junior historian’s first publications to include a peer-reviewed journal article and book chapter. By contrast, a greater ambiguity surrounds the scholarly rewards for the editor(s), whose considerable efforts in producing the volume are weighted differently by tenure and promotion committees in different departments and universities.

We have been describing the edited volume that is composed of original (that is, not previously published) work. There are also edited volumes designed as course readers that contain previously published articles brought together for use on courses with a specific theme or period. In this case, the authors get additional exposure and the reward of having work considered important enough for re-publication, but it does not garner the same academic rewards as the original publication. But it does mean more exposure for your work – a very good thing!

See Publishing Your Work for more on the publishing and peer review process