Peer Review, History Journals, and the Future of Scholarly Research

What is the future for history journals in the ecology of history scholarship? In a wide-ranging session at the AHA annual meeting, proponents of an array of print and digital forms for scholarly journal articles discussed the future of this form of history scholarship, and how to assure it reaches the widest audience possible.

Dan Cohen (George Mason Univ. and Center for History and New Media) opened the session, observing that the current system of peer review in journals relies heavily on labor that many colleges and universities pay for twice, first in salaries to faculty, and then in buying the journals that contain the fruits of their efforts.

Cohen pointed to an array of other options for producing and disseminating such work, in the form of open access history journals and new systems of open peer review. He challenged the leaders of the discipline (and an audience comprised primarily of journal editors and publishers), to think more broadly about the way they do their work.

In response, Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ. and Journal of the History of Ideas) insisted that Cohen’s description tended to neglect the additional value journals provide to their authors and the discipline. He maintained that in a world “awash in information,” traditional journals assure that published scholarship has a high level of quality and a stable home. He also compared the peer review process to P.G. Wodehouse’s character Jeeves—assuring that authors are not out “wearing their magenta socks”—and observed that the management of such services required a stable stream of income.

Shawn Martin (Univ. of Pennsylvania Libraries and Assoc. for History and Computing) described the many financial pressures on libraries, which made it increasingly difficult maintain journal descriptions—and hence those income streams. He surveyed a wide array of experiments in publishing and open access facilities that are now in development at scholarly libraries.

The panel presentations concluded with a statement by Robert Schneider (Indiana University and American Historical Review), who observed that history journal articles are enjoying an unprecedented level of use in research and teaching, but declining levels of appreciation for the work of editors and staff who shape and develop such materials.

A wide-ranging discussion followed, as members of the audience and the panel pondered whether traditional journals are failing the history discipline by limiting their audiences to a narrow set of subscribers, and the role history journals play in representing and serving their particular segments of the discipline.

At the end of the day, the one area of clear consensus was that the recent “Finch Report” in the UK was a most unfortunate intervention. All seemed to agree that it would impose a solution (author payments) that seems particularly ill-suited to the humanities disciplines. Everyone who spoke at the session seemed to agree that changes are coming in the landscape of history scholarship, but differed widely about the future nature and pace of that change.

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