Alex Lichtenstein began a four year term as the editor of the American Historical Review (AHR) last month. His first issue as editor will be out October 1st. In honor of Peer Review Week, Alex and I had an email exchange regarding some of his thoughts on peer review. I have edited our emails into a conversation.
Seth: As the editor of the AHR, what do you see as the primary purposes of peer review?
Alex: Peer review serves several important purposes. Most importantly, it assures that field-based scholarship remains innovative, up to date, attentive to historiography, and rooted in deep and informed research. For the AHR, peer review helps us direct our authors to crafting articles with what we call “reach”—namely, the effort to speak beyond the confines of a particular field to a wider historical audience, even while significantly advancing the scholarship in the narrower case. Finally, peer review protects us against publishing articles that are, simply put, wrong.
Seth: I think it serves another important purpose. Earlier this year Critical Inquiry reported on a study of institutional bias in four humanities journals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two journals that use blind peer review through the entire evaluation and publishing process scored higher when it came to heterogeneity of institutional affiliations and PhDs of authors, indicating that the practice helps avoid bias.
Has there been any change in the way peer review has been conducted at the AHR in your time associated with the journal?
Alex: I have worked in several capacities at the AHR since January 2014: associate editor, interim editor, and now editor. The only change in that time has been the decision to send manuscripts “blind” to the board of editors for initial review. In the past, board members knew who the author was in the initial round. Other than that, the peer review practices have not changed over those 4 years. I am considering reducing the number of readers—now 6 per essay—for certain submissions, such as roundtable contributions. But the peer review process now in place for regular articles works well, and I do not anticipate changing it.
Seth: Some humanities journals in recent years have begun experimenting with more open forms of peer review. Mostly notably, Shakespeare Quarterly ran an experiment a few years ago where they invited a group of experts to post public comments, which authors then responded to. This openness, some argue, allows for a more productive exchange of ideas.
Alex: I’m aware of these experiments with “crowd-sourced” peer review. While I am sure there is room for improvement, and a need for de-“elitizing” the peer review process, I believe that the editor’s task of choosing appropriate reviewers is an essential part of maintaining a high quality journal. I would be loath to abandon it too quickly.
Seth: One common criticism these days is the length of time that many journals take with the publishing process. Is this something that you are concerned about?
Alex: I think this is one of the main challenges peer review faces. The length of the process is a problem. This is especially the case in an era in which expectations for instant news and fast information delivery have risen, and makes it difficult if not impossible for peer-reviewed journals to address issues of the day in a timely fashion.
Seth: Thanks Alex. What seems clear to me, as I think about how scholarship and publishing is changing, that regardless of which mode of peer review one favors, what’s most important is to keep in mind is the extent to which peer review encourages and develops scholarly conversation in a collegial fashion.