jump to navigation
  • History Journals and Their Limits May 28, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback

    aqua tofana

    There is something rather sinister about Mike Dash’s latest history post. The problem is not the subject, which is fascinating, women poisoning men in seventeenth-century Italy. Nor is the style off-kilter: it is, as always, accessible and fun. The problem is, quite simply, its length. MD’s new essay runs to almost fifteen thousand words: Beach finished the ink cartridge printing it out. Now just to put this into perspective there are short books that are twenty thousand words long. With some illustrations and a ponderous introduction from a grey beard MD could just have published the damn thing between covers and brought it out with Penguin. Hopefully at a future date the post will come out in book form or as part of a book, but here we come to a serious problem with modern history writing. MD’s essay is not a popularization of previous material, it is coal-face work, dealing with sources that no one else has bothered to work with; or that they have worked with only in passing. It deserves the widest possible attention not just from web crawlers but from historians, and some poor Italian PhD student dealing with poisoning will have to get MD’s ‘web essay’ past his supervisors and into his bibliography: enjoy explaining that one at the viva, Mario…

    The ‘right’ thing to do would have been to publish the article in an academic periodical. But why would anyone who doesn’t work at a university bother to do this to him or herself? For those who have never been through the hell of academic publication this is the normal route. First, you enter into a correspondence with an editor who you hope will be civil. Second, you get one or two (or as many as five) reader’s report demanding improvements. The quality of these reports is extremely variable.* Third, you make the changes you feel you can make without compromising your work: the single most painful days in Beach’s life are rewriting academic articles. Fourth, your essay is reassessed and a final decision as to publication is made. Fifth, assuming acceptance, the editing begins. This process is annoying for authors but does offer safeguards for the reading public. It, also, demands a standard of behavior from authors (which is good) and a standard of uniformity (which is not always good).

    Let’s imagine that MD’s essay was written up fully referenced and then sent to an academic journal. What would be the main tenor of criticisms? Any academic historian who has read the poison post and knows how journals work will gave you the same answer. MD has written his work as an ‘antiquarian’ with some passing nods to poison circles and magical undergrounds: he would not be judged to be a ‘historian’. The essay would be seen as being too ‘fact oriented’. MD would be encouraged to become more ‘cultural’. He would be pushed into entering into footnote dialogue with academics writing on  gender, crime, the supernatural and other greatly-loved subjects for his work to become a ‘proper’ work of history. Beach has similar proclivities to Mike and has seen academic articles that establish simple but useful facts (well as useful as any historical fact ever is) be butchered by academic reviewers because ‘the author does not know the work of x on infanticide’ when actually x on infanticide is on Beach’s bookshelf and is not worth citing. In the worst case scenario (and this happens more than it should, but certainly not so often as to invalidate the method) papers are published that are rooted in secondary rather than primary sources: the problem is that even if you spin the most beautiful web of cultural history it is worthless if the facts to which the web is attached are wrong and they so often are…

    So what can Mike and those others who like writing coal-face history actually do? Well, here are some suggestions. (i) Look for small passionate academic journals where primary sources are given their proper place and where editors will simply not let good material pass by. (ii) Write a blog: MD’s solution. (iii) Create some sort of ‘pure’ history journal, though this would need to be themed to have even a chance of survival. Other solutions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    *I have long been fascinated by the peer-review process. It is the right system but depends, of course, on the quality of peers. I am presently writing in an area that I feel I often know better than my peers (not because of any innate excellence (!) but because very few others have studied my ‘parish’ seriously). I find that peer reviews are useful (that is that they make the article better) about half of the time now.  Let me say two things in praise of peer reviews to balance this out. First, peer reviews are almost always done on a voluntary, unpaid basis: it is difficult not to be grateful to anonymous individuals who spend a lot of time trying to improve a work for no tangible reward, save a few days off in purgatory, and who often go out of their way to be polite. Second, occasionally you get a peer review that is transforming: one that is so excellent that it changes your world view and that often leaves you wanting to tear up your article and start again. Can there be higher praise? Declaration: I would normally write four peer-reviewed articles a year and hope to get them all published, though perhaps one (or two) on the second or third go.

    31 May 2016: Anon history 1 writes: Your brilliant [!sigh!] post on Mike Dash’s latest and the problem of history journals and the academic journal review process reminded me of two incidents: 1) a friend sent an article I’d edited to a journal on the history of medicine. She said that the peer review process consisted of two or three readers criticizing her article because it did not contain something about their speciality, which, in each case, had nothing to do with the article. “Your article on Civil War surgery was fine, as far as it went, but I was mystified by your failure to include information on Chinese footbinding and the Johnstown Flood.”  Now whenever we review each other’s work, we are certain to mention a lack of those vital subjects. “x on infanticide” reminded me of 2) As I was about to defend my honors thesis, I ran into the head of my department. He said something to the effect of, “I was surprised that you didn’t cite “The History of ABC” by Professor XYZ of the Sorbonne.” I replied that I didn’t know the book. He raised his eyebrows. “Really? It’s essential reading for your subject.” I shrugged and said, “One can’t read everything.” Then I asked, “What is his main argument?” At that he waved a dismissive hand and said, vaguely, “Oh, much the same as Emile Male’s theories on iconography…” I left the office thinking, WTH? My subject was quite specialized and I knew the literature well. There WAS no such book.

    Anon history 2: I have had quite similar experiences to you: peer-reviewing is a bit like Churchill on democracy, the worst system but better than all the rest. I often ask myself whether peer-reviewing makes my articles better or worse. To get published I’m ready to go ten percent worse but no more! One curiosity I’ve noticed over the years is the following. Sometimes I get demands from peer-reviewers that don’t improve, but don’t worsen the article either. It is just a question of shuffling things about. This used to drive me mad: what a waste of three hours. Now, though it still annoys me, I find that often rearranging can help the writer see things in a new light and has often led me to private insights, which I can then put in the article or use elsewhere.