Monday, February 09, 2009

Public Rejection

Save your rejection letters for manuscripts. Maybe you can get the letter published in The New York Times. Example: A rejection letter for a scholarly article was published in The New York Times, Saturday, February 7, 2009.

The American Historical Review rejected an article about omissions and mistakes in “Abuse of Power,” Stanley Kutler’s collection of transcripts of Watergate tapes, on Friday. In a response to Peter Klingman, a historian who submitted the essay, Robert Schneider, the review’s editor, wrote that the piece, “despite its intrinsic interest, is too narrow in focus for this publication. He added: “Essays must therefore reach beyond the issues, concerns or jargon of a particular sub-field and speak to larger theoretical, methodological, or substantive issues. It seems to us that your essay is more appropriately placed in a more specialized journal. The screening report for the review, which is the profession’s premier journal, also stated, “This submission is too short (4,868 words) for consideration by the AHR.

[NYT article by Patricia Cohen]

Editors for most journals are presented with a template email for sending editorial decisions to authors. There is a template for each category of decision (accept, minor revision, moderate revision, major revision, reject and resubmit, reject and take a hike etc.). The templates that I use when sending editor email to authors are editable, and this is fortunate because the templates were written by a robot with stilted diction and a penchant for vague and convoluted prose.

Particularly when rejecting a manuscript, I always try to edit the template sufficiently so that it is clear that I have actually read the manuscript, thought about it, and have specific, substantive reasons (which I list) for rejecting the manuscript.

I don't know anything about the American Historical Review and of course have no idea whether the manuscript was rejected for inappropriate or unstated reasons, but that rejection letter screams TEMPLATE to me, even though the editor kindly inserted the specific word count for the rejected manuscript.

The line about "more suitable for a specialized journal" is a classic one. In some (many?) cases it is an appropriate comment, and I suppose it must be said somehow. It says "Your work is narrow and provincial" and "Send your manuscript to a journal that only a few people read" or possibly "The editor is narrow and provincial and is unable to appreciate the brilliance of your work, possibly because it is so poorly written and possibly because the editor is a dolt.".

If I am making a negative decision about a manuscript that I perceive to be too narrowly focused for the journal of interest, I provide some brief but specific information about this in my own words, and I omit or rewrite the "specialized journal" sentence from the template email. Maybe I deal with many fewer manuscripts than the AHR screening committee, but it only takes me a minute to de-templatize this aspect of the letter.

Another intriguing aspect of the rejection letter in the NYT article is the problem of the manuscript's being "too short". Many journals have strict limits on the maximum length of a manuscript, but I didn't know there were journals that had a minimum length. I can imagine that an article that consisted of very few words might not be appropriate in some cases, but I would hope that journals to not mindlessly adhere to a strict minimum number of words. It should theoretically be possible to make a very concise but compelling case for something important enough to be published.

(word count = 589)


Notorious Ph.D. said...

Just goes to show how different disciplines (and different journals within a discipline) can have wildly different standards. Here's one historian's opinion. Short version, with details below: the two main objections (narrowness; short length) are entirely appropriate to this journal, and the seemingly pro forma reply might be justified in this case.

The AHR is the flagship U.S. journal for the historical profession as a whole. It's the one that everyone, regardless of subfield, reads (or at least looks through), so the articles have to be interesting to someone outside a particular subfield. For example, if your article is on women in the colonial U.S., your core argument needs to be something that, say, someone studying a similar issue in another time and place can use.

Also, 8,000 words (including footnotes) is the standard for articles in History; AHR articles tend to be fully mature pieces that are broad in scope and appeal, so even 10,000 words would not be out of the question.

So, in this case, what looks like a form letter with polite euphemisms may actually be the real deal. One hopes that the editors or readers might suggest productive ways in which the article might be reframed. But looking at it from the editor's point of view: someone who submits a 5,000-word narrowly-focused article to this particular journal probably hasn't really given much thought to the type of articles that the AHR publishes -- something that should be the first consideration for anyone submitting a MS to any journal. In this circumstance, an editor might justifiably be a bit tetchy, and might choose to put only as much effort into the letter as the author did in his journal selection.

Anonymous said...

I'm an historian--though an Africanist rather than an Americanist--and know AHR well. I think the rejection letter actually says all that can be said tactfully. The author demonstrates amazing cluelessness and lack of professional courtesy in sending it to the New York Times.

As the rejection letter says, AHR expects its articles to be of interest to more than a particular subfield. So part of the problem is probably that the article didn't make clear why an Indianist or a Germanist should care professionally about omissions in the Watergate transcripts. To be successful, an article needs to be as much about a set of ideas and historiographic debates as it is about a particular historical problem.

Doing that is a serious challenge. Articles in AHR broadly survey the literature surrounding their topics. For example, an article on prostitutes in 19th century Lima would need to review the literature on prostitution everywhere in the world, and would need to say something interesting and innovative about it. Just situating the article within the literature on Peru or on Latin America wouldn't be sufficient.

To generalize in a very unfair way, within the U.S. Americanist historians often assume that the topics they research are intrinsically interesting. Many find it a challenge to make their work accessible to specialists in other regions, and they're also reluctant to engage with other historiographies at all. So it's no surprise that it's an Americanist who chose to publicize his article's rejection by AHR, even though he didn't bother to write an article that addresses the journal's mission.

Anonymous said...

I checked the published AHR guidelines, and didn't see length listed there. I will say that in my experience, the articles tend to be pretty long, around 30 pages or so. So perhaps it is legitimate.

AHR, for all that it's the "flagship" journal, strikes me in some ways as very narrow. I know of two articles on Japanese history in those pages (total), haven't seen anything on Chinese history in years, etc.

It seemed to me an odd choice for publishing a challenge to a work, to be honest. The Arming America refutation took place in "smaller," more specialized journals. I don't think it was less noted for that reason. ("Smaller," for although AHR is the association journal for history, I know plenty of members who, like me, spend most of our time elsewhere.)

Anonymous said...

"To generalize in a very unfair way, within the U.S. Americanist historians often assume that the topics they research are intrinsically interesting."

You know, I've been guilty of this myself, assuming that what I study is of obvious interest to everyone. Not mind you, with no justification, as, perhaps might be true for Americanists (I mean if you study the biggest player int he game, you might be somewhat justified in thinking that its size alone justifies interest). But, I can see that those of us who study the hundred pound gorilla in any field have some obligation to generalize beyond our gorillas. (In biology, the hundred pound gorilla is humans).

Anonymous said...

PS: I think the level of feedback/involvement you describe for papers you edit is not standard in other fields. Would you consider it standard in yours? Or are you an exception within your own field. I for example, have seen scant evidence in many cases of editor's reading the manuscripts their rejecting (or sometimes accepting). Mind you, I work in a field with a very large publication base.

John said...

In my physical science, there is a wide range of effort different editors invest in editing, and even a wide range of effort the same editor might invest. Even so, FSP would be on the hard-working side.

One can always find examples of inadequate effort. On the diligent side, the chore facing an editor depends critically on the quality of the reviews, which sometimes makes wise selection of reviewers the crucial step. One top-notch review leaves the editor with the easy job of verifying rather than forming an opinion. I would be leery of editors raising points not flagged by the reviewers.

In my experience, this is where the flagship journals Science and Nature excel. Good reviewers are usually chosen and they (usually) respond quickly to remain in good stead with the journals. Editors mainly take a vote of the reviews and judge breadth, which is appropriate as the reviewers are far more expert in the subject.

The long, poorly written, marginal manuscript is the bane, and I expect where FSP particularly excels with her tact, judgment, and communication skills.

Anonymous said...

to John:
sometimes manuscripts do not even reach reviewers, they are rejected right away by editors (sigh)

RoboFemme said...

I had a similar experience on a much smaller scale with my undergraduate thesis. I wrote it as an interdisciplinary work spanning two scientific fields, and received the highest marks from professors in each of those fields. However, when it came time for the committee on interdisciplinary theses to grade it, they gave it lower marks for not being readable by every member of the committee (which included professors from the humanities and social sciences). I had prepared work that was in-depth for my two scientific disciplines, but apparently their definition of "interdisciplinary" meant "broadly readable by everyone." It was a painful lesson about how narrow-minded committees can be.

Anonymous said...

The article probably could have been politely culled at failure to conform to journal expectations. (I feel very strongly that History as a discipline is extremely poor at stating its expectations, and bludges off the idea that these expectations will be absorbed by chance and that this is appropriate, then again, I come from the more theory up front angle and perceive myself to be an outlier.)

Additionally, going for AHR with an out of format article is a bit like waltzing up to a one word Science journal and not conforming to expected standards.