PressForward and American History Now

The Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media recently got a grant from Alfred Sloan Foundation. The “Press Forward” initiative is described here. Part of the grant will establish American History Now, a new kind of professional journal. Yours truly is to be the managing editor.

Managing editor of what? What do we want a new kind of journal to look like? For a thoughtful detailed examination of the questions, check out the report of the Scholarly Communications Institute earlier this year. Drawing on my own dialogues with other scholars and that report, I think American History Now should:

A: make publication faster and easier, without sacrificing standards of argument and evidence.

B: promote and enable discussion of the subject among interested parties of all sorts

To do this we need to rethink what academic writing and reading looks like, and that starts, in my opinion, with the awful disjunction between the way we read and the way we write. In grad school, with little time and a lot to cover, we learn to read quickly and ruthlessly. Work life reinforces this: time is scarce, and literature is long. Most academics do a lot of what looks like “skimming:” the jaundiced appraisal of the trained, experienced eye.

But perversely grad school also teaches us to write as if your reader was a person of leisure, savoring every word, a “literary” model rooted in the upper class origins of the profession and bearing little relation to life as we live it. When was the last time you read an article that “worked” as a piece of literature? When was the first time?

That’s not the fault of academics per se–most of us love the written word. It’s the fault of the mismatch between our expectations and experiences of reading and writing. It’s not unlike “women’s magazines” that put fabulous recipes next to rigorous diets: contradictory demands presented as normal and inevitable.

Recently I had lunch with an absolutely first rate local historian. He mentioned that he had four article ideas, and the research to support them, but no time, between family life and other professional obligations,  to get the work done. Sound familiar? Can we make it easier to get that work out?

It’s worth looking at makes publishing a journal article hard.

A lot of it has to do with the form of the article. A typical article in a major journal has to include a great deal of throat clearing and feather-smoothing: it has to sooth both your immediate peers, the people who work on the same stuff, but also the outer circle, experts from other areas or other fields. They have to be eased into it: the nature of the historiographical question laid out, the different schools of thought described. It’s a familiar form.

The article has to present long chains of evidence in prose, merged smoothly in a “literary” style. This is hard to do and worth doing, but at the same time, a major article is typically forty pages long because of the evidence, which is presented within the article as prose because at the time the form of the article was established, there was no other way to present it. Do we need to have all the evidence in the body of the article?

So too the feather-smoothing: it had to be included because journals and journal space were limited commodities: they had to appeal relatively broadly across a wide community of scholars. Could we drop it, or relegate it to a separate page?

There is surely room in academic life for shorter articles. Good academic writing does not have to be wordy, or long, or pompous. Entire academic reputations rest on single paragraphs or pithy sentences excerpted from longer works again and again. The standard forms of academic expression were admirably suited to serve the context of about 1900, when telephones were rare. We should look to establish a form of writing that lessens the gap between the literary and the practical.

Imagine an article “nested,” so that it begins with an accessible synopsis and conclusion, and offers a few examples, but makes the rest of the scholarly apparatus–the historiographical forced march, the long chain of evidence–available to experts at a separate page. And imagine that article appears with comments by peers.

Scholarly work tends to be solitary work, and that may always be the case. But at the same time, most of us relish those moments when real scholarly interchange takes place. The print journal is very a poor venue for scholarly interchange. How long does it take for book reviews to appear? How many letters to the editor can it print? Even more, the process of peer review, the most substantive intellectual exchange most of us ever have, is grindingly slow and unidirectional. It ought to be possible, as I’ve suggested before, to make peer review faster, more effective, and more rewarding.

One model for this might be termed the “crowd source” model: collect all the digital work done by humanities scholars, and allow “ranking in use” to emerge on its own. For example, Prof. X writes a blog post, and American history now notes the post, adds a link,  and sends the information about the post out to its reader. Interested readers respond: in very little time, blog posts that attract a great deal of interest would “rise to the top” of rankings at American History Now. No editors, no designated formal “peers,” no boards of review.

Because peer review as is doesn’t work all that well. In an earlier blog post I suggested:

an inverse rela­tion­ship between peer review and endur­ing intel­lec­tual value. Good work is gen­er­ally good because it has some­thing valu­able to say, not because it has appeased other pro­fes­sors. Work that is good because of peer review is prob­a­bly not very good

Abandoning our current model of peer review may seem frightening, but it’s basically what google does; what gets you want you are looking for more quickly and effectively–Google, or the back issues of that journal collecting dust on your shelf? It’s the model of what websites like The Atlantic do. Blogger X posts an article, and if the article generates a great deal of traffic and comments, it moves up in the page hierarchy. It’s effectively real time peer review. I think this is what the future of work in the humanities will come to look like, but probably not for a long time. Humanities scholars are highly “disciplined” people, in the Foucaultian sense, and it’s very hard to rethink the disciplinary apparatus that brought us into being.

So American History Now will combine several models. It will include a “review digest,” culled from commercial sites like Amazon and newspapers as well as blogs and articles on the web. Readers can in turn comment on these reviews, taking issue with their claims and conclusions, or drawing connections. It will include shorter articles posted at the editor’s discretion, with commentary on the articles by peers. (link to earlier) It will include a vetted collection of blog posts pertaining to US history from around the web, and a section called “Past Meets Present,” for instances in which politicians, celebrities and policy wonks invoke history to make their clams: readers can respond, comment, and critique.

This is a work in progress: we want comments and criticisms and revisions. In the next few weeks, we’ll have a preliminary version of the website running.



  • We’ve been discussing some of the pros and cons of enabling commenting on academic writing over at Writing History in the Digital Age (, where comments are invited as part of the open peer review process. (Indeed, the discussion about this is happening in the CommentPress enabled comments). Are you considering paragraph-level commenting like CommentPress offers, or whole-page or whole-essay comments only? Am fascinated by your “no editors” idea, which I presume only relates to the peer review process – is that right? My experience as co-editor of a web-born, open peer reviewed edited volume suggests that the editor is more necessary than ever before, not only but also when it comes to the open peer review/commentary process.

  • […] Then Dan Cohen gives a talk for Open Access Week. Then Mike O’Malley announces his plans for Amer­i­can His­tory Now. (Not to men­tion Mills’s attack on the five-page […]

  • Shirley Wajda wrote:

    I guess I’m a little disappointed in the claims that this initiative is indeed more inclusive in its mission to engage contemporary historical practice.

    The arguments elsewhere about finances, editorial control, peer review, etc., are worthwhile, of course. I’ve served as managing editor and book review editor of scholarly journals, and appreciate the possibilities of showing historical work as process (editorial decision making, peer reviews, author response, etc.) rather than product.

    Editorship has change dramatically since my graduate school days as a managing editor, not always for the better. Some editors do not possess an encompassing knowledge or embrace of the discipline. Some editors refuse to take a hand in shaping the field, defaulting to peer reviewers. The reliance at times on peer review without questioning whether the peer reviewers proved, in the end, the appropriate scholars for a given manuscript is thus not recognized as a problem. Editorial boards are often underutilized. One may thus imagine what innovative or controversial work may have been rejected.

    On the other hand, the proposal seems to assume that open review is always fair review–or at least fairer. Given the studies that show the great disparities in gender and race and age and online communications, I would wish to be reassured that the editorial policy define more explicitly what is expected of peer review.

    So, American History Now appears not as a reinvention of the scholarly journal but an elaboration and critique of it, and as such hasn’t included explicitly other professional historical practices: material culture studies, public history, museum exhibitions, etc.–unless, of course, that’s included under “digital projects,” and that I think, is unfortunate).

    What seems to be being argued here is a redefinition of editorship as another form of digital curatorship. This is interesting, in that the models of research scholarship of the museum seem to have not been considered here: the auteur model of the curator has long since passed, and exhibitions are the result of teams, consultants, public input, surveys, etc.

    From my vantage point as an American Studies-trained, material culture scholar, this proposal retains in part a form of elitism its proponents imply they wish to challenge. Yes, it is “very hard to rethink the dis­ci­pli­nary appa­ra­tus that brought us into being” but that discipline does not only exist on a university campus.

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