From the HSS Editorial Office

From the HSS Editorial Office by H. Floris Cohen, HSS Editor

With Jay’s kind permission, we in the Editorial Office have begun a series of columns for the Newsletter, under the no nonsense title of “From the HSS Editorial Office.” The basic idea will always be the same. From a North American perspective, the Isis editorial office seems far away, so we in Utrecht want to reassure the HSS membership that in between each issue of Isis the journal is alive and kicking, and in doing so inform you about a variety of matters that keep my team and me occupied. Topics touched on below include an overview of our procedure after an author has submitted a manuscript; further remarks for the benefit of a variety of special authors (“early science,” “early career,” and “non-Anglophone”); and, finally, an outline of my plans for the Focus section.

From Submission to Refereeing

Before submitting a manuscript to the Isis editorial office, you have first paid attention to the ‘Guidelines for Authors’ on the Isis website. Besides the other, more technical matters, you will quickly find a guideline that invites you, in preparing a manuscript, to “strive to give the reader a sense of the wider significance of the point or points you are seeking to make.” Given the unusual breadth of Isis’ readership I expect our authors to address topics that not only display impeccable scholarship as a matter of course but also have an import beyond their own specialty and/or beyond the specific period or region covered.

President Angela Creager and Editor Floris Cohen (right) exchange the new Editor’s contract as Treasurer Adam Apt smiles on benevolently.

President Angela Creager and Editor Floris Cohen (right) exchange the new Editor’s contract as Treasurer Adam Apt smiles on benevolently.

Once the inbox of displays receipt of a manuscript, a specially trained assistant, Didi van Trijp, begins to verify certain formal requirements. Has the author sufficiently blinded it? Is there assurance that the manuscript is original and not under consideration elsewhere? Is it free of an overdose of typos and sloppily phrased sentences? In short, has the author taken the Guidelines into account? If yes, Didi provides me with a print-out (small margins, Book Antiqua letter, font size 9) of the non-blinded version. I do my best to read each new manuscript within a week. I may then find that it is so obviously not in the Isis ambit, either in view of the topic chosen or in the manuscript’s failure to obey elementary criteria of scholarly quality in our discipline, as to make me consider what is known as a “desk rejection.” In such cases I either reject the manuscript forthwith as unsuitable for Isis or, if I am in any doubt at all, I consult an Advisory Editor. I then ask the adviser whether she or he has grounds to correct my first conclusion. If the answer is yes, I initiate at once the same procedure that I follow for all the numerous manuscripts (and there are many of these) that are much too good for such summary judgment. That is, Didi sends the blinded electronic version to an Advisory Editor (there are thirty in all, with ten rotating out every year and being replaced by others), and also to one (or sometimes two) expert referees, usually but not always selected from outside the Advisory Editorial Board. The referees are requested to send me an extensive report (for which they are in possession of certain guidelines) within six weeks. Sometimes it takes a bit longer, but when the reports are in I read them attentively, think about them for a while, and arrive at a conclusion. Six distinct conclusions are then possible.

From Refereeing to Decision

The rarest conclusion is acceptance as is. Nobody is perfect, not even authors of very good manuscripts, and almost every manuscript can benefit from changes. The specific gravity of such needed improvement may vary in the following four ways:

  • I may accept a manuscript pending certain specified, minor revisions. Luckily this happens with some regularity, or my job would be a most depressing one and your quarterly Isis would contain little else than book reviews and Focus sections. It is true that this first type of acceptance almost always concerns manuscripts in second, not first draft.
  • Or I may accept a manuscript pending a more substantial final revision, to be drawn likewise from the referee reports and, on occasion, also from my own expert knowledge if I fancy that I have it.
  • Or I may accept a manuscript conditional on major revisions. This variety is meant to confer two messages to the author: There is still quite a lot of work for you to do, yet you may rest assured that, if carried out to my satisfaction (in principle), as well as that of the paper’s referees, the manuscript will in due time appear in Isis.
  • Closely related, yet different in one major respect, is the next possible decision, which goes by the name of “revise and resubmit.” This is likewise an invitation to prepare a second (or even a third) version in conformity with points listed by the referees and further specified in my accompanying letter. The difference with the previous case is that I reserve the liberty to conclude that an article, albeit judged qualitatively “okay” by the referees in the second round, is nonetheless too narrow and/or too specialized (in terms of the Guidelines) for publication in Isis, and/or too lengthy still in relation to the significance of the message it seeks to confer. Here I must take into further consideration such editorial dilemmas as whether perhaps there is an overflow or rather a temporary shortage of publishable manuscripts, or whether a reasonable proportion can still be maintained between (roughly) 20th + 21st century; 19th century, and pre-1800.

If none of these five outcomes, from “acceptance as is” to “revise and resubmit,” applies, then I must reject a manuscript, but not before expressing my hope or even my expectation that it will find a good home elsewhere. Please note that this kind of response actually constitutes the majority of letters I must write, as Isis receives about ten times more submissions than it could possibly publish, even if all manuscripts were of superb quality. Please note, too, that even with the rejection of a “revise and resubmit” manuscript the author has had the benefit (as a rule) of extensive, truly exquisite expert commentary, as I quickly found out when Bernie Lightman, my predecessor, first introduced me to the editorial job.

Some Special Cases

I return now to the category of “revise and resubmit” in the specific sense defined above. The author receives the referee reports and my list of conclusions. How to deal with these documents? My message to authors in that situation would be: please don’t give up too soon! This applies to all authors, yet during one meeting at the recent annual conference in Chicago I was confronted with an interesting suggestion that women may tend to give up more easily than men. Although I grant that there is a certain psychological plausibility to this apparent outcome of some piece of social science investigation, my experience thus far has taught me otherwise: of the five revised and resubmitted manuscripts accepted under my editorship, four were by women. By way of a general conclusion, then, I have decided to go out of my way to encourage all authors, no matter their gender, to revise and resubmit, without, of course, raising expectations, which I may not in the end be able to fulfill.

Speaking now of encouragement, I was asked at the annual meeting about submissions by scholars at an early stage of their career, chiefly PhD students. Here my response was twofold. Yes, acceptance happens: Less than a month prior to the annual meeting, on the recommendation of the referees in the second instance, I accepted an article by a PhD student. However, more often than not the referees and I must conclude that the submission does not, or does not yet, display the required degree of scholarly maturity. Therefore, my general advice to early career historians of science who are considering whether or not to submit a manuscript to Isis is: You need not take eventual publication to be a priori out of reach for you, yet by all means consult your supervisor first!

There are two more categories of potential authors whom I would want to take heart if by any chance they have lost it. There are my fellow students of pre-1800 science and natural philosophy. Here I can be very brief. Just as Bernie did, I maintain a simple proportionality rule that broadly reflects Isis readers’ spheres of interest. Just as I expect that every Isis issue will include at least one article that deals with the 20th century and one that covers chiefly or wholly 19th-century material, just so do I hope that the reader also encounters in every issue at least one article that covers earlier time periods. A somewhat more complicated case are those possible authors who, also like me, are not native Anglophones. Their case came up during the Saturday breakfast for non-US scholars for which our President, Angela Creager, took a most welcome initiative. What I said there may bear repetition here. Three distinct issues are involved: quality, language, and style of presentation. Regarding quality, broad criteria for acceptance remain the same for every single submission. In the matter of language, as early as 1919 George Sarton decided to confine Isis to English and although a multilingual practice even for articles survived into the 1960s, I will stick to his original decision. Of course, Joan Vandegrift, our manuscript editor, has always had more work to do on occasional manuscripts by non-Anglophone authors but, within reasonable bounds in terms of how much time she has available, she will keep working on such more time-consuming articles in (as always) close consultation with the author. But there is also a matter of style of presentation. I understand that in many countries (e.g., in Southern or Central Europe or in Latin America or East Asia) numerous scholars habitually present their arguments in a manner rather different from what has, at least in the history of science, become the standard style. Whenever I discern inside any given manuscript an argument worthy of further consideration, even if it comes clad in unusual clothes, I shall take special care and attend in a spirit of sympathy to its march through our standing procedures.

From Acceptance to Publication

Back now to the general flow of things. For the most part (not counting transition periods, vacation, and other incidents), the time between an author submitting a manuscript and receiving one of six possible conclusions about it will, with a bit of luck, be some two to three months. How long the revision then takes is entirely up to the author. I can say a few more things about what, in the case of acceptance, happens next. The successful author receives, together with our congratulations, a concise list of administrative requirements that must be fulfilled before, on a provisional basis, I assign the manuscript to a future issue. I then hand it over to Desiree Capel, the managing editor. She transmits to Joan Vandegrift all articles assigned to the specific issue that is destined to appear half a year later. Joan needs three months to prepare every issue for print (she does so in communication with the authors), and then sends its contents back to Desiree, who passes everything on to the journal production department of our publisher, the University of Chicago Press. In ongoing dialogue with her, the Press then takes three more months for actual production, with the authors’ assistance being invoked for proof reading. The December issue usually takes somewhat more time, as an annual index still has to be prepared and the issue mails with the annual Current Bibliography. Generally speaking, however, once an accepted article has been sent to Joan, it appears half a year later. Even so, I may have reasons to assign at a late stage an article to a later or, on occasion, to an earlier issue than originally foreseen.

Throughout the entire procedure outlined here, all kinds of technicalities are involved that are exciting only to us Isis officers, but please be assured that our efforts are always directed toward keeping the period between submission and publication as short as we in our Utrecht office can possibly make it.

Focus Section

And now for the Focus section, the only portion of Isis that is available in open access. I shall go into greater detail in an Editorial in the June, 2015 issue of Isis—the first to carry a Focus section for which I bear full responsibility. But here are a few preliminary pointers.

In the first place, I intend to retain the genre, invented as it was by Bernie as soon as he became Editor. I also will stick with Bernie’s original idea for the Focus section: to provide what he nicely called “think-pieces.” My ideal Focus contribution is not written like a research article, only shorter, but is rather done by a person who, in full command of his or her broad subject, mulls over the specific topic assigned by the organizer of the Focus section and then suddenly sees the light—one sentence tumbles after another and she or he writes the piece in one inspired day. As with all scholarly work, the article requires careful documentation, yet it need not constitute original research. Instead, or in addition, it provides the reader with the harvest of a great deal of the author’s earlier, original research plus the wisdom he or she has collected in thinking through the matters at hand in an original, creative way.

Further, so as to attain greater cohesion among the various contributions, I want just about every Focus section to emerge from a workshop specifically dedicated to the subject at hand (in a rare case the Descartes Center at my university may be of assistance in this regard). I shall further subject every Focus section to some form of peer review, heavier perhaps than has been the case, yet light enough to enable the authors and myself to move forward quickly and not to lose pace.

As to substance, I am thinking chiefly of Focus sections of three distinct kinds. One category is “how-to” (i.e., certain methodological issues) and another is “at the cross-roads” (between history of science and some neighboring discipline). I have further categorized a third variety as “looking back + what next,” i.e., Focus sections dedicated to certain aspects of the past of the discipline with a view to how to move on from there. An example of the first kind would be “the formation and handling of concepts in history of science writing”; of the second kind, “interfaces among history of science, history of technology, and economic history”; of the third, “thirty years of practicing contextual history of science: making up the balance.”

What, in short, I want the Focus section to accomplish is to serve as a platform for a large plurality of historically informed ideas about where our discipline is heading, or should be. I have already initiated several Focus sections along these lines, and I hope to receive many more from you. The Isis website, maintained by the University of Chicago Press, quickly leads you to specific guidelines for how to propose a subject for a Focus section, and also how (at a much later stage) to submit a completed section. Please think about it for a while, and give me the benefit of your best thoughts!