Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Uncommon Sense

The following is from the Uncommon Sense archives. It first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2002 issue, no. 114.

From the Director's Desk

Director's DeskLight conversations are sometimes revealing. The tone of a recent casual chat with someone I have known for many years acquired an unexpectedly sharp edge when my friend archly observed, “I have been reading about you and your colleagues in the Times. Now tell me, how much can I really trust about what any of you are saying or passing off as your own work?“ I laughed, somewhat apprehensively, and then launched into an impassioned exposition of the Institute’s methods of peer review and publication. Although I am uncertain as to what my telephone companion took away from our exchange, the exercise reinforced for me how fortunate the Institute is to have a constituency of committed scholars who invest countless hours evaluating the writings of their peers.

This is not to say that the system is perfect. There are books and articles that have been rejected and later prove of seminal importance. And we do make mistakes-after all, neither scholars nor editors are infallible. But errors do not happen for lack of trying.

One publisher is alleged to have commented recently that it could not invest the time, effort, or money required for checking manuscripts and footnotes and that it “trusted“ its authors. This seems to me to miss the point. Rigorous vetting does not imply a lack of trust but rather affirms the collegiality of the partnership between authors and editors as they work together to achieve their common goals of accuracy and integrity. Sometimes the process makes authors bewail-often, I believe, unfairly-the pace of publication here. Quarterly articles and submitted book manuscripts go out for multiple and extensive reviews. Substantial revisions are the norm. Points of argument are sharply challenged, methods are rigorously questioned, and citations are painstakingly checked and rechecked. Institute copyediting takes time-a Quarterly article or forum may require three weeks, an Institute book from four to six months.

Is this collaborative investment of time, energy, and intellect worth the effort? The dedication and diligence with which participants in all phases of the process respond to its demands suggest to me that they think it is. Moreover, the continued financial support from the College of William and Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation that allows the Institute to fulfill its role in this exceedingly labor-intensive enterprise indicates that our sponsors agree. In the end, however, the question is one that each individual must answer. I can only say that I am grateful to everyone who shares the responsibilities of publication with us-to authors who, in Fredrika J. Teute’s words, are “willing to go the extra footnote,“ to evaluators who, as Chris Grasso says, “consider the process of peer review a higher calling,“ and to reviewers who, in Bob Gross’s mantra, bring “clarity and context“ to their critiques. And I am similarly grateful to the editors, managing editors, assistant editors, editorial assistants, and apprentices who do everything in their power to keep faith with both writers and readers in assuring that accuracy and integrity remain the hallmarks of Institute publications

Ron Hoffman