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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · March 25, 2015

What does it take? From Submission to Publication at the WMQ

WMQ 9 min read

One of the OI’s major goals for the next years is to articulate and share the scholarly values and practices that characterize the work of our community from conferences to publications. I talk with willing and unwilling audiences alike about the specific brand of intensive and collaborative editing practiced at the OI. I talk about our editors and our editorial apprentice program, about the number of scholars engaged in every project that comes over the transom at the William and Mary Quarterly or the books program. I advocate for the importance of intense and collaborative scholarly communication, including in the production of long-form, evidence-based argument (which is what we publish). Even while we are innovating new digital methods and platforms, we believe in the value of how we do what we do.

It’s surprising to me, though, that an understanding of the nuts and bolts of the editorial process remains somewhat subterranean, even to those who have played such a key role in it as either authors or readers. In the spirit of transparency (and with perhaps a touch of evangelism), I share the following.

Recently, the author of an article in the WMQ posted the piece on, and when we sent him a takedown notice, he requested an exemption. The WMQ staff and I decided to use this opportunity to analyze in detail the in-house time spent on the article in question. We reviewed the initial submission, the reader reports, correspondence with the Editor and the Managing Editor, their substantive and line work, and the exchanges among the apprentices and the Managing and Assistant Editors.  Even without counting the time that four readers, a mapmaker, a typesetter, and a printer devoted, the WMQ team invested a lot of time and labor in this article.

We broke down the in-house time into five categories: Editor, Office Manager, Managing Editor, Assistant Editor, and Apprentices.

The Editor’s time included at least a full work week:

  • Searching out, soliciting, and corresponding with readers: 5 hours.
  • Writing the initial ten-page decision letter: 3-4 days.
  • Correspondence with author: 4-6 hours.
  • Assessing revisions:  4-6 hours.
  • Page proofs: 3 hours.

The Office Manager’s time included at least 6 hours:

  • Managing reader correspondence and manuscript work flow: 3 hours
  • Contracting for and managing map production:  3 hours

The Managing Editor’s time included at least 8 work days:

  • Initial copyediting and incorporation of fact-checking: 5 days
  • Incorporating author changes, incorporating WMQ staff changes to the revised manuscript, sending author the revised manuscript, incorporating any final changes from the author, and prepping for the typesetter: 2 days
  • Proofreading, 2-3 passes: 6-8 hours

The Assistant Editor’s time included at least 12 hours:

  • Reading the essay twice, once in manuscript and once in proof, helping to align the fact-checking in particular: 7 hours
  • Reviewing the typeset article for line breaks and other inconsistencies: 2 hours
  • Working on the abstract, and the digital (JSTOR) and print version correspondence:  3 hours

The Apprentices’ time included at least 8.5 hours of work:

  • To allot their time, the Managing Editor figures on about 4 footnotes per hour. By that metric (although when we looked at the file closely, there seemed to be a larger-than-usual number of queries within the text): 8.5 hours

We used the low end of estimates when we couldn’t specifically track the time through material in the file. Even so, that’s over 130 hours of expert labor. For all this work, we try to be efficient, cognizant that time is an important factor, particularly for junior faculty.  In this case, initial submission to final publication (in advance of a tenure decision) took just under twelve months.

Not all journals can give their Editors the time we do (the WMQ Editor teaches one course a year in addition to significant graduate student advising). It’s also important to remember that at a journal like the WMQ perhaps 8-10% of submissions are published, which means that the Editor spends a lot of time getting reader reports and writing extensive decision letters for pieces that will not appear in the journal—but that often, with the benefit of this feedback, appear elsewhere. Not all journals can employ in-house copyediting, though the major ones do.  Many freelance copyeditors are excellent, of course.  But for our part, we think that the fact that our Managing Editor has a graduate degree in early American history, and that she spends all of her time working within this field, is of terrific value to the authors and ultimately to the readers. Most journals simply can’t expend their time or resources on fact-checking.  Major journals might check every other or every third note as best they can.  But apprentices at the OI check every citation, preferably directly from a copy of the source material.

So that’s what it takes—at least here—for a submitted manuscript to move to publication. It’s obviously labor, time, and skill intensive. But this forensic analysis of a journal article from submission to publication also reminds us of the intensive and collaborative nature of the publication stage of scholarly production. It echoes the collaborations that often characterize earlier stages of a scholar’s work, such as conference paper presentations, discussions of precirculated work at seminars, and other opportunities for scholars to critically engage one another’s research and writing. In a particularly memorable and helpful exchange at the Massachusetts Historical Society last year, John Bezis-Selfa analogized the OI’s process to the slow food movement. I think that’s apt.

This reality of scholarly publishing, the number of people who interact with a work of scholarship at multiple stages, has to be kept in mind–in particular as we think about Open Access. This reality rarely gets much airtime in OA discussions, largely focused as they are on STEM and the circulation of STEM research products. (I have written more about this over at the Scholarly Kitchen.) At the OI we have been using the WMQ as a case study in discussions about OA as it relates to the humanities, including in a paper that Eric Slauter and I wrote and presented last year at the McNeil Center as part of an Open Access summit the OI and MCEAS convened with journal editors and others. But as we all continue to think and write about Open Access, it’s important to remember these details of scholarly production, whether in the WMQ or another journal.


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Thanks for this great article, really learn how to work on my next publication. It was such a nice eye opener. Thanks
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