Today’s post is by David Chan Smith, author of “The Hudson’s Bay Company, Social Legitimacy, and the Political Economy of Eighteenth-Century Empire” in the January 2018 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly.
by David Chan Smith
The six reviewers! This was my first thought when asked how my article on the political economy of empire had changed from its initial submission to the WMQ. The reviewers had noted areas for improvement, of course. But they had also assessed whether the article was a good fit for the WMQ readership: was the paper in keeping with the journal’s mission and accessible to its audience? Was the essay framed in such a way that its argument might be useful to the readership? Journal editors think a lot about whether an article’s argument engages a very specific audience — and so too should aspiring authors.
This is the point of an inspiring story that is shared among economic sociologists. It usually starts with a number: 47,039.
According to Google Scholar that’s how many citations there are for Mark Granovetter’s paper, “The strength of weak ties” (American Journal of Sociology, 1973). The number has probably gone up.
Surprising then that the American Sociological Review famously rejected the article. The journal’s reviewers did not put their reasons into a compliment hamburger. One described the paper as “trivial” and helpfully included some of the “endless series of reasons” against its publication. Granovetter was undeterred. He understood from the comments that framing his research as an inquiry into Marxist alienation was a non-starter. So he changed the frame and instead connected his evidence to ideas about social networks and influence (in 1973!). Acceptance in another journal followed. The episode may be taken to demonstrate the value of negative reviews, the importance of academic determination (i.e. “grit”) or both. But, as Granovetter has explained, it also exposed the importance that reviewers implicitly and editors explicitly place on frame and fit.
“Epiphenomenon” was the reason my draft changed so much. The word was used by the editor to suggest that my paper needed a larger frame that would make its argument useful for the WMQ audience. How fascinating, I had thought, were the parliamentary manoeuvres by which the HBC managed to defend itself in the House of Commons in 1749. Perhaps the audience of another journal focused on parliamentary history would agree. As the editing process continued—partly a process of refinement, partly of chiropractic adjustment—the paper shifted to better match the wider interests and background of the WMQ audience. The frame expanded so that the article might be more useful to readers. The essay shifted its emphasis to explore how corporate organization was legitimated in the eighteenth century and the influence of ideas of cooperation on the political economy of empire.
Fit too was calibrated to make the article more accessible and its language more familiar to the readership. After revisions have been made to respond to the external reviewers, WMQ editors then queried the draft in a really energetic and memorable way. This is a rigorous journal and its editors are passionate: every footnote is checked against the source. The process also emphasizes readability: WMQ’s audience has interests that extend over centuries and across many national histories. The editing process helped me discover my taken-for-granted knowledge and invisible assumptions that make for economy in specialized journals but need background in the WMQ. For example, there was a surprising amount of discussion with the editors about the difference between a fort and factory. Through this process the essay was lengthened in some areas to provide further explanatory information, but also reduced in others. One draft had a fulsome discussion of the Royal African Company and its parliamentary subventions. Another saw this section off almost completely.
WMQ articles need to be compressed within 10,000 words (excluding footnotes). Thinking about fit and frame helps to focus the paper. Whereas a long discussion about intellectual history that didn’t fit the journal was removed, a more relevant methodological argument was expanded. The use of sociological theory to explore the concept of “embeddedness” helped to explain my specific intervention in the ongoing historiographical debate over corporations and their relationship to Atlantic empire. (NB: Granovetter popularized embeddedness in an article with 36,597 citations).
One of the unexpected benefits of a rigorous review process that shapes an article for fit and frame is having diligent and professional editors query your work. Enjoy the scrutiny. It may well open up new research pathways by revealing what other people find interesting or intriguing. This engagement can also point back to sources that might have untapped potential. Although Arthur Dobbs, a political economist and later governor of North Carolina, featured prominently in my paper, only during the revision process did I discern the full breadth of his influence network. Let’s just say that the story of Dobbs and his plans for the American continent is yet to be fully told!