Statement on Peer Review for Historical Research

At its regular meeting in June 2005, the Council of the American Historical Association unanimously adopted the following statement on the role of peer review in conducting and funding historical research.

The American Historical Association (AHA) strongly supports the peer review process for research and publication funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Education, and other federal agencies. As a result, it opposes political interference with the peer review process.  Projects endorsed by peer review panels composed of competent, qualified, and unbiased reviewers that reflect a balance of perspectives should not be denied funding because of political, religious, or other biases of political appointees in the funding agencies.

Peer review means that a manuscript or research proposal will be read and evaluated by other scholars with expertise in the time period, subject matter, languages, and documents with which the author deals.  As peers of the author in a specialized field, these reviewers provide analysis to the review boards of agencies on the scholarly significance of the article: Does the author display knowledge of existing work in the field? Does the research design, processes and methodologies, for example, conform with professional standards? Does the author advance an original argument and provide valid evidence to support the work?  If particular areas are weak or absent in the presentation, the peer reviewers suggest revisions that will strengthen the project and call for resubmission before funding is awarded or a manuscript is accepted for publication.

Peer review had its roots in nineteenth-century scholarly publications, as editors of journals in newly professionalized fields consulted with colleagues about the merit of submissions.[1]  In 1895, William Sloane, editor of the newly founded American Historical Review, described his goals for the new Review.  “It ought chiefly to be a critical review, fearless to denounce a bad or superficial book which solicits public favor, equally courageous to sustain one which presents unpopular truth, and sufficiently learned to give reasons for its opinions.”[2]  Peer review became formal and institutionalized only in the mid twentieth century, as the number of scholarly articles expanded rapidly and fair and orderly publication required a system in which experts could provide objective evaluations before publication.

Peer review is not a flawless process.  A large literature has addressed the many biases that can creep into it.[3]  Awareness of the potential for bias has led to practices designed to prevent it so far as possible. Above all, it is vital to ensure that judgments are made by the scholarly criteria listed above, and not on the grounds of how closely a proposal adheres, for example, to the tenets of one faith or one political philosophy or theory. Scholars support the concept of carefully monitored peer review as the fairest way possible to ensure disinterested evaluation of research.  The American Historical Association believes that such peer review will best serve the American people who fund the research.


Notes

[1].  John C. Burnham, “The Evolution of Editorial Peer Review,” JAMA. 1990 Mar 9; 263(10):1323-9.

[2].  William M. Sloane, “History and Democracy,” AHR 1 (Oct. 1895): 1-23; quotations from 22.

[3].  See a bibliography of reports examining the peer review process at http://history.nih.gov/history/nih-peer.html, second bibliography, accessed December 6, 2004; http://www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/rcr/rcr_authorship/winResources.html .  Columbia University, Responsible Conduct of Research, “Responsible Authorship and Peer Review.”  Accessed November 7, 2004.