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Journal Editing: it works!

The Tuesday, Aug. 4 Metro section of the Washington Post, on an article published by the Journal of Social History concerning Irish immigrants, makes an implicitly interesting point about journal editing. The article has a needless tendentious heading, and it does not directly explore the editing process involved; hence an additional comment.

Here’s the story: the Journal recently published, as an online advance (the printed version comes out next summer) an interesting article on the question of discrimination against Irish immigrants in 19th-century America. We had published an earlier article, in 2002, that contended that the “No Irish Need Apply” stories were largely if not entirely legend, that few if any such signs were ever posted. The new article takes the earlier version to task, with considerable documentation. We have published the new effort with a comment by the original author, Richard Jensen, which I think is only fair. But it looks like the picture Jensen painted does need to be modified in turn.

All of this is interesting scholarship, on an arguably important issue in the longer history of American discriminations (I know, we’re not supposed to talk about them). The startling point, which captured Post attention as merely scholarly advance never would, is that the new article is by a 14-year old girl who attends Sidwell Friends school in DC.

Now, first, kudos to the author, whom I have yet to meet. This is a solid effort whatever the age, and as an editor I’m grateful for this kind of advance. That it comes from a middle-schooler is simply impressive, and I look forward to her further scholarship, in whatever field, in years to come.

But second, kudos to the many journals, like the Journal of Social History, that review materials responsibly.

When we got the article, the Journal Administrator probably did not know that the author was not a regular academic. As she turned it over to me, as editor, she quite properly made no comment about authorship one way or the other, removed the name in advance, and we proceeded to evaluate. I read the essay, found it worthy and interesting, and had it read in the usual fashion. It clearly passed muster. Hence we decided to publish.

By that point the Administrator had figured out the unusual provenance, and after my decision was made called it to my attention. I was frankly taken aback, but only briefly. The age shouldn’t matter, and obviously it didn’t – either as a plus (we got some unusual publicity) or as a minus (few scholarly journals have probably ever published a 14-year-old. Careful but anonymous evaluation is the clear goal, and it worked.

And one other point. The sequence (regardless of author age) also, it seems to me, demonstrates how historical knowledge improves. Prof. Jensen’s original article (vetted at the time) was a worthy challenge to what had been undocumented assumptions. It has in turn now served as challenge of its own, and we have a more accurate update. The original point, that hostility to the Irish was probably less widespread than later recollections suggested, probably still stands. But the discussion has advanced (aided as well by more Internet access to relevant documentation). And if we can get more age groups involved in this kind of serious scholarship, all the better.

It’s a pleasing result, quite apart from the human interest angle.

And I look forward to the next time the Post highlights historical research: “Siamese twins successfully submit two articles to the American Historical Review.”