April 14, 2016

Making Montana: The Submission and Review Process

by Randall Williams,  Assistant Editor
Montana, The Magazine of Western History

Montana The Magazine of Western History
cover art poster
Friends of the Montana Historical Society are no doubt familiar with Montana The Magazine of Western History. Published quarterly since 1951, when it appeared under the original title of The Montana Magazine of History, the magazine strives to capture a wide readership without sacrificing the scholarly rigor and innovation more readily associated with an academic journal. It is an ambitious undertaking. As K. Ross Toole colorfully observed, “publishing a quarterly journal of history with solid professional contents but with a high degree of readability for a broad audience is like trying to do an arabesque on a greased pole.” [1]  Despite the ease with which readers might recognize the magazine’s iconic covers and engaging style, the process by which individual pieces of writing find their way into the pages of a particular issue unfolds behind closed doors. This blog post, then, hopes to shed a bit of light on the making of Montana’s feature pieces.

While many popular periodicals rely on an in-house staff to produce each issue’s content, Montana publishes outside submissions from unpaid contributors with a variety of backgrounds. While some are independent researchers or authors, most are trained scholars and professionals working either in academia or public history—and, indeed, some come from within the talented ranks of MHS’s various programs. In hopes of soliciting new and promising manuscripts, the publications staff combines efforts to contact historians from across the country and around the world regarding their current scholarship, to attend national and regional conferences, and to keep tabs on the various research projects conducted at MHS, such as those funded each year by the Bradley Fellowship.
So that addresses some of the “who?” But what, exactly, constitutes an appropriate article? Publishing guidelines establish specific criteria beyond the obvious geographical bounds of the Treasure State and, more generally, the American West. In keeping with the magazine’s charge as a venue for serious scholarship and historical inquiry, articles must show evidence of original research or offer a new interpretation of historical events. Generally speaking, a retelling of stories available to the reading public through other sources will not be accepted, no matter how artful the prose or compelling the tale.

After an initial assessment by the magazine’s staff as to the suitability of the content, submitted manuscripts are sent out anonymously for “peer review” to at least two scholars or experts in the field. Careful consideration is given to which readers might bring valuable expertise to bear on each potential article. Whenever possible, a diversity of perspectives is incorporated into the process. Reviewers, or “referees,” are asked to evaluate manuscripts for their potential contributions to the field of western history; their style and accessibility for a general public; and the soundness of their research and argumentation.  Each reader’s report concludes with a recommendation for publication: acceptance, rejection, or an invitation to revise and resubmit. It is unusual for articles to be accepted without revisions in their first round of review.

Once reviews are in, the editorial staff then confers with the author to talk through the reader reports, and to come up with a plan and timeline for revision. Possible revisions range from minor stylistic alterations to a wholesale rearranging of the text or a shift in substantive focus. Depending on the author’s various other commitments and the extent of the necessary changes, this stage of the process can take weeks, months, or even years.
Autumn 2015, Vol. 65, No. 3
When it seems likely that any remaining issues identified by reviewers will be addressed, a tentative schedule for publication begins to take shape. At this point, the frequency of communication between the author and the magazine's editorial staff accelerates as the manuscript continues to evolve. Names, dates, and citations are checked and double-checked. The clarity and readability of the prose receive increasing scrutiny. Meanwhile, photographs and illustrations are selected and captioned, oftentimes in close consultation with MHS staff at the research center. Businesses and organizations that might have some ties to the subject matter of the article are contacted for potential advertisements and sponsorships. As the deadline to publication approaches, the manuscript, illustrations, and captions head to layout, where they are painstakingly arranged into the polished form that they’ll take on the printed page.

While the act of writing itself is often a solitary undertaking, the process by which individual articles make their way to the pages of Montana involves a considerable amount of collaboration, intellectual exchange, and team effort.

[1] Toole quoted in Brian Shovers, “Saving Montana’s Past: The Creation and Evolution of the Montana Historical Society and Montana the Magazine of Western History,” Montana The Magazine of Western History 52, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 58.