How does publishing work? In answering that question, I plan on explaining the mechanics of the peer review process that most academic publications use for article publicaitons. Okay, here we go.
The first step is an internal review. This process normally takes places within the editorial office of the journal. The editorial office might be the editor and a couple of grad students that have been pressed into service as editorial service. If it is a big journal like the American Historical Review, then it might be a faculty member of the host department or a member of the board of editors. The mission of the internal review is to decide if the submission is serious enough to merit a substantial investment in time and energy. The internal review is often quite important. Generally, what the internal reviewer is trying to do is to determine what type of source material you used and if it is relevant to the focus of the publication. Generally, they want to make sure that they are not getting some half-baked paper that an undergraduate had written.
If the submission passes muster, then the editor will send out the article to individuals that will evaluate the article. The ideal number of outside reviewers is three, but it could be as few as one, but if they start consulting five or six something is a bit odd. Where do editors get the names of reviewers? Well, from any number of sources. Often times, they have a list of established reviewers that they send their submissions to on specific topics. The editor might also contact an individual cited in your footnotes, since they have worked on the topic or subjects that are related to your focus. Editors are generally senior people in their fields and know a number of people. Sometimes editors also get recommendations that the authors suggest in their cover letters.
Generally, the review process should take 90 days. If you do not hear back within three months, you are within your rights to contact the editor and ask about the status of your submission. Most times it will be that the reviewers have not written their evaluation in prompt and timely manner, but journal staffs have been known to misfile items.
There are four types of responses. If you stay in the history profession you will probably get all of them at some point or another. I have. The four types are:
1. “Yes.” The article is accepted as is. This response is the rarest.
2. “Yes, but…” The article is acceptable, but the editor wants minor changes—a revised title for example.
3. “Revise and Resubmit.” This response is the most common, and is technically a rejection, but the editor is clearly interested in the article. Some significant changes, though, are required.
4. “No.” If you get this response, the internal reviewer, the peer reviewers, or the editor sees no merit in the article, or feel that it is inappropriate for the focus of the journal. These individuals are finished with their considerations of the article manuscript. If you want your paper published, you need to go to somewhere else.
Sometimes the reviewers will be off the mark. Bear in mind that they are not off the mark just because they did not give your article a positive evaluation, but if you feel the review is somehow unfair, you should feel free to contact the editor and explain your position. The editors will most likely send your written response to the reviewer and ask for their counter-response. If this strikes you as bit wishy-washy, it is because it is. The editors often are not experts on the particular topic in a dispute and want as much information as possible before they make their decisions. If you disagree, then feel free to take your article to another publication.
I have heard through the grapevine of editors sending an article out to as many as nine reviewers before rejecting the article when it gets one negative review and then rejecting the submission. I have personally had an editor reject my submission even though the reviewer gave an affirmative evaluation. Both examples are unfair examples of editorial discretion. If you want to complain to the editorial board of the publication that would be a fair and reasonable response. In many cases, these boards exist for just that purpose. Again, though, you should be prepared to seek publication in a different venue.