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Economic and Social History Blog

56. My first desk rejection (4-6-2020)

My first desk rejection (4-6-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

In one of the blogs I have complained a bit about the power of referees in the review process of papers for good journals. What bothers me is that sometimes you get the feeling that the referee is trying to impose her or his own research agenda on the paper, which constrains the possible criticism that you might have on her or his position, and tries to bend you over to his/her position in the debate. The choice that an author has to make seems to be between sticking to your own point of view but run the risk of getting the paper rejected, and obeying the referee and increase the chance at publication of the paper. A good editor understands this and sees to it that the game is played in a fair way, but not all editors are sufficiently independent and dare to deviate from the opinions of the referees.

Perhaps we should think through more carefully the incentives of the players in this game. Why is a referee willing to spend considerable time and energy on assessing a paper? Is this because he or she is a good citizen who sees the improvement of the quality of the paper as part of her/his civic duties, or is a referee driven by the desire to maximize the number of friendly citations of her/his work in the journal involved? Do the institutions that are now defining the rules of the game, create the right incentives? There is room for a paper about this. Network and reputation effects should also be taken into account…. Another bias is that it is extremely difficult for an outsider without the right connections to get access to the international journals (my guess is that an email address from a top university greatly increases your chances to get a paper accepted).

I am not arguing that things were better in the past, however. To illustrate where we have come from, an anecdote from the old days, the 1980s. As a spin-off of my dissertation, which was about Dutch agriculture in the 19th century, with special attention to the eastern part of the country, I had written a paper evaluating the seminal book by B.H. Slicher van Bath (SvB) about population and economy in Overijssel between 1500 and 1800. On the basis of an impressive range of sources, SvB had reconstructed a classical Malthusian picture of this: population had grown rapidly, whereas agricultural resources (cultivated area) has increased much less, creating the well-known Malthusian tension. But on the basis of the 19th century reconstruction of agricultural area and output, I was able to demonstrate that his 1800 estimates were much too pessimistic. Moreover, following the Marxian criticism of the Malthusian model, I thought I could also show that there had been a sizable redistribution of income in the 17th and 18th centuries, which had strengthened the position of farmers at the expense of big landowners (mainly the nobility). In short, I suggested an alternative, more optimistic view on the development of population and economy in Overijssel/the eastern Netherlands in the early modern period.

There was at the time one journal – or rather yearbook – that covered economic history, the Economisch- en Sociaal-Historisch Jaarboek, published by the Netherlands Economic History Archives (NEHA), with an editorial board headed by the professor of economic history at Amsterdam University. I submitted the paper, and after e few weeks got a reply – a real letter of course – explaining why it could not be published. The editor, after pointing out a few typos in the (indeed typed) manuscript, wrote that the yearbook could not publish the paper as it was highly critical of one of the leading authorities in the field – B.H. Slicher van Bath – and, explicitly adding ‘vaderlijk advies’ (fatherly advice), he warned me that publication would really harm my career.  He did not discuss the validity of arguments that were in the paper, or criticize the use of historical sources, it was simply desk-rejected, adding that he did not even want to distribute the draft among the members of the editorial board. I was flabbergasted – I thought the whole point of writing papers was to criticize authority (I was a student in the 1970s). That someone could simply reject a paper on such grounds was shocking. I told my supervisor Ad van der Woude and co-supervisor Henk Roessingh, and after some debate the paper was published in AAGBijdragen (no. 24) (it was a rather delicate issue, as this medium had been initiated by Slicher van Bath himself, but he had left Wageningen at the time).

Many years later I learned that troubles with the editor could also be viewed as a kind of quality mark, as both Joel Mokyr and Richard Griffiths had had similar problems getting an article published in the Yearbook of the Neha, including long conflicts about what they were allowed to write (both were critical about the debate concerning the late industrialization of the Netherlands). Joel retaliated by reviewing the Yearbook a couple of times for international journals.

I met Slicher van Bath only once, when he transferred the financial archives of another foundation, the Unger-van Brerofonds, to me. I was still very young and did not dare to ask about the paper in which I had criticized him, but he mentioned it himself: when I left and we shook hands again, he remarked: ‘and I enjoyed your paper…..’. He had moved on to other topics.

Continue reading: The Good, the Bad and the Owl (5-6-2020)


B.H. Slicher van Bath, Een samenleving onder spanning. Geschiedenis van het Platteland in Overijssel. Assen 1957.

J.L. van Zanden, De opkomst van een eigenerfde boerenklasse in Overijssel, 1750-1830. AAG Bijdragen 24, 1984, 105-130.