RHS News

RHS asks Government to clarify its position on historical research

The Royal Historical Society, together with the heads of other leading UK historical organisations, has written asking the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden MP, to clarify the government’s position on the funding of historical research.

An excerpt of the letter has today been published in The Sunday Times (Letters, p.26). The letter comes with the news that Dame Helen Ghosh, master of Balliol College, Oxford, has apologised for the historical acceptance of donations linked to the Atlantic slave trade.

The full text of the letter, together with its signatories:


“Dear Sir,

We write to express our concern as historians about ministers’ illegitimate interference in the research and interpretation done by our arm’s length heritage bodies such as museums, galleries, the Arts Council and the lottery heritage fund.

In particular we deplore the position, attributed to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Department in the press recently, that Professor Corinne Fowler’s ‘Colonial Countryside’ project, which explores the links between National Trust properties, empire and slavery, will be barred from funding in future.  As historians, we find this deeply concerning and we ask the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to confirm or deny whether this is his department’s position.

Academics are protected from such interference by the ‘Haldane Principle’, which accepts that government should set the general strategic direction of public funding for academic research but that ministers must not seek to make directions on individual funding decisions, which are best left to peer review to ensure both quality and independence.  Arm’s length bodies such as the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage fund are not so explicitly protected.  Perhaps they should be; Parliament ought to consider this carefully.  But the Lottery Act at least specifies what are ministers’ powers and these do not include determination on individual projects.  The granting bodies, not the minister, have the expertise to determine what projects best fulfil their statutory mission, and both heritage organisations and individual researchers have the legitimate expectation based on long practice that the minister not interfere in those determinations.

The culture secretary has also been quoted as seeking to deny funding to any projects deemed ‘political’.  Not only do we dispute his authority to interfere in funding decisions, we also query his use of the word ‘political’.  It is worth pointing out that the Charity Commission has recently found that the National Trust’s recent investigations into the links between its properties, empire and slavery is compatible with its charitable purposes, i.e. not ‘political’ in the relevant sense of the word. The minister should welcome this finding and make clear that research of this kind, into the connections between heritage, slavery and empire, does indeed fall within the funding bodies’ public purposes, if deemed otherwise fundable by those bodies.

Britain has a tradition of arm’s length funding of education, culture and heritage which has always sought to insulate these spheres, crucial to free debate in a diverse society, from excessive interference by government.  Such interference stifles the capacity of historians to do their work and exerts a wider chilling effect.  It may deter – it may be intended to deter – historians from embarking on difficult or sensitive research.  It certainly undermines and impoverishes our ability to explore difficult issues.  It also runs counter to recent statements by the government in defence of academic freedom.

If anyone is being too ‘political’ here, it is politicians who violate the principles of arm’s-length governance by seeking to dictate what research our heritage bodies can and cannot support.”

Emma Griffin, President, Royal Historical Society
Peter Mandler, President, Historical Association
Peter D’Sena, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Jonathan Morris, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Olivette Otele, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Jane Winters, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Catherine Schenk, President, Economic History Society
Yolana Pringle, History UK
Jamie Wood, History UK.
Matthew Hilton, Co-Editor, Past & Present
Joanna Innes, Chair, Past & Present
Alexandra Walsham, Co-Editor, Past & Present
Naomi Tadmor, Chair, Social History Society


RHS announces new approach to Transactions journal submissions

The Royal Historical Society has announced that from 2021, all Society Fellows and Members will be eligible to submit articles to be considered for publication in the Society’s journal, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society.

Until now, the content of Transactions of the Royal Historical Society has come from lectures delivered during RHS visits around the country, those given by speakers at sponsored conferences, and articles from RHS prize winners.

RHS Literary Director, Professor Andrew Spicer says:

“As the journal approaches its 150th anniversary in 2022, it is a good time to reassess the journal and its role… Opening up Transactions will allow the journal to reflect more fully the diverse approaches and innovative research being undertaken across the discipline.”

Moving to continuous online publication will enable Transactions to address such issues more swiftly than in its current form, although there will still be an annual volume. These are significant but necessary developments to ensure the journal’s future.

Find out more about the new submission process for Transactions on the RHS blog.


RHS publishes Roadmap for Change Update II: the second update to its Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History report (2018).

The RHS has today published Roadmap for Change Update II, the second update to its 2018 Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History report.

The report, authored by RHS Past & Present Fellow, Dr Diya Gupta, and RHS President, Professor Margot Finn, surveys the race, ethnicity and equality initiatives undertaken over the past year by the historical community in the UK. Its purview includes departments, faculties and schools, along with heritage organisations and learned societies, as well as the RHS itself.

Roadmap II follows on from the RHS’s initial publication Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (2018), which documented the overwhelming whiteness of the discipline of History, and the first Roadmap for Change I (2019), which gathered evidence on how individuals, universities, learned societies and other institutions responded to the 2018 report.

Read Dr Diya Gupta’s post introducing Roadmap II on the RHS blog.

Find out more about the RHS Race, Ethnicity and Equality working group, and download all RHS publications on race, ethnicity and equality in UK History on the RHS website.


RHS welcomes its new Past and Present Fellow

The RHS is delighted to welcome Dr Diya Gupta as our new Past & Present Fellow: Race, Ethnicity & Equality in History.

Dr Gupta will work with the Royal Historical Society and the Institute for Historical Research to develop and take forward the work of the RHS Race, Ethnicity & Equality Working Group (REEWG), and will combine this with developing her own research interests and her first book, based on her doctoral research. Diya completed her PhD in 2019 at King’s College London, where she studied Indian experiences and literature of the Second World War. In her work, alongside colonial photographs, she analyses letters, memoirs, political philosophy and literary texts in English and Indian languages to reveal the intensity and influence of Indian war emotions.

Dr Gupta takes over from the previous Past and Present Fellow, Dr Shahmima Akhtar, who has taken up a permanent lectureship at Royal Holloway, University of London. We wish Dr Akhtar all the best in her new position, and many thanks for all her work at the RHS and IHR.

We thank the Past & Present Society for their ongoing support of this position.


ECH Publishing: Research Excellence Framework (the REF)



If you are a UK scholar, or seeking employment in the UK, you will need to pay some minimal attention to the REF (the Research Excellence Framework, the current name for the periodic assessment of academic research undertaken by the UK funding bodies). The rules of the REF change from cycle to cycle, but the bottom line is: if you are publishing high-quality research with reasonable regularity, then you are doing all you need to be doing, so far as the publication portion of the REF is concerned. All publishing formats are eligible for submission to the REF.

It does not matter whether your research appears in a journal (still less a ‘highly-rated’ journal) or in a collection of essays or in a monograph or online. When your research is assessed by the REF panel, it will be read in full by an assessor, who will make a judgement based on what is read, not where it appeared. (You will be told otherwise – perhaps by managers, or scholars in other fields, where practices differ – but the truth is that all history publications submitted to the REF are read by assessors and judged on that basis alone).

Therefore, all that matters is the quality of what you produce. We are not always the best judges of the quality of our own work. So peer-review is a helpful guide to the REF outcome (which is simply peer-review itself). That is why submitting to a ‘highly-rated’ journal is a good idea – because your work will get searching peer review and acceptance in a competition is itself an indicator of quality. But a first-rate chapter in a book will still get equal treatment by the REF panel.

As we say above in the section on book chapters, peer review tends not to be so rigorous for collections of essays. In addition, editors of collections often try to pack too many items into a single book – to please more colleagues! – and so you may be confined to 6-8,000 words whereas a journal article may run to 8-10,000 words; and you are likely to be able to say more, to demonstrate more rigour, significance and originality in a journal article, than in a short book chapter. This is also the reason why books tend to do better in the REF – not because they are favoured on principle, but because historians tend to put their best work into their books, at the length needed to demonstrate the depth of the research and the validity of the argument.


ECH Publishing: Other Formats



A very large majority of the work published by historians appears in one of these three formats – journal articles, chapters in books, books. These formats allow for the evidence intensive and subject-extensive treatment that history favours. But there are lots of other ways to publish, especially online, and these alternative formats tend to cater to other needs than the simple presentation of research. Some early-career scholars find that their first published words take the form of book reviews.

Journals receive lots of miscellaneous books for review and are often delighted to find someone – anyone – who knows enough about the subject to review them. There is a case to be made for only reviewing books after you’ve written one yourself – an experience that imposes a proper degree of modesty. (It also shows that, minimally, you know what you’re talking about.) If you don’t have a track record, be extra careful not to raise unrealistic expectations or to be too territorial.

Normally you should be given the chance to proofread the book review. And of course you get ‘payment’ in the form of the book. Forums and roundtables are increasingly popular formats in journals and on blogs. They are excellent formats for stimulating discussion (of controversial issues or influential books) and for broadening the range of voices. They’re normally by invitation only.

But you can be the host, if you can find a journal editor willing to entrust you with the task of putting together a forum. Often roundtables in print originate as live roundtables at conferences. They are chattier, usually shorter than full-size journal articles (say 3-4 contributions of 1-4,000 words each?), and don’t require the full scholarly apparatus, as they tend to be more argumentative and less loaded with evidence.


Online formats

Some traditional publications (like book reviews) now often appear in online-only formats. There is no reason why you cannot include them in your C.V., just as you might print book reviews. But be conservative. If there is really no difference between the online version and its print equivalent – if you were commissioned by a reputable book review site, and you submitted a full-length review with a stable URL – then surely it’s the functional equivalent of the print version.

But if it’s just a blog post, or some other more casual form of contribution, without apparatus, un-peer reviewed, it really has no place on your list of publications; it will just look like padding. Your CV is an accounting of your scholarly qualifications, not an advertisement.



ECH Publishing: After Publication


Unlike with journal articles, you are almost guaranteed to get some feedback, at least within the first year, in the form of book reviews. Your publisher will ask you for a list of journals that are relevant to your book – you’re entitled to give them a reasonably long list, though make sure that they really are relevant and do publish book reviews. Include online book review sites.

You’re entitled to check up to ensure that the publishers have sent copies of your book to at least a healthy selection of the journals that you have specified. Most book reviews are pretty anodyne. They’ll tell the reader what the book is about and give it a general recommendation. Sometimes they’ll be more, or less, enthusiastic. You may well feel that some reviewers have been unfair, perhaps protecting their turf or their own interpretation. That’s the luck of the draw. You have to hope that across the spread of reviews you get justice.

It is almost never a good idea to write to a negative reviewer (or to the journal) to claim a right-to-reply. There is no such thing, unless you can prove malice, in which case you ought to be in court. The economics of book publishing are not changing as fast as they might. Most academic monographs are now selling under 400 copies each. They will sit in a limited number of libraries, where they will not be read by many (if any) people. This is partly because a lot of monographs are being produced more for hiring and promotion purposes than out of intellectual necessity, and partly because monographs are the part of the publishing landscape least accessible to online users.

It may be that the spread of e-books and the development of open-access options for monographs (still only in their infancy) may address this latter deficiency. Regardless, you can take heart from the knowledge that, as with journal articles, their shelf-life is very long indeed. If anything you write is still read at all 100 years from now, it’s likely to be a book.



ECH – Publishing a Book (II)


If an editor has agreed to review a proposal on its own, you may get a response in a month or so, as a short proposal does not receive a lot of scrutiny from reviewers. If you have submitted a complete manuscript, six months is not unusual. It takes a long time for a peer-reviewer to find the space to give a full book manuscript the attention it deserves. If you have waited that long, however, you ought to get some decent feedback – several pages from each of 1-3 referees.

Unlike journal submissions, a book manuscript won’t typically be reviewed double-blind; you won’t know the reviewers’ identities, but they will, inevitably, know yours. Like a journal submission, the editor will then either decline your manuscript, accept it outright (while encouraging you to address the referees’ comments in developing your final version), or give you the equivalent of ‘revise and resubmit’ – encourage you to go away and re- think the manuscript in light of the referees’ comments. This latter verdict is not as common as in journal submissions – it is asking a lot to get an author to rewrite a whole book.

As with a journal submission, once accepted your manuscript will go through copy-editing and proofreading. A good publisher will proofread your book themselves and expect you to do it too. As with journal submissions, you have to confine your major changes to the copy-editing stage. And there’s an additional stage as well – indexing. Most first authors do their own index, at the same time as they are proofreading. There are good software packages that make this easy. Some journal articles have illustrations, and it’s the author’s job to source (and pay for permissions for) illustrations. All the publisher does is provide the technical specifications (nowadays, what kind of image file is required). This task is more onerous for books, which often have a lot of illustrations.

Only the wealthier publishers will even offer to help with sourcing and paying for illustrations. There are charitable trusts that you can apply to for subsidy – ask your publisher for advice. Most books will require at least a cover illustration – again, probably your responsibility. You’ll also be asked to supply jacket copy – including the ‘blurb’ describing and touting the book – although normally publishers themselves secure endorsement blurbs from senior scholars (often by asking those who refereed your manuscript or even excerpting the report).



ECH – Publishing a Book (I)


Book publishing remains fairly traditional, not as affected by the digital revolution as journal publishing. As with journals, however, there are a range of book publishers that you can probably array in a quality sequence depending on your own experience of your own field. Generally, though, they break down into three types: i) university presses; ii) big commercial presses; iii) boutique commercial presses.

The university presses tend to carry the most prestige – because they do the most thorough peer-review, and thus the most thorough quality control. Their mission is to publish academic books (and so are not under such pressure to rack up big sales or require ‘crossover’ appeal). The big commercial presses need higher sales; they’ll only be interested in an academic book if it can be dressed up with ‘crossover’ appeal, either stylistically or substantively (sex, violence, war, or some other kind of rich human interest).

Boutique commercial presses have burgeoned in recent years, as more academics want to publish more books than the university presses can accommodate. They rely on the fact that they can make a small profit with modern technology by selling only 150-350 copies of an academic monograph at a high price to a small number of libraries. All of these presses still have editors who go around universities and conferences prospecting for authors. You can often meet them at book displays at conferences.

Mostly, however, you will have to approach an editor yourself. The best way to do this is to ask a senior colleague or a mentor for an introduction, or at least for permission to use their name when you email an editor with a query. As with journals, the best way to choose a press is to identify which press publishes books in your field that you admire and wish to emulate.

Publishers differ in their practices, but many presses will accept an initial submission in the form of a proposal. This could be a 5-20 page summary of the work, which tells the editor what the book is about, why it is new and special, what kind of research it’s based on, and something about the structure of the book (a chapter outline with abstracts of each chapter). It’s better to accompany the proposal with a sample chapter, which you’re already pretty happy with.

The university presses will almost certainly require you to go through peer review on the basis of a complete manuscript. They may issue you a contract but it will include a clause reserving the right to accept or reject the final manuscript on the basis of peer review.