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Peer Review as an Evolving Response to Organizational Constraint: Evidence from Sociology Journals, 1952–2018

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Abstract

Double-blind peer review is a central feature of the editorial model of most journals in sociology and neighboring social scientific fields, yet there is little history of how and when its main features developed. Drawing from nearly 70 years of annual reports of the editors of American Sociological Association journals, this article describes the historical emergence of major elements of editorial peer review. These reports and associated descriptive statistics are used to show that blind review, ad hoc review, the formal requirement of exclusive submission, routine use of the revise and resubmit decision, and common use of desk rejection developed separately over a period of decades. The article then argues that the ongoing evolution of the review model has not been driven by intellectual considerations. Rather, the evolution of peer review is best understood as the product of continuous efforts to steward editors’ scarce attention while preserving an open submission policy that favors authors’ interests.

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Notes

  1. Because of this article’s concern with the development of journal peer review, it does not consider written reports or descriptive statistics from the ASA’s monograph series or Contemporary Sociology and Contexts, journals that employ different editorial models.

  2. Managing the editor’s workload has also spurred a range of other responses not directly concerned with reviewing itself. The appointment of deputy editors and proliferation of editorial assistants was common during the period when little of the administration or physical production of a journal could be automated. More recently, it has become common for journals to be operated by pairs or teams of editors-in-chief. All ASA journals were headed by a single editor-in-chief from the 1950s until the late 1990s, but since that time, most ASA journals have had at least one team of editors. Team editing now appears to be a firm norm at ASR.

  3. Article length has increased dramatically at both AJS and ASR. Between 1996, when Paula England had brought order to the revision pipeline (ASR 96), and 2013, when the journal reached its present size, page allocation increased nearly 40%, while the number of published articles dropped nearly 30%, meaning that average article length nearly doubled in less than 20 years.

  4. There is no simple way to reckon up the reviewing load in the field, but there can be little doubt that this burden has increased. Sociologists, like academic social scientists generally, face strong pressures to publish more frequently and at earlier stages in their career (Warren 2019). The number of refereed journals has expanded. The rise of English as an academic lingua franca, the growth in impact and performance metrics that strongly favor American journals, and the development of electronic submission models may all tend to increase international submissions to American journals that remain reliant on a mostly-domestic pool of reviewers. And the standard number of reviews per paper has increased: until 1990s, ASA journals typically sought two reviews per paper, but now commonly obtain three or four. The size of the sociology professoriate, however, is relatively stable.

  5. The following discussion implies no opinion of my own about the intellectual state of sociological theory or social psychology—it simply reports editors’ judgments about the need for change in these fields, and their own avowals of difficulty in securing the changes they envisioned.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Andrew Abbott, Daniel Alvord, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments on this article. I dedicate this work to the memory of George Frederickson—a generous colleague and a great editor.

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Correspondence to Ben Merriman.

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Appendix. Bibliographic Information for Editors’ Reports

Appendix. Bibliographic Information for Editors’ Reports

This article uses a simplified reference system for the editorial reports: reports are cited by journal initials and the last two numerals of the year of report publication.

Journal Initials

ASR:

American Sociological Review

JHSB:

Journal of Health and Social Behavior

SPQ:

Sociometry/Social Psychology/Social Psychology Quarterly

SM:

Sociological Methodology

ST:

Sociological Theory

SOE:

Sociology of Education

SOC:

Socius

TS:

Teaching Sociology

TAS:

The American Sociologist

Sources of Reports

Editors’ reports were published in the American Sociological Review from 1952 to 1964. Volume, issue and page numbers for the reports are as follows:

  • 1952 17(6):780

  • 1953 18(6):679-680

  • 1955 20(6):730-731

  • 1956 21(6):759-761

  • 1957 22(6):735-736

  • 1958 23(6):700-701

  • 1959 24(6):873-875

  • 1960 25(6):940-942

  • 1961 26(6):983-985

  • 1962 27(6):918-920

  • 1963 28(6):1005-1007

  • 1964 29(6):898-899

Editors’ reports were published in The American Sociologist from 1965 to 1972.

Volume, issue and page numbers for the reports are as follows:

  • 1965 1(1):36-37

  • 1966 1(5):283-285

  • 1967 2(4):234-237

  • 1968 3(4):330-334

  • 1969 4(4):348-351

  • 1970 5(4):399-402

  • 1971 6(4):345-349

  • 1972 7(7):26-27

Editors’ reports were published in Footnotes from 1973 to 2005.

Volume, issue and page numbers for the reports are as follows:

  • 1973 1(6):13-14

  • 1974 2(6):12-15

  • 1975 3(6):12-13

  • 1976 No reports published due to change in reporting deadlines

  • 1977 5(3):9

  • 1978 6(3):8-10

  • 1979 7(2):6-7

  • 1980 8(3):10-11

  • 1981 9(3):14-15

  • 1982 10(3):11-12

  • 1983 11(6):13-14

  • 1984 12(4):10-11

  • 1985 13(4):15-16

  • 1986 14(5):13-16

  • 1987 15(5):14-16

  • 1988 16(3):13-16

  • 1989 17(4):10-13

  • 1990 18(4):14-16

  • 1991 19(4):13-16

  • 1992 20(5):17-20

  • 1993 21(5):20-22

  • 1994 22(6):23

  • 1995 23(4):13-15

  • 1996 24(4):9-11

  • 1997 25(4):13-15

  • 1998 26(3):10-12

  • 1999 27(4):13-15

  • 2000 28(3):14-14

  • 2001 29(3):9-11

  • 2002 30(3):13-15

  • 2003 31(4):12-15

  • 2004 32(4):12-15

  • 2005 33(4):12-15

Since 2005, editors’ reports have been published on the American Sociological Association website. This change also led to a shift in the timing of reports: where the printed reports described the editorial activity of the previous calendar year, online reports are dated according to the calendar year of activity summarized.

https://www.asanet.org/research-and-publications/journal-resources/editors-reports/previous-editors-reports.

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Merriman, B. Peer Review as an Evolving Response to Organizational Constraint: Evidence from Sociology Journals, 1952–2018. Am Soc 52, 341–366 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-020-09473-x

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