By Laura Harrison |

I am currently editing a special issue of the British Journal for Military History with my good friend (and good friend of Pubs and Pubs) Lucie Whitmore. Given that we each have one publication in peer-reviewed journals under our belts, and we are still completing our PhDs, we did jump into the deep end with this special issue. In the coming months I’m going to share our experience in a series as we go through this process, telling you what we learned, what we are glad we did, and what we may have done differently. This first post will be focused on deciding to edit a special issue, finding a journal willing to publish it, and putting out a Call for Articles.

The first step is to decide who to work with (assuming you are having co-editors, you don’t have to). In February, Lucie and I ran a conference, with Catherine Bateson, called ‘War Through Other Stuff’, which looked at alternative histories of conflict. It was a wonderful three days, and Lucie and I pretty quickly realized we wanted to get some sort of tangible output from it. Catherine wisely decided the final year of the PhD was not the time to take on another time-consuming project. Lucie and I met a number of times to talk about what we wanted out of a publication, how much time we could put into it, and what themes we wanted to take forward to make sure all of that aligned. Having just run a conference together, we also knew we worked well together. There are certainly horror stories out there about co-editors, so do not skip this step.

Working with dogs is highly recommended

Next you should develop your idea. Why do you want to do a special issue? What is it going to add to your field? What else has been written on this topic? We wrote down EVERYTHING during this stage, which really helped frame our proposal later on. We also sent it around to a few people further along in their careers to get their take on our ideas. 

We then spent several months debating whether we should do an edited volume or a journal special issue. In my experience, it seems like there is not a ‘right’ answer to this question. Think about your time frame – a book is going to take a lot longer to be published in most cases. Also think about how many authors you want to include – you will normally have more in a book than a special issue. Additionally, consider where lots of work is currently being published in your field – is a book or a journal going to have more impact? Finally, is there an obvious choice? Is there a book series or journal that would be perfect for your topic?

In the end, the last point made our decision. If you go for a special issue you need to approach a journal. In the midst of our debate over book versus journal, we actually got an email from an editor of the British Journal for Military History encouraging us to let our conference speakers know they were looking for articles around the theme of alternative histories of conflict. It felt like a sign, so we asked if they would be interested in receiving a proposal for a special issue and they said yes. I asked a friend who is currently co-editing an issue of Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism about her experience in finding a journal, and she said the following, ‘My journey to guest editing a journal special issue began when a colleague and I decided to organise a conference on a theme related to both our research projects. In our planning discussions we agreed we’d like to use the opportunity to get some experience of editing – from call for articles to publication – so quite early on we came up with a list of journals to approach, who might be interested in articles on our conference theme. As it happened my colleague already had a good relationship with one of the team at Green Letters, so there was an element of serendipity, but it was a good match and they agreed to give us an issue for publication this Autumn.’ The common denominator in both of our experiences is to use your connections.

Lucie and I then had several emergency meetings (with cake) to write the proposal. We already had the blurb we had sent around when we first were developing the idea, so we started with that. We also had a friend send us her successful proposal/Call for Articles for another journal, which provided us with a really useful base (thank you Freya!). Some journals have very specific things they are looking for in a proposal, whereas others are much more open. In our proposal we included:

  • A justification for the special issue – what will it contribute to the field?
  • Logistics – how many articles, how long they would be, a proposed timeline, whether the authors are writing an introduction/how long that would be, and any other pertinent info
  • Bios for ourselves
  • The Call for Articles – what we would use to get abstracts for our journal

Cake was very important throughout the process

Our proposal was accepted very quickly, and suddenly we were making a plan with the editor. The journal ideally wanted quite a quick turnaround, so we altered our plan accordingly. We also tweaked a few things in the Call for Articles and generally just made sure we were all on the same page to announce the special issue.

Obviously releasing the Call for Articles and announcing the special issue was the fun part. We decided to ask for a 500 word abstract and a 100 word biography from our applicants. You can also ask for full articles to be submitted, whatever fits you and the journal. Our topic is quite broad, and so we wanted to encourage applications and thus decided abstracts were the right choice. One aspect we may have changed in hindsight is to be even clearer in our Call for Articles about what the goals of our issue are. We thought we talked about methodology a lot in it, but I’m now not sure it was enough. Let people know the criteria by which you will be judging their applications.

Throughout all of this, it is important to not let the imposter syndrome get you down. At every step of this process I think we asked ‘who do we think we are?’ It is so easy to think you are a baby academic still, but you really are perfectly qualified for this. We were lucky to have several friends who we could look to who have also completed special issues or edited volumes during their PhDs, and we also have an amazing editor at BJMH who has got us up to speed with everything we need to know.

Finally, watch the applications roll in! This task was really exciting and fun and slowly became somewhat overwhelming. We received nearly 80 abstracts, and we were looking to take forward about 10. You will hear about dealing with that exciting but daunting task in the next edition of this series!


Laura Harrison is in the final year of her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. She is the founder and current Publicity Officer of Pubs and Publications. If you would like to follow her attempts to finish her PhD at some point in the future, you can find her on Twitter.


Image 1: Lucie Whitmore
Image 2: Lucie Whitmore
Image 3: Wikipedia