Catherine Aitken: Publications at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

I’m sure plenty, if not all, history students have been there. The question usually comes at a family gathering, or some other event over the Christmas break from university. “Oh, so you’re studying history.” (Awkward pause). “And what are you going to do with that?”

Some assume that the only routes available to history students are to remain in academia, to teach (an undoubtedly noble route, but one which I, and presumably others, lack both the disposition and patience for), or to abandon the field altogether to pursue something new. I can vividly recall in my final year of university, amidst the haze of exams and abandoned graduate scheme applications, one lecturer joking to a class of students that once we’d got through finals we’d be free to ‘all go off and become lawyers’.

It’s true that the career path for historians isn’t as clearly laid out as for, say, engineers or medics. But as this blog series is showing, there are a multitude of ways to work in and around history and heritage outside universities and schools.

I was lucky to start my career in publishing working on the history list at a major academic press where I had the opportunity to speak to authors about research ranging from the history of emotions, witchcraft (publishing tip: there can never be too many books about witches), religion, animals, medicine, film, memory, death, dreams and everything in between. There is no limit to the subjects currently being researched, and working in publishing allows you to hear about most of them – in fact, it’s vitally important that you do.

For the past year, I have been working in the publications team at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, an independent charity founded in 1780 which still, over two centuries later (and with a current membership of just under 3,000), promotes the understanding and conservation of Scotland’s historical and archaeological environment, and provides an independent forum for the research, study and enjoyment of Scotland’s past. As well as hosting public lectures and conferences, distributing research grants, helping to coordinate projects such as the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework and Dig It! 2017, and advocating on matters relating to Scotland’s heritage and historic environment, the Society has also been an active publisher of Scotland’s history and archaeology since 1792.

The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS), has been published every year since 1851 and since 2001 we have published Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports (SAIR), an Open Access (OA) online journal for large-scale archaeological reports and surveys. We also publish several books a year. Over the past two decades the Society has been digitising as much material as possible and making it available online OA: SAIR is available OA from the moment of publication, PSAS is made OA after a two-year embargo period, and in 2016 29 of our out-of-print books were digitised and made available online.

In my role as Managing Editor, I am responsible for PSAS, SAIR, and the Society’s books, as well as our wider publishing strategy. Part of the fun – and challenge – of publishing in such a small organisation is the variety of the job. Together with my colleague Roza, I oversee the publications process from submission to publication and beyond.

A sample of just some of the day-to-day tasks this involves are: answering initial submission enquiries, returning feedback to authors, liaising with freelance copyeditors, proofreaders and typesetters about layout and style, deciding print runs and covers, and creating and carrying out marketing plans. Each day also inevitably throws up unexpected new challenges; for example recently we’ve been trying to figure out what to do with a vast number of the Society’s print blocks from the nineteenth century!

Goblets to Gaslight - jacket artwork - 3The subjects that we publish are as varied as the work itself – the next volume of PSAS (spoiler alert) has papers ranging in date from the Mesolithic era to the Second World War, and subjects ranging from a medieval harp tuning peg, to woodland management in medieval Scotland, to an Iron Age burial site. Geographically, papers cover the length of Scotland, from Orkney to Melrose.

One of the most rewarding, but undoubtedly most difficult, elements of my job is providing feedback to prospective authors and working with them to develop their research for publication. All our publication decisions are informed by expert peer reviewers, who provide invaluable feedback and are crucial to how we decide what to publish. Unfortunately though, they rarely agree with each other – either focusing on totally different aspects of the paper or, more confusingly, returning completely different recommendations.

This means the most frequent verdict to be returned to an author is ‘accepted, with revisions’, or ‘revise and resubmit’; in other words, the idea is a good one but there’s work to be done before it can be published. It’s incredibly satisfying for me, as well as for the author, when a revised paper is returned from a reviewer to say that it is ready to publish, and seeing the finished article in print even more so.

With a publishing history of over 200 years, it’s important to keep developing our programme and moving forwards. We hear from our Fellows and others how valuable they find our digitised publications, however we are now exploring ways to make them more accessible and user-friendly. And of course as always I’m looking for new and exciting research to be published; at the moment I’m particularly looking to increase the amount of historical topics in the Proceedings to represent the enormous breadth of interest of our Fellows and the wider heritage community. Fortunately, as I mentioned at the start, there is no limit to the fascinating subjects people are researching in Scottish history and archaeology – it is a huge privilege that my job lets me hear about it!

Catherine Aitken is the Managing Editor at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (registered Scottish Charity No SC010440), founded in 1780 and an independent forum for the research and promotion of Scotland’s history, archaeology and heritage. More information on the Society’s publications, including how to submit articles or book proposals, can be found at Alternatively, you can e-mail Catherine directly

Images (C) Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

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