Submitting Proposals for the Business History Conference Annual Meeting: A Roadmap to the Process

Prepared by Edward Balleisen, Duke University, 2014 BHC Annual Meeting Program Chair

Adopted by the BHC Board of Trustees, April 2014

The BHC welcomes proposals from historians and scholars of other disciplines whose research explores business history, from the early modern period to the present, and in all parts of the globe. If "the history of capitalism" in its many forms and guises plays a significant role in your research, then you will likely find an interested and constructive audience at the BHC. For a sense of the methodological and thematic vitality in the field, see programs from past annual meetings. As our field continues to evolve, we are eager to include new interpretations of the place of business in history, of any period and in any location.


This brief guide addresses:

  • formats for BHC sessions
  • suggestions for producing a good paper abstract
  • suggestions for organizing a good panel
  • the BHC's rule against multiple appearances on the program
  • the work of the program committee
  • the responsibilities of program applicants/participants


Formats for BHC Sessions

The majority of proposals to the BHC annual meeting usually comprise traditional research-in-progress papers, either grouped together into panels or as stand-alone papers. But program committees also receive and select proposals involving alternative formats, such as:

  • roundtable discussions of the state of some aspect of the field
  • engagement with recent developments in cognate disciplines and their potential implications for business history
  • conversations about especially important new agendas for research
  • assessments of new directions in teaching business history
  • considerations of the uses of business history outside academia (in museums, within corporations, etc.)

The BHC has a tradition of accepting compelling individual proposals; but full panels have tended to do slightly better in the selection process. BHC program committees always remain open to experimentation with panel formats.

Suggestions for Producing a Good Paper Abstract

Paper proposals should be no more than three hundred words, with an accompanying one-page cv or short bio. Effective proposals identify a central research question and convey why that question pertains to business history. They further: briefly describe sources and analytical methods, including engagement with other fields of history or other disciplinary perspectives/approaches, where appropriate; convey key research findings; and explicitly lay out the paper's central argument (whether about revising important matters of fact; offering causal claims; assessing the socio-economic implications of some development; critiquing a prevailing interpretation or conceptual framework, etc.).

Suggestions for Organizing a Good Panel

In recent years, most BHC panels have been ninety minutes long, though occasionally program committees have created a two-hour session to accommodate four-paper panels. As a result, three-paper panels have the important advantage of leaving significant time for audience questions/comments and more general discussion—and the quality of that interaction is a hallmark of BHC meetings. The strongest panel proposals strike a balance between thematic cohesiveness and analytical breadth, and so give a program committee confidence that it will attract a sufficient audience to generate vibrant conversation.

The program committee expects panel organizers to provide three-hundred word abstracts for each paper and short (1 page) cvs for each presenter, as well as short (1 page) cvs or short bios for a chair and commentator (who may be the same person), and a short 1-2 page overview of the session as a whole. That overview should explain how the papers relate to one another and collectively address a compelling set of issues pertaining to business history. Although panel proposals need not include a confirmed chair and commentator, past experience has shown that recruiting appropriate scholars for these roles as part of a proposal can strengthen it and increase its chance of acceptance.

The BHC prefers brief panel titles, ideally six words or fewer, without subtitles. A good title not only conveys the panel theme, but also is more likely to attract attention in the online and print program. For examples, see the past BHC annual meeting programs.

For many years at BHC meetings, younger scholars have often taken the lead in organizing proposed panels. Graduate students who wish to participate in the BHC annual meeting frequently approach not only other early career researchers, but also mid-career and senior members of the organization, as they try to recruit a full slate of presenters. As with all scholarly communities, it helps to get to know people. The BHC hosts a "session organizer," where organizers may send in their panel interests and solicit colleagues to join them. Organizers can also indicate through a post to H-Business that they are trying to organize a BHC panel proposal around a given theme. They also often (though of course not always) have good luck emailing more established scholars with complementary/overlapping research interests to invite them to participate on a panel.

Rule against Multiple Appearances on the Program

The BHC has a rule against multiple presentations by the same person in a given meeting. The program committee also tries very hard to avoid having presenters serve in other capacities (roundtable participant, discussant, chair), though it may make rare exceptions, such as when there is a late cancellation. Nonetheless, individuals may and sometimes do submit more than one paper or panel proposal, understanding that the Program Committee is free to choose which paper to accept, if any.

Work of the Program Committee

Every year the BHC Program Committee has to turn away many deserving proposals, with acceptance rates recently hovering around 70 percent. In addition to assessing the quality and promise of individual paper/panel proposals and taking note of the conference theme, committee members must consider several other factors as they build a program.

The organization always welcomes proposals that address issues in business history outside that year's theme, and every BHC meeting includes many panels that engage the conference theme more obliquely or not at all. The committee is less likely to accept a paper proposal, no matter how strong, that seems only marginally different from papers delivered at a previous annual meeting, or that does not easily fit into a cohesive panel, given the other strong proposals in the pool. Panel proposals are less likely to be accepted, even if they include strong individual papers, if they have an especially narrow scope.

Program committees also value diversity when creating the overall conference program with regard to the background of presenters (race, gender, national origin, career stage, disciplinary training) and topics (thematic, chronological, and geographic focus). On the margin, proposals from new participants to the BHC have generally received some preference, especially if they present new angles of vision on business history. The program committee has occasionally reconfigured panels or accepted only one or two papers from a panel proposal. In many years, program committees also choose to recruit a small number of anchor sessions that relate to that year's conference theme or a specific interest of that year's BHC president.

Responsibilities of Program Applicants/Participants

Because selection for inclusion on the BHC program is a competitive process and many deserving applicants cannot be accommodated, we expect applicants to the annual meeting to check their schedules for potential conflicts before submitting a proposal.

The BHC does its best to inform applicants of selection decisions well in advance of the meeting, so that they may arrange travel and secure funding from their home institutions or external sources. Within a reasonable time after these notices go out, we ask selected presenters to confirm their participation. In the event that unforeseen circumstances (such as ill health or problems with funding) force a confirmed participant to cancel their participation, that individual has the obligation to inform the chair of the program committee and the BHC organizing staff as soon as possible.

The BHC requires all paper presenters, chairs, and discussants to register for the conference, although it does not require membership in the organization to participate in the meeting. For co-authored papers, at least one author must register and attend the conference. All paper presenters must submit abstracts for the conference webpage, with a deadline usually set several weeks in advance of the meeting. The organization also gives presenters the option of posting their full papers. We typically ask paper presenters to send their papers to the panel's commentator, chair, and other presenters three weeks before the conference. Presenters who would like a later deadline should negotiate it with their commentator.

Finally, the BHC has a tradition of relatively short presentations to allow for approximately twenty to thirty minutes of discussion in each session. Presenters who write more extensive papers should give commentators a clear sense of how they intend to condense their arguments during the panel.