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October 03, 2018

Peer Review Finalé

The final day of the PLOINA Peer Review Summer School saw me spend most of the day working with the delegates. In the morning I was contributing to a session alongside some other esteemed journal editors, where we each contributed our thoughts on the process of being a reviewer from an editorial standpoint. My session was a development of a talk I’d given earlier this year to some of Warwick’s STEM post-graduate researchers, but it was still fascinating listening to the other talks (from Professor Cath Lambert and Dr Joan Marsh) and hearing their different points of view. Even as an editor, I feel there is still so much to learn about the art and application of peer reviewing, all of which is very much to the benefit to my continuing quest of quality assurance for Exchanges.

After lunch, myself and the hard working event host, Dr Charoula Tzanakou, facilitated a session wherein documents from delegates underwent a live peer review by other attendees. The idea behind this was not only offering a direct benefit to those brave souls willing to contribute their work in progress, but also to cultivate an attitude of constructive but empowering critique from the delegates. Interestingly, one of the lessons which emerged from this session was very much the amount of time and effort that goes into making a constructive peer review critique. It certainly isn’t a trivial exercise, and I hope the delegates were all able to take on board that while it can be a challenging exercise it is also a deeply satisfying one. Satisfying, especially in terms of being exposed to new thought, but also in helping to shape scholarship and assist fellow scholars in the development of their authorial voice.

Over the three days I was in attendance, I was deeply honoured to have been involved in what was clearly a much needed, well-received and valuable summer school. My thanks to Charoula, and Polina Mesinioti, for the invite to participate and their extensive hard-work in organising and hosting this excellent event. That is, if the conversations I had with delegates were anything to base feedback on! I also feel I’ve learned a great deal about peer review myself, and will be spending more than a few minutes looking to apply this increased expertise with Exchanges and our practices. I also hope some of the delegates will consider registering with Exchanges as part of our peer reviewers’ network: it only takes a few moments, and there are so many benefits in terms of enriching your personal scholarship and contributing to developing the scholarly literature.


September 13, 2018

Handle with Care (Peer Review Day 2)

Day two of the PLOTINA Peer Review Summer School was a little more low-key for me. My only role today was to come along and help facilitate discussions during the end of day workshop, where delegates took the chance to review a range of conference abstracts. This was in contrast to the workshop I ran earlier in the year, wherein I got ECRs to look at anonymised paper submissions. I will confess, in the spirit of peer review, I think this afternoon’s workshop lacked a little of the meat of the earlier one. That said, it came at the end of a long day for the delegates, and I suspect it was more than enough for them to get a taste for the challenges of reviewing material. The light touch then, was probably far more digestible than my ‘mind bending’ challenging review.

Tomorrow of course, they’ll have the opportunity to review one another’s work in a little more depth, so I’m sure this taster session will have gotten them thinking about the whole process a bit more practically. I can’t confess that my contribution today was as valuable as yesterday, as the workshop was co-facilitated by a visiting education professor, to whom I must doff my academic cap in acknowledgement of their much greater knowledge in the realm of reviewing abstracts. Hopefully though, the few nuggets of information I chipped in were of value to participants.

I also hope they don’t groan too much when they see me turn up to talk to them again tomorrow – too much of a good thing, perhaps!

I did take away one really interesting thought myself – the idea that reviews should always be written ‘with care’, and consideration of the actual person on the receiving end of the reviewing process. Speaking as someone who’s had his share of acerbic review comments (pre and post publication), I would hope every reviewing academic would remember this maxim. Certainly, it’s an approach we’d strongly advocate to all our peer-reviewers for Exchanges. Critique not criticism, is the order of the day!


September 12, 2018

Peer review and critical academic writing (Day 1)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this week I’m helping to facilitate various workshops and sessions at the PLOTINA Summer School on Peer Review, although strictly speaking there’s a lot about Critical Academic Writing in there too. Today, I was providing input to an Academic Writing Boot Camp – a mildly terrifying title, which practically boiled down to a safe, focussed and supportive environment for ECRs to write while having access to expert advice. I was there to provide that ‘expert’ [1] insight, or at least as much as I can muster from within my professional editorial experience. It was a very enjoyable session, during which I spent a lot of time reading through one paper and making (hopefully) helpful editorial remarks on it. A kind of pre-peer-review review. I’ll be doing a lot more of that on Friday afternoon, where hopefully the event delegates will be bring more of their work out to share with me. I suspect, I may be challenged by how many words a minute I can read critically though!

I think, in terms of guidance for ECR writers, some of the lessons that came out repeatedly during the today’s session were:

  • Choose your journal as soon as you can.
  • It will help guide you in terms of style, layout, word limits and the like. Writing an ‘on spec’ article can be good, but it’s no use producing a 10,000 word masterpiece if your eventual publication destination only accepts articles up to 6,000 words in length. Editors can and will decline to publish submissions which don’t meet their basic requirements without them even entering peer review or considering their intellectual contents [2]. If you’re not sure if your article will be suitable for a particular title, contact the editor in chief or one of the editorial board, their contact details are normally online. They’re generally committed and encouraging scholars, who will only be too happy to offer a little bit of guidance in terms of potential suitability.
  • Word limits matter to editors and peer reviewers.
  • For online journals there is no longer any physical concern in terms of ‘page space’. This means articles technically don’t have to be limited in length, the restricting factor is the time it takes peer reviewers and editors to review and edit articles of increasing length. It’s the major reasons most journals continue to have such limitations – I’ve had more than one prospective peer reviewer contact me to check the article they were about to review wouldn’t be too long for the time they had allocated to them. Time, for us all, is a precious commodity.
  • Turning a thesis chapter into an article can be challenging.
  • The good news is, many a chapter makes for a great article. The bad news is, there’s quite a bit of work involved. To start with, an article really needs to exist as a single entity, that means you can’t rely on material that appeared ‘earlier’ in your thesis to introduce your research. Nor can you rely on work appearing ‘later’ in the thesis, although you can introduce that as ‘future/prospective work’ in any concluding remarks. Additionally, there’s a common error by ECRs of writing material in the wrong tense (e.g. this research will review…), especially when adapting text from an introductory chapter. There’s also the question again of word length as discussed above. Your chapter might be perfection itself at 12,000 words, but you probably won’t be able to use all these words. Then, finally, there’s the question of authorial tone: what reads fine in a student submission, may not ideally cut the mustard as a contribution to the scholarly literature. Writing is rewriting, remember.
  • Style matters:
  • Simply put, if you’ve not followed the style (in terms of font, layout, footnotes, location of tables & figures, citation etc) of your chosen journal, don’t be surprised if an article is declined for publication unread. Many editors are dealing with such an influx of submissions, they simply do not have the time to be bothered with trying to deal with potential articles which haven’t bothered to read and apply their guidelines. At Exchanges we’re a little more understanding, but I’ve still declined submissions which have made no attempt at all to adopt to our style. My advice is if you’re not sure about the journal you’re writing for, create a document using as simple a set of formatting as possible, to allow you to adjust the style to suit the journal. Better yet, find a target journal and see if they have a publication template you can use to write with – Exchanges does!
  • Engaging readers is key:
  • Building up aspirations and expectations in your abstract and introduction to a paper is great, and indeed is key to getting people to read on. Alongside that claim to originality and contribution to knowledge (e.g. what does this paper offer to develop scholarship, discourse, learning etc.,), there is a risk of either offering too much or too little. I’ve seen papers that make wonderful claims and get me really excited, only to discover there’s not much intellectual filling to gnaw on. Be ambitious in your intentions, but be prepared to deliver, because peer reviewers (and editors) will take a dim view on papers that don’t actually match up against their initial claims or assertions.
  • Clarity is everything:
  • Never assume your prose, narrative or explanation is clear. We all get too close to our topics at times, and fail to see where we’ve muddled an issue, obfuscated something important or simply omitted a critical topic. If possible, always get a friendly fellow scholar from a similar (but not exactly the same) discipline to give your paper a quick read before you submit as they’ll always be able to point out where they just can’t quite follow your reasoning. It’s one reason why developing a good network of peers from different disciplines is an essential skill for today’s ECR, I should add. After all, I’m afraid I don’t normally have time to review pre-submission versions of work to any depth, as I’m too busy reading actual submissions!

Now, as an ECR myself, is my work subject to any of these issues? Yes, probably every single one – I’m still learning and growing as an author myself. That’s what being a publishing academic or peer reviewer is about, being able to spot which of the common issues your own work has, and learning how to work around them to produce a more polished and scholarly piece. Good luck in your own authorial journeys, and don’t forget, that as a title dedicated to publishing ECR research, Exchanges more than most journal titles, is here to try and help new scholars develop their voices.

[1] I suspect my old English Language teacher would have died of shock through this revelation

[2] For the record, Exchanges will consider longer than standard articles, but only if you talk to me before you submit them.


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