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March 01, 2023

Taking Control & Trusting Your Heart: Monograph Proposals Panel (Feb ’23)

A brief narrative of the key points coming out of the healthy and hearty debate stretching over ninety minutes concerning academic monograph proposals.

This week (Tue 28th Feb) I hosted a panel discussion as part of the Accolade+ programme, with a focus on monograph publication. It was the sequel event to one held last June on the same subject, albeit this time featuring an entirely new panel. For the session I was joined in discussion by a most excellent foursome comprising:

  • Marcos Estrada: Department of Global & Social Studies, King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM), Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
  • Rupert Gatti: Open Book Publishers, Director, Cambridge, UK
  • Valérie Hayaert: EUTOPIA SIF Fellow/School of Law, University of Warwick, UK
  • Yvonne Budden: Scholarly Communications Manager, University of Warwick Library, UK

Each panellist brought some unique to the table from international perspectives through rights management and publisher specific knowledge, and a whole lot more in between. Personally, I felt the panel neatly complimented each other in the breadth of knowledge and variety of insights they brought to the session, and was delighted as a real conversation emerged over the ninety minute session.

After exploring some issues contrasting the subtle but distinct differences between UK based and internationally based publishers, we moved to explore an important key question: why go to all this effort to publish a monograph at all. A number of points were made alongside identifying while in some subjects, the print format monograph retains a unique and specific value, the idea of a book as a ‘digital research object’ means something more. Something which has the potential to reach a far greater number of readers than ever before, all to the advantage of the author, their career and their disciplinary contribution alike. It was highlighted that – especially for open access (OA) books – when contrasted with the average ‘sell-through’ of the research monograph being around 200 copies, online, OA books can achieve hundreds of downloads monthly. Unquestionably a significantly beneficial in terms of visibility and career esteem for the publishing scholar.

The panel moved on to explore ideas around the clarity of any monograph proposal, starting with the underscoring the importance of the author being clear about its unique selling point (USP). We touched too on ideas of publishing and any text’s potential marketability being a crucial element to identify for commercially configured presses. Although one panellist identified their dislike for any commercial publisher requirements in authors identifying ‘competing texts’. It was proposed such an element was a reification of the regretful communication of academic publishing which continues to maintain a hegemony over monograph dissemination praxis. Hence, one theme strongly espoused from the panel was the importance, value and impact from publishing via an OA press, be they commercial, scholarly or institutionally based. Certainty, in terms of readership and hence in the longer-term impact and recognition of the work, OA makes a strong, coherent argument for helping any author achieve the career esteem they desire.

Panellists raised a related issue with the importance of authors achieving compliance with any funder requirements [1]. This was followed with a healthy debate around issues of self-plagiarism and reuse of work published by authors elsewhere within a subsequent monograph.[2] The thesis it was agreed is a document constructed and addressed to a very limited and restricted readership. It was characterised as an examination object, something designed to primarily demonstrate the depth and appreciation of the authors knowledge, and original contribution, to defend and demonstrate their expertise and learning. By contrast the ‘mutation or evolution’ of this work into a monograph, requires a transformation of this text into something new, addressed within a more persuasive mode of address and targeted at a much broader readership audience. Importantly when considering self-plagiarism, the importance of retaining author rights when publishing materials in short form – say in an edited collection – was highlighted as being a valuable consideration.

The panel proposed how making use of any local rights retention schemes, or adding clauses expressing their rights over their work during any contract negotiations were vital. These, it was suggested, would help ensure authors retained maximum control over the expression and reuse of any prior work utilised in later monographs. One handy tip was made concerning depositing a version of the text in the local OA repository, and thus having any future publication agreements would be subservient to those of the already available repository version.

The panel returned at this point once more to considerations of the prospective book’s USP, and how while it might include work published in one form or another elsewhere, the sum of its parts would be greater, in terms of making a substantive claim to a contribution to knowledge. Naturally, in constructing the work, here was where ensuring any previously established rights over portions of the text, e.g. previously published elsewhere, which might have been transferred or acquired need to be acknowledged and respected. This illustrated why retaining author rights is so vital, although as was noted, while expressions can be copyrighted the same was not true for ideas. Hence, rearticulating an author’s ideas in a new way, would not form a self-plagiarising or rights breaking addition to a monograph. When agreeing to a publishing contract, the panel suggested strong and effective negotiation between an author and a publisher was important. Where any particular publisher seemed intransient though, then it was advised it would be best to ‘move along’ to another, more accommodating publishing house.

A crucial question suggested from this debate arose: how to go about achieving the evolution of the thesis text to monograph. The panel highlighted how this was where support, advice and insight from the author’s colleagues would prove invaluable. As one panellist stressed, even colleagues from outside your discipline – including specialist librarians and knowledgeable editors-in-chief [3] – can make a vital contribution in advising the author in drafting an effective, engaging and appropriate proposal. The panel considered how there is no ‘one size fits all’ proposal, and how each publisher will respond to any submitted proposal would be just as varied. Which they discussed was why being able to learn from these varied prior experiences can serve to inform, refine and ameliorate any would-be monograph author’s preconceptions and strategies in drafting their proposal.

One especially strong theme represented by the panel was the importance of recognising the client/service relationship between author and publishers. Whilst commercial publishers are, regretfully, focussed on what can enrich their shareholders, scholars should remember the power is theirs. The panel argued that research, and its outputs, should not be shaped by commercial interests, but by the passion, knowledge and growing wisdom of those scholars working upon it. If authors are preparing to embark on what may be a multiple year journey to publication, then they need to stand their ground, trust their heart and seek to publish – in essence – what they wanted to publish.

In a related point, the panel considered how this might require publishing a ‘stand-alone monograph’ rather than a contribution to an established series: which might be more challenging prospect for some. Especially, it was noted, where publishers are swayed by cultural, social or historical events and more receptive to ‘flavour of the month’ proposal themes. Naturally, it was advised that savvy authors could use such biases to their advantage by skewing their work to fit such favoured themes. However, the panel cautioned once more against distorting a monograph extensively simply to achieve a publication contract.

There was some focus on the ideas of publishing with ‘significant’ publishers vs lesser known ones.[4] The panel agreed that yes, on a basic reading the career capital of publishing with a ‘major’ publisher might offer greater personal validation. However, it was suggested disseminating your monograph with a publisher willing to publish it outside an enclosed, commercial milieux because this is an author’s preference, would also pay dividends. In this latter respect, being able to justify an author’s rationale for publishing with their desired publisher to hiring committees, promotion boards and the like, was highlighted as an excellent route in demonstrating self-actualisation and validation as a discerning scholar. Hence, why an author chose a publisher matters, the panel suggested, more than whom they decided would be their publisher.

The panel also touched briefly on matters of affect as it pertains to impacts on establishing and maintaining publisher relationships. The panel suggested that, unlike journal articles, simultaneously approaching a small number of publishers with a monograph proposal was a valid option. Provided that is, authors are totally transparent about this strategy in all of their dealings with the publishers. The panel noted any lost labour time for their editors or reviewers which occurs where authors decide to take up a – hitherto unknown – other contract option, would be a rapid way to gain a poor reputation in the publishing field. The panel remarked how it was not unknown for the same peer-reviewers to be contacted about a text from different publishers, and for them to whistle blow on the author’s multi-pronged approach![5]

Moving on, the discussions touched on ideas of allowing publishers to shape your proposal, and as had been discussed previously it was suggested this was something to be approached with extreme caution if not overt avoidance. Again, reiterating their earlier comment of ‘follow your heart’ one panellist, underscored the importance of seeking to publish what authors wanted to. The panel opined how adapting texts to suit the mores or perceptions of specific geographical audiences – e.g. the US – for reasons of marketability were also inadvisable. Although, they countered if these specifically were the major audience the academic wanted to touch with their work, then some regional modification to the proposal might make for a desirable aspect. The panel noted these comments were in contrast to reviewer feedback, which at a later stage would help to enhance and improve the authors text. This though was something which would occur after a scholar had a contract with their publisher.

The question of how advanced in should an author be in transitioning their thesis text to a monograph format ahead of their proposal’s submission was raised. The panel’s view was that once more this was a matter which would vary between publishers. It was suggested some commercial publishers would be happy with a sample chapter and strong proposal.[6] Alternatively university-based presses it was thought were likely to want the whole monograph essentially in a final draft form before they were willing to take it on as a publishing project. As in all publishing matters, the panel advised checking websites and speaking to past authors about their experiences with specific publishers as a route to significantly help clarify options for prospective authors.

Looking ahead to the latter stages of publication, the panel also touched briefly on the art – and costs – of professional indexing. Again, it was noted this could be a service which some publishers offered, although for others this would be an add on cost. However, where authors worked for wealthy institutions, such costs may well be covered locally or from their own research funding.

Finally, as chair, I asked each of the panellists for their key advice for prospective monograph authors. Yvonne stressed it was the importance of talking to everyone you could about their experiences, insights and advice. Rupert reiterated the importance of always that how the author should remain in a controlling, commanding position throughout the proposal and publication process in terms of of how and where your work is published. Marcos resonated with these points adding, how crucial it was for authors to always retain sight of the uniqueness of their work, their voice and their scholarship throughout: from proposal to revision to publication.[7]

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I would of course like to express my thanks to all four of my panellists, and of course my audience for keeping the questions, comments and observations coming thick and fast. My apologies we couldn’t get into every single point – I suspect we might have filled the entire time discussing the nuance of rights, reuse and self-plagiarism alone! I hope there will be some highly energised follow-on conversations to come out of this panel, and naturally am more than happy to chat with any of the delegates (or panel) at length. Hopefully, we’ll see some or possibly all of the panel back when this session returns in 2024.

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Endnotes

[1] Specifically here the UKRI’s 2024 policy for all their funded researchers. If you’re looking to publish a monograph from next year in the UK, it’s something with which I’d strongly advise authors familiarise themselves.

[2] The phrase ‘published’ of course has a discrete and highly-variable character from publishing house to publishing house. The panel’s advice here, was check any contract carefully, alongside speaking with the commissioning editor if the author was unsure how any prior distributed or disseminated work would be perceived.

[3] Look, if I’m going to chair and write this report, let me have a least a single tiny moment of self-aggrandization and valorisation, okay? But seriously, I do enjoy talking over all aspects of the publication processes with our fellows.

[4] This being a theme I often discuss myself in my workshops and lectures.

[5] Having, as an editor, been on the receiving end of such behaviour I can ensure you it significantly declines the professional reputation of the author. And the academic publisher community isn’t that large a world…

[6] Strong might be the wrong word here – as we touched on the idea of how interesting or appealing a proposal might be, or how thematically it might fit within a publishers target demographic better as being reasons for it being commissioned by them. Hence, simply being a good proposal might not be enough.

[7] Valérie had unfortunately had to depart after an hour to teach a class. However, I suspect she might have had some key points about the differences between disciplinary traditions and monograph publication approaches and experiences. But, obviously, speak to her to be sure!


February 28, 2023

Reflecting Back on Researcher Development: Spring Term

A few thoughts from last week’s researcher development session on publishing, editorial work and reviewing.

Last week I co-facilitated the second workshop sessions for the Leadership and Management Development course for early-stage researchers[1]. While the course is intended to take a look and share thoughts around various aspects of researcher development, my contribution was focused on publishing – specifically editorial and reviewing work. After the previous session in November I’d reworked my contributions, as I felt after that session how there was less interest in talking and quite a bit more desire for some learning and explanatory content. As matters turned out for this second version, this was a slight error on my part, as the delegates last week were far more interested in discussions. For early-stage researchers too, they also seemed to have a much broader range of experience within publishing, which meant I could have gone much deeper into some areas of argumentation than I did!

In terms of what was covered in the session by myself, this included:

  • Exchanges mission, purpose & opportunities
  • Metrics, esteem and publishing
  • Editorial workflows & processes
  • Peer-reviewing models & ethics
  • Trash publishers
  • Call for papers for a forthcoming special issue

On post-event reflection, I can see my next set of materials for the summer session are going to need revision once more – possibly finding a middle way between directed learning and discursive exploration. I confess, the online nature of the workshop rather reduced the degree of interaction I felt would have benefited my session, and certainly my ability to adapt on the fly to delegates’ specific interests. It’s one reason why last terms Exchanges AMA worked so well, as I was able to let attendees specific interests direct the entire event’s focus. Certainly, even after three long years of teaching online, while I note it offers some advantages, I feel for myself at least that it forms more of an effective barrier to learning than I would like.[2]. Undoubtedly, talking to a blank screen with slides on it utterly denudes the experience for me in gaining any affective resonance with the delegates, which I rather think is to the detriment of the experience for all.

It's not that it was a terrible session – far from it[3] – I just came away thinking there was a whole lot more I could have explored, or emphasised more, than I did. This is in rather stark contrast to last month’s CADRE session where I couldn’t have been happier with the delivery and delegate response. Of course, that session was face-to-face rather than online – so this might be a personal delivery style preference. Or it might have been that, for myself at least, online sessions work best when they are discursive rather than didactic in structure. A learning point I think for my own future delivery planning.

All this aside, there were however, some wonderful questions from the delegates – and if anything the discourse part of the session was a rich exchange of insight. I learned a few things myself too in the meanwhile. So, I don’t believe my time was squandered, but I am beating myself up slightly over offering a session which I didn’t feel like it reached my normal level of teaching excellence. I can, in the final evaluation, utilise the experience to improve the next session I deliver!

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Endnotes

[1] The course lead’s preferred term for newly minted academics. Roughly analogous to early career researchers.

[2] Which is slightly concerning as, at time of writing, I’m hosting another lengthy workshop session this afternoon.

[3] Delegates may disagree!


January 18, 2023

New Episode: The What, The Why, The How and The Where of Critical Reflections

Writing about web page https://exchanges.warwick.ac.uk/index.php/exchanges/podcast

A new year brings with it a new episode of the Exchanges Discourse podcast, focussing on critical reflections.

Many moons ago I wrote a piece for the blog about critical reflections, in part to address the lack of substantive information which had been previously provided about them. Since then it’s remained a popular format, but one which I’ve found many authors are less than clear about. So, before the Christmas break, I recorded a lengthy new episode of The Exchanges Discourse podcast to explore this topic.

Listen here: Creating Critical Reflection Articles: The What, The Why, The How and The Where (23:57)

(Also available on Spotify)

As it’s a lengthy episode I’ve provided some navigation guidance for listeners so they can skip to the right point of the podcast episode.

  • Opening (00:00)
  • Introduction (01:08)
  • Defining critical reflections (04:12)
  • Why they matter (09:28)
  • Writing critical reflections (14:08)
  • Wrap up (21:12)

Keen eared and regular listeners will notice I’ve also updated the musical ident that we use for the podcast. I thought after three seasons it was time to have a refresh of this, and I hope you enjoy the light and slightly innocuous new piece I’ve selected.

As we don’t have any more author interviews scheduled (at least not until after we publish issue 10.2 in April), I’ll be hopefully pulling together a couple more episodes in the meantime…but no spoilers for now.

Happy listening.


August 01, 2022

August is the Cruellest Month

The Editor reflects on the quietest month of the academic year for publishing.

August is probably the hardest month of the year to be a journal editor. Why you ask - surely it’s a time of year when many people are jetting off on their main annual holiday, the weather (in the northern hemisphere at least) is fairer meaning it must be a positive period! Indeed, yes, for those people able to get away it is a great time – and fair play to them all! But when you’re running a journal and find yourself waiting on other people - authors, reviewers, editors etc – to do their ‘thing’ it can be a mite frustrating. With so many people heading off on or catching up after returning from vacation everything rather does stall to a crawl. Certainly, as I look over my ‘to do’ list for this month there’s a lot of dependencies pending which are waiting on the return and availability of other people.

These little delays are compounded by the preceding couple of months in academia wherein academics have been finishing teaching their courses, working through marking, examinations and reports and then on to various graduation related tasks.[1] Not to mention sorting out all the administration (and celebration!) that comes with that too. And if they’re lucky, getting in a spot of research and even publication along the way! [2]

All of these various ‘distractions’ [3] means by the time we’ve reached August and some scholars might finally be able to put their heads above the parapet for a while…well then it’s time head off on that a well-earned break. All of which means for we editors, it rather feels like we’re entering the third consecutive month of scholars being less able to engage with us. It makes for a frustrating time when you’re trying to move things forward as an editor and looking towards the next publication deadline creeping slowly up on you. Not to mention I’ve lost count of the number of authors I’ve had to contact in order to apologise for a delay in obtaining reviewer feedback…it’s just not the ‘right’ time of year for so many academics.

Now, I should admit, a quiet time is not intrinsically a bad thing. It does let one catch their breath and think about how the rest of the year can plan out, and even what things need to be set in motion or prepared for now. My recent data clean-up and call for registered reviewers to update their reviewing interests being an example of one such task! Nevertheless, I will almost certainly welcome the flood of messages as we hit September and academics en masse begin to become a bit more responsive.

That said, if you ever wanted to have a quiet chat with an editor about your publication ideas, or proposals, their calls for publication or even an exciting special issue proposal…here’s a tip: August is probably the perfect time to catch them with more time than normal to devote to you.

That said, even I might have to take some time off soon…so don’t wait around too long!

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[1] Or at least that’s what I’ve heard from authors and reviewers when I’ve been chasing them for progress reports over the last few months.

[2] A PVC-R of my former acquaintance was known to refer (rightly or wrongly, I won’t judge) to the summertime as the ‘research term’.

[3] AKA the ‘day job’ for those on t&r contracts.


March 25, 2022

New Episode: What Do I Get Out of Publishing with Exchanges?

Follow-up to What Do I Get Out of Publishing With Exchanges? Some thoughts and ideas from Exchanges Reflections: Interdisciplinary Editor Insights

Following on from my blog post a few weeks ago, I've rolled out a new episode of our Exchanges Discoursepodcast dedicated to that perennial and titular question from authors. If your eyes blurred slightly trying to read through my earlier post, this is easily the most digestible way you can hear about some of the highlights of the journal.

Of course, if you really want to know what authors get out from publishing with us - listen to the earlier episodes and you'll hear all sorts of different points of view, direct from the source! While I've tried to represent them as much as possible in this episode, naturally they'll probably sound much better coming from our authentic author community!

Past Exchanges Discourse episodes are available wherever good podcasts are hosted - search for it by name!


January 13, 2022

Looking Back at 2021: Most Popular Podcast Episodes

Writing about web page https://open.spotify.com/show/5amW8qMjCrUihAvtBq5ChM

We take a look back at the most popular episodes of the Exchanges Discourse podcast in the past twelve months

Happy new year, Exchanges readers. And what could be a better way to start the new year, than by sharing a couple of our most access, read and used items within our communities. First off, it’s our run down of the most popular episodes – based on listener statistics – for the Exchanges Discourse podcast. As we moved into this second year of the podcast there was an upswing in the number of episodes and content duration too. In fact, we produced 13 episodes in 2021 which lasted a grand total of 3hrs 33mins and 18 seconds. Which equates to fully two more episodes and over 90 minutes more content than the previous year. Hence, cheers all around to everyone who participated and helped make this happen!

So out of these 13 glorious episodes – which were the ones most beloved by our audience?

>Number 5 (audience share 9%): Introducing Volume 8.3 of Exchanges – a look back at the Spring 2021 issue of the journal.

>Number 4 (audience share 10%): A Conversation with…Doro Wiese. A chat with a past author, and Warwick scholar.

>Number 3 (audience share 12%): The Cultural Representations of Nerds – in Conversation with Filippo Cervelli & Ben Schaper – a special issue focus.

>Number 2 (audience share 13%): A Conversation with...Urmee Chakma. Talking with a past author about teaching English to speakers of other languages.

>Number 1 (audience share 19%): Conversations with…Associate Editors – a panel discussion exploring what working on Exchanges & its special issues means for early career scholars.

And you can freely listen to these and all our other episodes on Spotifyand Anchor.Fm

I am quite surprised to see one of my solo efforts, looking at a recent issue of the journal, in there by the skin of its teeth at number 5. I had rather assumed that listeners most preferred to hear guests, and while for the most part the rest of the top 5 hold this up, it is gratifying to know there is an audience for me talking (mostly) to myself.

For contrast - here are the most listened to episodes in 2020.

We have already two episodes recorded and pending editing for the new season of the podcast, which will be coming out over the next week or so – giving you something to look forward to already. Plus I’ve two further guests lined up for February, and maybe even something a little special…a live recorded podcast session with an audience. More on that idea if we can pull it together!

Next time though, I’ll share what were the 10 most downloaded papers in the journal last year. Stay tuned for that – next week! 


December 21, 2021

2021 – A Journal’s Year In Review

Writing about web page https://exchanges.warwick.ac.uk/

Dr Gareth J Johnson, Managing Editor in Chief of Exchanges, reflects back on busy, eventful and successful year for the journal – while glimpsing ahead at the next twelve months.

When I served on various student societies and was partly responsible for writing their annual reports, we had a phrase myself and my best friend Simon used to use as the opening line: ‘Well, it’s been a year and what a year it’s been’. Today, this feels like a phrasing which is more than a little apposite when reflecting on the experience of running the Exchanges journal throughout the last twelve months. 2021 certainly has been quite a year.

It’s been a year when like so many others, we’ve continued to work under the most challenge work-a-day experiences of my working lifetime true enough. But it has also been a time for some considerable growth and expansion of our activities. During 2021 for example we produced four issues of the journal, from the Cli-Fi Special (Vol 8.2) back in February through to our regular autumn volume in October (Vol 9.1). Given Exchanges is resourced to produced two issues annually, doubling our output has required some not inconsiderable effort on my part to keep all the additional plates spinning in the air. Producing these issues has too required the ongoing contributions from my Editorial Board and wonderful associate editors who joined us to help produce one or more specific special issues. My thanks to each and every one of them!

This year we’ve also produced another thirteen episodes of The Exchanges Discourse podcast. There would have been more, but I found that my time was being used more often on the journal itself this year, so this side-project wasn’t perhaps given quite as full a flowering in 2021 as I might have liked. That said, in recent weeks we’ve had two new episodes launched, two others recorded and three more already scheduled for recording in 2022. So, it is safe to say, season three of the podcast has got plenty of content already lined up. You can of course catch the most recent episodes here:

Naturally though, my and the editorial team’s core focus remains on the journal. Behind the scenes we’re working towards three additional special issues which I hope will all reach fruition and publication in 2022. Special issues continue to be an exciting area of development for the title, and throughout this year I’ve also been regularly enjoying outline discussions about possible additional special issue projects. I can’t say too much right now as beyond the three scheduled volumes we’ve not (formally) agreed to take any others forward as of yet. Despite that caveat I can admit to having a number of meetings in 2022 pencilled in to change the status of some of these from possibilities to ongoing concerns.

Over and above all this publication and podcasting activity, have been the workshops and outreach sessions I’ve participated in, hosted or chaired. Some of these have been as part of our very own wonderful IAS Accolade Programme for early career researchers. Some of these though have been specifically allied to special issues: with both the Lonely Nerds two-day conference and the two Anthropocene academic writing workshops in September and November being particular standout highlights.

All this, plus the administrative and managerial overheads of running the journal…and all with only a modest amount of staff resource too! It’s been a great success, and while there have been bumps and learning moments along the way, if 2022 is anything like 2021, I think Exchanges can look forward to going from strength to strength in the new year.

So, at the close of this year, at least for me as I depart for a well-earned Christmas vacation, I’m raising a virtual glass to every author, reviewer, editor, workshop delegate and special issue lead I’ve crossed paths with this year. Not to mention all the staff at the IAS itself! You’ve helped make 2021, despite the ongoing pandemic and other crises human-made or otherwise, what it was for Exchanges: a great year. And hence, have my eternal thanks!

Looking to the future, well 2022 sees the beginning of our run up to our tenth anniversary issue with the journal numbering finally hits double figures in the autumn. What do we have planned to commemorate this august moment in October? Well, keep reading this blog, listening to the podcast, accessing the journal – or just talk to me – to find out for sure! Exciting times for me, the journal and all our contributing audiences too I would hope.

In the meanwhile, see you all for an exciting and hopefully less externally eventful 2022!


September 19, 2019

Reflections of the Vitae Researcher Development Conference

On Monday (16th Sept) this week, I had the delightful opportunity of attending and speaking at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference, hosted at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole Hotel. Leaving home before dawn, and returning home quite late in the evening, it was nevertheless an excellent event. Exchanges has a core mission to support not only the dissemination of early career researcher’s discourse and, in line with the IAS’s mission, also seeks to work with authors in developing their prose and voice. Hence, attending a conference focussing solely on the practice, theory and policy of developing researchers was very much in my interest.

While the conference was broken down into plenaries, breakout sessions and workshops like any conference, it was interesting to witness the recurrent themes that came up, especially during the opening keynotes. Wellbeing was a strongly represented theme, along with that of coping with a changing research environment, both for researchers and those who work alongside them. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the ‘B-word’ was alluded to on numerous occasions as a particular challenge for the entire HE sector, not to mention the nation as a whole. However, it wasn’t a topic that any of the sessions I attended specifically focussed on, but nevertheless remains the elephant in the room we can’t simply ignore.

These dark clouds aside, after the fairly rousing opening session, we moved on to an excellent lunch before for me the high-spot of the day: my own talk. Those of you who have met me, know there’s on thing I love doing (almost) as much as managing Exchanges, and that’s to talk about various aspects of scholarly communication and publishing to anyone who will listen. At length.

I was speaking as part of a panel session providing case studies of researcher development practice. It was, as a few of the speakers commented, a slightly odd session in that the examples of researcher development ranged from an exemplar collaborative workshop to discussions around a specially configured building housing 6 overlapping departments in Barcelona. Nevertheless, the packed room seemed responsive to the topics discussed. My own contribution was very well received too, as I was bombarded with questions during and after the session. There was quite a positive response on social media too, and I suspect there may be some follow up with a few people as a result. My thanks to the conference organisers for hosting me, and I hope to be back with another paper next year!

After this session there were a couple of ‘half-plenaries’, so called as half the delegates would fit into each of the allocated rooms. I attended the one with the more senior academics speaking, and after some (slightly baffling) discussion on the ‘concordat’ [1], two particularly inspiring talks from Prof Matthew Flinders (Sheffield) and Prof Marcos Munafò (Bristol) followed. Matthew’s enthusiasm in particular was infectious, especially given he launched into his talk before halting after a couple of minutes to realise he’d failed to introduce himself to the audience!

Matthew expounded on the theme of change, but also uncertainty, in that ‘change is endemic’ within researcher careers, but what and how it is changing is not easy to identify or quantify. He also noted how much developmental effort centres on early-career researchers, but given the post-doc period of employment now increasingly stretching to a decade or more, the mental health toll on many emerging scholars is immense. And this is even before they land their first ‘academic’ post. He noted how mid-career researchers and professoriate also need developmental support and mentoring (‘the M word’) in order to cope with both the changes across the academy and within the ‘academic job’ remit. This he stressed was alongside the need for them to be able to offer effective support to their subordinates. He took the opportunity too to criticise the ‘silly culture’ wherein scholars leaving the academy are perceived to have ‘failed’ by their colleagues remaining behind. He argued these people could return to universities and bring an incredible richness of experience with them, and yet systematically they were disenfranchised by the career esteem models the academy has embraced, to the detriment of teaching and research. Matthew concluded by noting how the academy doesn’t sufficiently celebrate, support and manage the exceptional talent they have within research support staff and units; which given the increasingly crucial part they play within the modern research team was disheartening.

Marcos, started on a theme familiar to myself, that scholars are more incentivised (through career esteem structures and metrics) to publish and bring in funding, rather than to produce research which answered genuine problems. He noted, as has been discussed elsewhere, the lack of publication of ‘null results’, due to the low esteem it brings to journals and authors, results in pointless and resource-costly repetition of experimental research which could be avoided. He also drew the insightful simile concerning academia, notably doctoral programmes, and the US 1970s motor industry; where the focus on mass production ignored the many errors requiring remediation. Marcos also highlighted the lack of accountability within the academy, illustrated by failing PhD students. Here, there was little blowback on supervisors when this happened, which was not an equitable state of affairs. Marcos also highlighted how senior academics continue to be recruited for the possessing wrong traits for their roles. People are being picked for being career superstars with strong esteem credentials, rather than being able to demonstrate strong human resource, managerial and project management abilities. This he suggested added to the problems faced by the academy as an employer and in terms of employee wellbeing.

After this excellent session, I attended a workshop on failure and PGRs – Fail Live, delivered by Davina Whitnall and Dr Ursula Hurley at the University of Salford. While fairly discursive, and inaugurated with a guided mediation, I confess of this conference session was the one which inspired me the least. That isn’t to say the topic of embracing and celebrating failure as ‘part of the story of success’ wasn’t an important one to be addressed. However, the workshop felt unwieldly in terms of content and delivery, and I suspect it would have worked better with a smaller and more intimate audience, than to a room of 40+ delegates.

To end on a high, I concluded my day in one of the special interest sessions, in this case concerning academic podcasting. Hosted by Donald Lush (King’s College London) the session made use of the time to do a ‘live’ recording of a joint episode of two podcasts: one aimed at established researchers and the other at doctoral candidates. I’ve long been a producer and contributor to podcasts in a personal capacity, and I confess they’re on my wishlist to develop around Exchanges and our contributor community as an extension to the journal’s brand and discourse contribution. In this respect, myself and the library’s Scholarly Communications team have been having some tentative conversations about this and other media areas, so perhaps watch this space for news of our future collaborations.

As you can tell from these reflections, I was pleasantly surprised to find such an embarrassment of inspiration, insight and engagement at the Vitae conference. It exceeded my expectations in nearly every sense, and I wished I could have somehow transcended time and space to attend many more of the breakout sessions than I was physically able. I also slightly regret only booking for one of the two days, as the second day also clearly included a lot of engaging material. I look forward to catching up with my Warwick library colleague who was in attendance throughout.

Nevertheless, I was delighted by the reception of the work that Exchanges and my editors do, which is something I’ve passed along to them, in partial thanks for all their efforts in helping keep the journal running.

I'll share some notes from my talk, in my next post.

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[1] That would be The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, but it wasn’t something I was keenly aware of until after the conference.


May 23, 2019

One Step Beyond: The ESA Living Planet Symposium 2019

Writing about web page https://lps19.esa.int/NikalWebsitePortal/living-planet-symposium-2019/lps19


Conference VenueLast week I had a rare opportunity to step professionally well and truly outside my comfort zone. I had taken up the rather unexpected but delightful chance to be a delegate at a major international conference in a totally unrelated academic field to my own. If you’ve not picked up from earlier posts, my own research domain is media and communications, within a healthy cultural studies envelope, specialising in academic communication. To spend a few days dipping in and out of the European Space Agency’s Living Planet Symposium, which brought together over 4,000 scientists, industrialists, technologists and industry people in the earth observation sciences was, to say the least somewhat daunting. Thankfully I wasn’t there to present myself!

Technically speaking, I was on vacation, accompanying my wife to Milan, Italy where she and colleagues were contributing to a session concerning their team’s research. However, the chance arose for me to break off from planned my marathon walking city excursions [1] and attend the conference too. I concluded it would be well worth sacrificing some of my leisure time to increase my experience of interacting with and listening to scholars outside of my normal realm. As the editor of an interdisciplinary title, clearly this was a great professional development prospect!

What struck me, other than the sheer size of the venue and delegate numbers [2], were the similarities between this and many other conferences in my own fields I’ve attended. From the friendly registration desks and bag of conference swag, through to opening plenary and associated breakout sessions, despite the topic divergence, the symposium still strongly resonated with most professional events I’ve attended. Given the international nature of the conference, I was a little surprised by the opening panel being dominated by white, older men, albeit one fronted by a young, glamourous woman hired to moderate. While she inarguably gave a polished and professional performance, her role’s juxtaposition with the other stage denizens didn’t make for great optics. Going by the twitter feed, this hadn’t escaped the audience’s attention either, and it was heartening to see the BBC’s Jonathan Amos taking the organisers to task for the lack of demonstrable diversity. The less said about a similarly composed panel commenting at one point on Africa’s past and future contribution to earth observation science, perhaps the better.

These slightly uncomfortable elements aside, I spent most of my time at the conference dipping into sessions and observing the speakers. With all kinds of academic communication being a personal interest, meant the opportunity to listen to and watch speakers, divorced from a need to comprehend their content, provided a golden opportunity to conduct a little presentational critique.

Information overloadFor me, I think the chief recurrent issue was that time-honoured foible of trying to cram too much information onto a single slide. The NASA representative for example, but by no means the only one, crammed no fewer than 22 lines on a single slide, displayed for less than 30 seconds. I could almost feel my teeth grinding in frustration trying to parse the information in that talk. I was also amused that, plenary speakers aside, every single speaker I sat through insisted in using a PowerPoint [2] style presentation. I was rather hoping to see a little more ‘hands-free’ presentation, but I guess academics and industrialists alike fall back on the PowerPoint crutch rather more than we perhaps should. Although, I can be as guilty as the next scholar in overusing, so I’m not critiquing from a higher plateau. It was just a shame there wasn’t more variety in the ‘chalk & talk’ approaches adopted to communicate to the audiences.

There was also a genuinely evidenced split between speakers with media training heritage or experience, and the majority who hadn’t. Most of the plenary speakers had clearly been coached in their presentational style, with for example the head of ESA providing a real standout in terms of clarity and engagement. Very much a style to be emulated I felt. Although, it I am going to be critical, I’d perhaps leave out the string quartet and bombastic Day Today style promotional video the audience were subjected to at various points. At worst it felt like corporate brainwashing, and at best (given the climate crisis theme of the symposium) I began to wonder if I’d stumbled into the final reel of Soylent Green.

While I accept some speakers may have been harder to focus on given my limited personal field experience and lack of shared vocabulary, there were some who really drew my interest. I know more about Finland’s space programme as a result than I ever expected, and was delighted to hear about it. Notably, quite a few senior organisational representatives fell into the trap of assuming the audience will gift them with their attention, simply because of their personal reputation and standing. Sorry to say, attention needs to be grasped, won and captured, it’s rarely genuinely given.

Spaaaaaaaace Ships. Ahem. Sorry, Swarm Sats.Other weaknesses I spotted were the inability to thread a talk with presentational narrative; the normative preference seemingly being a rhythmic delivery of: facts, facts, graphic, facts then conclusion. Perhaps this observation comes from being a qualitative scholar at an event riven with scientism, positivism and quantitative method. Nevertheless, even in these field facts can still be used to tell a powerful and engaging story, without diminishing the science which underlies them, in a manner which serves to enhance comprehension and retention. I really believe many of the papers I witnessed would have been deeply enhanced through embracing storytelling and narrative techniques, to contribute in creating far more compelling talks.

Finally, I also witnessed quite a range of disconnect between panel topics and the talks inside them. This is something most if not all academic conferences I’ve attended have a tendency to demonstrate. It can be a real disservice to the audience, who likely were expecting to hear one thing, and who then witness a speaker holding forth on a questionable or divergent topic instead. I’m not sure I have a ready solution to this one, but I’d be interested to hear other’s experiences in overcoming this within their event chairing capacity.

Overall then, the conference was eye opening for me, less so for the shiny satellites and exciting environmental-monitoring related technology, but more for the witnessed similarities. Perhaps in this burgeoning interdisciplinary world, it’s worth remembering that even snug and safe within our disciplinary niches, it turns out there’s a lot we all do communicatively which is broadly similar. Albeit, there are also many things we should as scholars perhaps be working towards improving too. I’ll be interested to see if my experiences in Milan, match up to my visit in July to the Utopian Studies Society conference; again an event outside my own disciplinary traditions.

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[1] For those keeping score, I managed about 40 miles in three days.

Venue Security[2] Also the security level was a lot higher than a media & comms event - I've not been bomb wanded by a battalion of serious looking guards before just to get into a venue!

[3] Other slide projection packages are available.


December 12, 2018

Article Focus On: Critical reflections – what’s their value?


In my last post I talked about interviews, or the Conversations with, series of articles that we publish in Exchanges. In today’s post, I’m going to talk about the other kind of article which stands alongside the more research intensive pieces in the journal: critical reflections. According to our author guide a critical reflection article comprises:

Focussed, critical appraisals typically covering an area of emerging research, a key event or a crucial new text. (1,000-3,000 words).

That’s not a long explanation for what are actually highly readable and insightful articles, so let me expand a little here. When people approach us with a critical appraisal article, most commonly they want to write about an event they have recently attended. This is a great start, as we are all interested in reading about conferences, workshops, seminars and symposia others have attended which (for whatever reasons) we didn’t have the chance to. However, so far, so much a blog post. Where the critical reflection article differs is that they are not intended to be a simple narrative of what was said and/or who spoke. Yes, this sort of contextual information is still an important part of the content, but where the critical reflection article takes a step forward towards being a more academic piece of writing is right there in the title.

Context - What are they?

In short, these pieces are supposed to entail a critical reflection about an event that is to say for example, what was it about the context, content and theme, which was of value or importance? Did the author agree with everything which was said or, from their own scholarly perspective, were there aspects that they wanted to take issue with or even wholesale challenge? Ideally too, there needs to be an element of how the event changed the author’s perspectives, thinking or knowledge. Essentially, how did it have an impact upon or affected them. Incorporating these evaluative and self-reflective elements is what changes an ‘event report’ from a tasty but ultimately unsatisfying intellectual snack, into a gourmet and rewarding scholarly treat. In short, this is what makes the paper a critical reflection.

Now, in the prior paragraph I’ve been writing about critical reflections of events. However, you will have noticed Exchanges is not only interested in critical reflections on events, but on essentially any reflections on aspect of scholarship. Typically, what should stimulate the writing of a critical reflection is an intellectual intervention or encounter of any kind. I’ll acknowledge events are the most common or perhaps most prominent such circumstances. Yet, other artefacts or circumstances can move us as much, if not more sometimes. For example, you might have spoken with a particular author, or read a lot of their work lately, which has stimulated your thinking in new directions. Alternatively, you might have read a particularly challenging paper, report or monograph which has caused you to reconsider your own research practice. Writing a critical reflection concerning these ‘events’ can be therefore as valuable and timely a piece of written scholarship as writing about a literal event. Personally, with our engaged, broad and interdisciplinary readership in mind, I’d like to see far more critical reflections about non-conference type events appearing in our pages.

The last kind of critical reflection is perhaps less easy to predefine, at least structurally, and that’s the opinion piece. For example, as a scholar there might not be a singular specific event or work you’re looking to critique. What you want to offer instead is your own, unique insight into an aspect of your discipline. In this respect, here is where Exchanges can be a most valuable publication destination especially for those scholars in the STEM subjects, where opinion pieces are less commonly accepted in major journals. Certainly, many major journals may perceive early career researchers have more ‘limited’ disciplinary experience and insight to offer, and may decline to publish such submissions as a matter of course. Here at Exchanges, we’d respectfully disagree with this stance, as per our mission, we strongly believe that new, original and insightful thought which critically reflects on a field can emerge from scholars at any stage in their career. Hence, as Editor-in-Chief I’d strongly encourage anyone who’d like to ‘make a scholarly statement’ about their field, to consider writing it as a critical reflection for us.

Criticial Reflection Advantages

One advantage of the critical reflection piece by the way, is that they are mercifully brief pieces of work, which means they can be written, edited and ready for publication quite rapidly. They can be almost as brief as this blog post in length, in fact! Naturally, the manuscript should include the context and set the scene, as with all our articles, remember you are writing for a readership which doesn’t automatically have a deep familiarity with your field. Nevertheless, this should not diminish the depth or breadth of scholarship which can be included. Have a look at these recent examples, for an idea of the sort of things you might write about.

Eden, A.A., 2018. Enchanted Community: Reflections on Art, the Humanities and Public Engagement. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v6i1.252

Mulcahy, S., 2018. Dissents and Dispositions. Reflections on the Conference of the Law, Literature and Humanities Association of Australasia. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v5i2.247

Crealock-Ashurst, B., et al., 2018. A Critical Reflection on the 28th International Biology Olympiad. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v5i1.221

Messin, L.J., & Meadows, J.C., 2018. Science for All. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v4i1.153

Incidentally, a critical reflection can also act as a promotional piece. Not only for the author, but for institutions, research groups and projects, looking to raise their profiles. I really do believe these are exactly the sort of article which can really help to get a scholar noted. Hence, critically appraising some work you are intimately involved in, not only helps to develop your own career, but can serve as a valuable adjunct to other ongoing efforts.

In Conclusion

So, there you go. The critical appraisal, a valuable and relatively easy article type you can publish with Exchanges. And if you’re reading this and thinking you’ve got a great idea for one, either speak to myself or any of the Editorial Board about it. Or better yet, get writing and submitting – there’s every possibility critical reflections submitted in the first few months of 2019 can see publication in our spring issue of Exchanges! (possibly!)

Finally, on a personal note, I’m signing off as the Managing Editor-in-Chief for the Christmas break today. So can I wish all our readers, reviewers and authors (old and new) a most festive, relaxing and perhaps critically reflective break!


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