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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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