“Put in the time and effort to write rigorous, well-thought-out reviews”: Interview with Greg William Misiaszek, Executive Editor of “Teaching in Higher Education”

This time in the “Meet the Editors” interview series, we talk to Greg William Misiaszek, an executive editor of Teaching in Higher Education. Greg is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Beijing Normal University. He is also an associate director of the Paulo Freire Institute at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In this interview, we asked Greg about what being an executive editor involves and about his vision of the journal’s future. Greg also provides his insightful advice to early-career scholars on publishing and becoming an editorial board member of a journal.  

Thank you for joining the ECHER “Meet the Editors” interview series. Let us start from how you became the executive editor of Teaching in Higher Education.

Thank you for the invitation. You probably would get a better insight on how I was invited as an executive editor from the others in the executive editorial board. For Teaching in Higher Education, all the reviewers are board members. I became a board member right after I finished my Ph.D. I got accepted in 2011 and have been reviewing articles since then, usually around 12 per year, sometimes more.

In addition to board members, there are six executive editors and one chief editor. Being an executive editor is a 3-5-year commitment. I applied for the position and got accepted along with Ibrar Bharr from Queen’s University, Belfast. Two people were leaving the Board. I have been in the executive editor position since the beginning of this year, 2021. So far, I think everything is going really well. Now I no longer review articles individually but instead I approve them (or not) to go to the next stage to board reviewers who I select. I truly enjoy reading all of them.

Can you tell us what characterizes “a good submission” and what kinds of submissions are desk-rejected?

All the articles come into the central system and get divided up between the six executive editors. The executive editors decide whether the articles will go on to the general review process. There are a couple of things that we look at initially and then truly delve into reviewing them. One is that the paper should be on higher education and teaching. The second aspect is whether the paper has a critical focus or not. Technical or technocratic articles can often be very good articles for some journals; however, these types of articles are not what our journal is looking for. The journal has a specific focus on critical theories and critical aspects. Therefore, usually within the first two or three minutes, I can decide if an article will go through or not. If the manuscript is desk rejected, we usually tell the author(s) that the article is good but it just does not fit the criteria of our journal.

What would you say about the specific space where your journal stands in the field of higher education research?

The subtitle of the journal is Critical Perspectives, which was created a few years ago. It is this aspect that often determines if a manuscript gets an “accept” or a “reject”. So, you have to delve into the critical aspects of the topic you are studying and writing about. Even going through the references can tell a lot. For example, if an article includes critical aspects of globalization, teaching, gender, and racism, usually you can tell that it fits at least one of the criteria of our journal.

When you look at journal lists, there are not too many journals focusing on higher education with critical perspectives. There is only a couple, especially when you look at SSCI journals. There are only very few journals about education and have critical aspects. In that sense, Teaching in Higher Education is unique. “Being critical” can, however, mean many things and we could talk about it forever. The key aspects are delving into the deeper (e.g., identities, local epistemologies) and wider (e.g., globalization, coloniality) issues of social and environmental factors within and outside higher education. Needless to say, the uniqueness in saying something “new” is also important. Too frequently, submissions resemble literature reviews rather than contribute something new, unique, and important to higher education teaching.

However, it is important to note, too, that SSCI journals are not the end-all or be-all and that too many people devalue other important journals.

Could you give some recommendations to early-career researchers who would like to submit their manuscript to the journal?

I can usually tell whether an article is going to go on or not within the first 20 seconds.

Like with any other journal, you must read the journal guidelines and take the scope of the journal seriously. The abstract and the first paragraph of the article are extremely important. As an executive editor, I can usually tell whether an article is going to go on or not within the first 20 seconds. Considering the review process, it is helpful to put all essential information at the beginning, so the reviewers can first see the main arguments of your article. Often in my own writing and the writing of others that I’ve read, the main points are way down in the introduction. However, to have the best chance possible, make sure that your abstract and the first or two paragraphs of the introduction tell what the manuscript is about and how the manuscript relates to the journal foci. You can still restructure the introduction with later revisions.

Can you walk us through the review process?

First, the manuscript goes into an online system. We have a wonderful editorial manager who seems to work tirelessly. She divides the articles between the six executive editors. We approve them or not; usually about 20% or less are approved. If I approve the paper, I then select the reviewers from the editorial board members. The first review process takes about six weeks, which is a relatively short time for academic journals. Then the article comes back to me either as “minor revisions,” “major revisions,” or a “reject.” What happens next depends on what the reviews say. If the paper gets “minor revisions”, the revised version goes back to one of the reviewers. If it’s “major revisions”, it usually goes back to the person who gave it the worst review.

It gets complicated because some reviewers choose not to review the manuscript again – this is an option that reviewers can select in the journal’s online system. If the paper gets rejected by one reviewer, having that person review the paper again is often difficult because the reviewers might think that the article does not have any merit. But we only ask them if they chose the option that they would be willing to review a resubmission. Oddly enough, I think indirectly they do see some merit in the manuscript because otherwise they would probably refuse to review it again. If they do refuse to review it again, as often happens, we have the discretion to invite a third reviewer. Whichever the case, when the paper comes back for the second time, the executive editor will have the ultimate say on whether it is going to get published or not.  That is the overall process.  

Special issues (SI) of the journal have a different process, in which reviewers can also be selected from outside the board, and the first reviewers are the SI’s invited editors.

Can you tell us how you choose the reviewers? Is it rare that the reviewers of the journal are only board members?

When we accept a manuscript to go to the next stage, we get the whole list of editorial board members to search to match their expertise to specific manuscripts. The selection process is interesting because the list of names we get have very short descriptions. Now, knowing how we get to select board members, over time you get to know more about their work because of the meetings we have had throughout the years. I probably know about 10 to 20% of the people and their work more closely. I often go by keywords that the reviewers have given and compare them to the ones in the manuscript.

As an editor, I also tend to pick people who are good at returning reviews on time.

Other search criteria that are considered in selecting reviewers is that they are not currently reviewing another manuscript and that they have not reviewed an article within, at least, the past 18 days. Usually, I try to find someone who has not reviewed an article within the past 30 days because we promise members that we will not ask for them to review more than about ten articles per year. As an editor, I also tend to pick people who are good at returning reviews on time. So, if you are “a good reviewer”, you get rewarded by getting more review requests. Following this logic, I tend to avoid inviting people who have not done a review in several months. Usually that indicates that they are not returning the reviews on time.

How does one become a board member?

As an executive editor, you volunteer for various tasks; you also try to have new projects to help advance the journal. For example, one executive editor is asked to be in charge of new editorial board members. We have meetings that happen quarterly, and then we have an annual in‑person meeting. Before the meetings take place, we suggest some names for the lists of the board members. Sometimes names come from colleagues or are scholars whose work we have read. Sometimes it is someone emailing one of us to express her or his interest in being a board member. We have an Excel chart that lists their websites, their CVs, and things like that. In the meeting, we discuss whether or not someone should be a board member, with the specific focus on their work on teaching in higher education. Usually, about a third to a half of them is accepted.

Someone can be extremely good in their scholarship but not put in the work to do high-quality reviews.

It is very difficult to choose the board members because someone can be extremely good in their scholarship but not put in the work to do high-quality reviews. Or someone can be an early-career scholar who puts in a lot of work in their reviews. In fact, reviews by ECRs can often be much better than the ones by seniors. I have been trying to figure out some changes in a way that we can get sample reviews from people because I have seen some excellent, famous scholars who do not do good reviews.

Therefore, a piece of advice that I would give any young scholar is to put in the time and effort to write rigorous, well-thought-out reviews. I see this with my own students. Sometimes, they do wonderful reviews. Some of them do not and they will write in like two or three sentences. They think that it does not matter how their review is but that they can still put it in their CV; no one will reprimand them for not having a good review and they still get credit for it. However, I think that, to advance to more senior editorial positions, you have to put in the time and effort because the reviews are still being read by the people who are making such decisions.

The same piece of advice applies to book reviews, or even when someone informally asks for comments on a piece of work. Many people do them quickly. It might be easy not to put in the time and effort. However, it certainly shows the level and dedication of your work because someone does read those reviews and it does truly matter. On different websites, like Publons, you can get scores on your peer review and editorial contributions. What is more important, in my view however, is the quality of reviews that you do. That eventually evolves into more opportunities, like anything else in academia.

How many submissions do you usually receive per year? Has this number changed over the years because of the SSCI situation?

There has been an increase in submissions. I am not sure what the exact amount is. I get about 15 per month, so about 180 per year, and would imagine the other five executive editors get about the same amount. That is quite a bit. We actually have quite a backlog of accepted articles right now, meaning that we have articles waiting to be placed into non‑special issues. There are usually two special issues per year. However, sometimes they become double SI issues. Right now, we have been trying to get even more stringent on acceptances because of the large number of accepted articles that have not yet been assigned to a journal issue. 

On this backlog aspect, many other journals have much higher amounts of articles in their backlog. This is one of the key reasons why journals take so long to get an article from being accepted to being printed in the journal, i.e., being assigned to an issue. I think there has definitely been an overall increase in the number of submissions and it has become much more difficult to get into SSCI journals. This is especially true for early-career scholars.

Once again, however, I do not glorify SSCI journals as unquestionably wonderful without any problems. I am also quite critical of ranking systems, including journal-ranking systems. However, it could be said that, in general, SSCI journals are a good set of journals, even though there are many good ones outside the list as well.

Doesn’t the backlog delay the distribution of the knowledge since the articles are only published two years later?

Yes, that is a difficult thing, but the good thing with most journals is that it is published online first. For example, in another journal Educational Philosophy and Theory, I am doing a special issue with my wife Lauren Misiaszek on Paulo Freire. This double issue is not going to come out for another year and a half, even though we tried to time it for Freire’s birthday this September 2021. So, the articles get published online first while waiting for two issues to be assigned.

Another example is one of my articles on development and ecopedagogy published online at the very beginning of 2019 in Teaching in Higher Education; however, it was not assigned to a journal issue until 2020. Someone could still read, use, cite, and reference that article since early 2019. During the 18 months to two years, all those articles are accessible online; they just are not assigned to an issue. For me, it does not matter that much because people still have access to a scholars’ work, which is my main concern. Nevertheless, I know the complications of institutions and their bureaucracy. It all depends on the institution, especially when you are going up for review of your scholarship: Do they accept “online first” publications or does the paper have to be assigned an issue to receive credit?

What has the editorial position meant to you as a scholar?

It is interesting being a decision-maker in earlier stages. I have had different roles in various journals throughout the last decade. One of the key aspects I enjoy doing is, in various ways, guiding what the journal will be like in the next three or five years and, hopefully, beyond. The chief editor and executive editors of any journal have a big task in figuring out how they want their journals to progress.

The key thing that I want is for journals to be more inclusionary.

My hopes concerning Teaching in Higher Education are not so much about the aspect of increase of rankings or increase of citations. All those are different numbers and are important in their own ways; I am not a big numbers guy though. The key thing that I want is for journals to be more inclusionary. For example, for Northern journals this means to meaningfully include more scholars from the global South; to increase the number of countries where authors are from, so not just from the UK and the US, or other Western countries. This is my overall mission for any journal I am a part of. I want to diversify not only the board members but also the authorship. In the next years I want to push for that even more, while also fighting against the economic realities coming from the publisher. Academic publishing is still a business – a very well‑run one – for publication houses.

I always tell students that publishing is such a wonderful business in economic ways. Publishers do not pay the reviewers or the authors. I get a small sum every year for incidentals as being an executive editor. The publisher makes money by selling access to higher education institutions and other research institutions. In addition, people pay for their articles to become open access. Hence, increasing access, especially for the global South, is important. Nevertheless, you are fighting against the economics of publishing. If you are coming from Harvard, UCLA, Oxford, or my Faculty at Beijing Normal University, you have a large amount of money for very expensive journal fees. However, most universities worldwide, especially in the global South, cannot afford such diverse journal access.

Overall, as scholars, what we are trying to do is to get out important information and knowledge that often conflicts with publishers’ economic systems. The publishers’ worry is to lose money in open access. For example, if there is increased open access in a journal, university officials might not be compelled to subscribe to the journal. However, there is the other aspect that open access will likely lead to increased citations of a journal, which will increase a journal’s reputation and, oddly enough, increase subscription rates. It is a bit of a conundrum.

How do you define the global South?

I was just recently writing an article on this. When we talk about the global South and the global North, it is not geographic location. It is more about the aspects of power differences, dynamics, and structures. For example, the United States, which is seen as a powerful nation-state, has complex internal power dynamics. When we refer to the global South, it also includes, for example, Indigenous populations within such a nation-state, which are often self-identified as not part of the nation-state. Another example is colleges focused on having marginalized students, professors, and staff. You can have aspects of the global South in any part of the world. It is this aspect of what the power structures are that is essential to unpack. So, even though the United States has numerous elite universities that have ample amount of money for subscriptions, you also have a vast majority of schools that have little to no money for journal subscriptions. For example, those schools on Native American lands are often just scraping by what they can afford to stay afloat.

For a global Southern scholar working in the global North, there is also the question about hegemony and part dynamics of languages. For example, they might have to write everything in English to be successful. At the same time, how do those scholars use their positionality to make sure that marginalized language and the inherent connections with cultures are not deprioritized and delegitimized within the publishing structure? Again, it is kind of that one foot in and one foot out aspect. Therefore, if we continue to only write in English, or more so now in Mandarin, or other powerful languages, then it is simply going to contribute more to this aspect of hegemonic power dynamics of publishing. Further, this will result in more gaps between the Northern and Southern scholarship, economically poor institutions compared to economically rich institutions, and so on.

Trying to figure out how your work can get into highly prestigious academic journals while also publishing in less prestigious open-access journals with wider audiences is a challenging balancing act. However, this balancing act is essential to have your meaningful education work for social and environmental justice read, viewed, and/or listened to by more people – not just by those in academia, but also by practitioners, policy-makers, administrators, and others.

Would you say that publishing culture has changed since you started in academia?

There are many great journals out there outside of the SSCI ones.

I would say one thing, and I am not sure if this is a perspective as a reviewer or just as someone who publishes as an academic. It is the over-the-top focus on SSCI, and it has increased difficulty in getting into SSCI journals. Acceptance rates have fallen lower and lower. I would tell students this aspect that SSCI articles are wonderful; they are great journals. Still, there are many great journals out there outside of the SSCI ones; for example, doing chapters, doing open access journals, or the lower-tier journals. The over-focus on SSCI journals often takes away from true scholarship. There are also ethical and social justice issues – most of the SSCI journals are in English.

How would you like to see the future of the journal?

Overall, I would love to see the journal have increased diversity of access, reviewership, and authorship, among other ways. It is important to acknowledge there has been a great deal of work done throughout the years on this front. For example, selecting reviewers for any journal is often Northern-dominant. When we look at reviewers’ CVs, they have publications from SSCI journals. SSCI journals are largely from the global North. Thus, they get more selected to be on, for example, review committees. They are selected for publication opportunities they might not have if they were not part of that process. It all connects altogether in various direct and indirect ways.

What I would certainly like to see is much more inclusion, also in terms of languages.

What I would certainly like to see is much more inclusion, also in terms of languages. With our journal in English, what are the possibilities, for example, of having abstracts in other languages? Such inclusion of an additional abstract adds only one extra paragraph to include Spanish or Chinese or an Indigenous language. Although the publishers often focus on word counts and page numbers, it is more money for the publishers and associated costs. As my colleague, personal friend Michael Apple has said many times, you need to have one foot in the system and one foot outside the system. Trying to see how we can diversify access, reviewership, and authorship in all these different ways and realizing how they are all connected is essential.

Thank you for the interview!

Photo by Sam Chang on Unsplash

Liang-Wen Lin-Januszewski is a lecturer in Sociology at Paderborn University, Germany. Her research interests include sociology of education, academic profession, and youth studies. You can find her here.   

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