“We need more discussion on contributions to our field”: Interview with Jeroen Huisman, Editor of “Higher Education Policy”

growth, contribution

In this edition of our “Meet the Editors” interview series, we are talking with Jeroen Huisman, the editor of Higher Education Policy. Jeroen is Professor of Higher Education at the Department of Sociology, Ghent University and the director of its Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG). He is also an editor of two book series and a member of the editorial board of various higher education journals.

I asked Jeroen to tell us a little about the journal Higher Education Policy, the role and tasks of the editor, the reviewing process, how these have changed since he assumed the editorial role about a decade ago, as well as some of the main challenges which come with the work.

We also spoke about the international landscape of higher education research and the kind of developments he would like to see in the field in the coming years. In closing, I asked Jeroen for some publishing advice for early-career higher education researchers.

Let’s start from the beginning, how did you become the editor of Higher Education Policy and what motivated you?

That goes back, I think, 10-11 years. At that time, Guy Neave, the founding editor of the journal, retired and there was a general call for a new editor from the International Association of Universities, which is running the journal. I applied and they accepted me.

As many people in academia are, I was curious about editorial work. This is for many still a black box. You are submitting a paper to a journal and you want to know how it works. I was curious as well, as I had submitted many papers to various journals, then receiving feedback, sometimes being happy about it, sometimes being disappointed, sometimes being angry. So, I wanted to know about the other side, so to say. How would it work if I were in the position of making these decisions and guiding scholars? So that was my main motivation. And obviously, the area of higher education policy was very close to my interests, so I might not have been interested in another journal or another theme, but Higher Education Policy certainly fitted my background at that moment.

How do you see the journal in relation to other journals in the field of higher education? What would be its distinctive features?

I use the work of Malcolm Tight and our own work as a point of departure to position Higher Education Policy. Malcolm offers a useful classification of journals. Stijn Daenekindt and I elaborated upon this and added journals that did not appear in Malcolm’s list. The first group are the very generic ones. They basically consider anything that has the word “higher education” in it and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense. They simply cast – for good reasons – a broad net. Here I mean journals such as Higher Education, Studies in Higher Education, The Review of Higher Education, and Research in Higher Education.

I receive around 300+ manuscripts a year and this number has been increasing over the years.

Then we have the category of more specialized journals. I would put Higher Education Policy in this box. Also the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management fits in there. So, anything “higher education” plus another word in the title would fit there.

You can, thirdly, also distinguish rather niche-kind of outlets such as the Journal of American College Health or the Journal of English for Academic Purposes, which Malcolm Tight labelled as discipline-specific journals. It is clear what these journals focus on and the editor will turn away easily papers which are not on that topic. It is important to distinguish them because their perspective is a purely disciplinary one and then they reach out from there to issues in higher education teaching, policy, etc.

In plainly practical terms, what does it mean to be the editor of Higher Education Policy?

Currently, I receive around 300+ manuscripts a year, and this number has been increasing over the years. Going back to the beginning, when I started, I had maybe double the amount of submissions, compared to the space available in the volume. The publisher has now extended the number of papers per volume, so the journal has become “bigger” in terms of size, and we now have space for 40 articles a year. The task of the editor is to take care that “the best” 40 of the 300+ submissions appear in one way or another in the journal. This means that, currently, my role is the one of a gatekeeper. It is impossible, technically speaking, to accept many submissions, because there is limited space.

Practically, the way I handle papers is not much different from what other editors do, also looking at Simon’s response to this question. When a paper appears on my dashboard, I look at it very quickly, it is never in my mailbox longer than a day or two days. I read the paper roughly, to get an idea what the paper is about. It is then possible to separate wheat from the chaff, in the sense that very poor papers can easily be spotted by a quick read, and these are normally desk-rejected. Some papers need a second read or an in-depth read, and then I need to decide if they get desk-rejected or I send them out for review.

Reviewers are already over their heads in reviews and I want to make efficient use of reviewers. One round of good reviews normally suffices.

The review process involves in principle two reviewers. They get a number of days to accept the invitation and then – upon acceptance – time to submit their reviews. When the reviews are in, I read them carefully. I also try to read the comments between the lines, sometimes a little bit of interpretation is needed. I try to balance the reviews, because they don’t always point in the same direction, and craft the message to the author. I either say “sorry, based on reviews, this paper is not suitable or good enough for the journal”, or, “you have a solid story to tell, but reviewers offer a couple of critical comments, please revise and resubmit along the lines of those comments”.

When the revised version comes in, I normally do not send the paper out for review again. I feel, and I am sufficiently experienced, to make a judgement on behalf of the reviewers. So, I can position myself in the role of a reviewer and say Mr. X would now be satisfied with the revisions made to this paper. This is partly based on experience and expertise, but also there is another motivation for that: reviewers are already over their heads in reviews and I want to make efficient use of reviewers. One round of good reviews normally suffices.

In terms of workload, the editorial work currently takes a day in a week. Normally, when I open my email in the morning I see a couple of papers being submitted, and depending on my agenda for the day, I either deal with it immediately or postpone it to later that day or the next day. That takes me an average an hour to two hours a day.

Could you say a little bit about how you choose reviewers?

I really want to know what reviewers have contributed to the same topic and prefer not to rely (solely) on keywords in a database.

I read the paper. I have a broad network of people I know and I know who is working in which area. Obviously, the list of references is very helpful, because people refer to other people’s work. A hint here to young scholars, if you really take a critical stance towards particular literature and you include that literature in your references, it might be that you are confronted with criticism from that literature. This is not to say that you should hide that, but be aware that the editors make the selections also based on the list of references.

Good old Google helps me a lot. If I am uncertain, especially. I put the keywords and the country in, and try to discover who has written on the topic and might be tempted to choose them as reviewers. I do not use the publisher’s or similar databases. I really want to know what reviewers have contributed to the same topic and prefer not to rely (solely) on keywords in a database. I imagine for some editors such databases are helpful, especially if you have a tremendous amount of submissions, and you can’t keep it all in your head.

When choosing reviewers, do you make distinctions based on academic experience or not? Specifically, could you say anything about early-career scholars in the context of reviewing?

I select reviewers who can talk to the paper. Expertise in a certain area is a priority, which could be topic-based or geographically-based expertise. If you, for example, have a paper on Mongolia, it might be difficult for a British reviewer to imagine what that means. I might be tempted to go for a reviewer from Mongolia or that region.

I don’t see a pattern in the sense that younger scholars are better or poor in their understanding of the field, relating this to what Simon said. A young scholar may not have a good overview of the field, but does that matter? If a person has a certain expertise and can talk to the paper, great! As an editor, you are in a position that you have to balance the reviewers’ views, and either you know the reviewers or you don’t know them. You have to make sense of that. Spending too much time contemplating whether the reviewer is a young scholar, or a retired professor, or a person from applied sciences… I don’t deal much with these questions. Like I said, the bottom line is, the person should be able to talk to the paper.

We all know that reviewing can be time-consuming, especially when we want to do it properly. How common is it that people refuse to review and what do you see as the main reasons for then not to accept it?

I think… I need to approach – on average – four reviewers to get two reviews in. Sometimes it really goes fast. I send the invitation and I see, because you can see this in the system, within a couple of hours, “I accept”. Sometimes it’s silent for the seven days that they can reply to the invitation, and then the system automatically re-invites them. If nothing happens, they get a message that they are “uninvited” and they do not need to review anymore. And then, ironically, it sometimes happens that they reply saying “Oh, but I can do it”. Then I, of course, gratefully accept their offer and re-invite them.

It helps us as a community tremendously to keep up the speed of reviewing by simply doing your job to review, or at least be transparent regarding the reasons why you are not reviewing.

However, the number of invitations needed to get a single review has been increasing in the past years. Today I need to invite more reviewers to get results than in the past. We can speculate about what that is. People are busy. There are areas that are “sexy”. Now, for example, in the context of the pandemic, those few scholars who have written anything about disaster management, risk management in higher education, must now have a high stack of papers on their desk. People who want to say something about the pandemic have written a paper on that, and it is likely that everybody now turns to those experts.

People can have very good reasons not to accept to review a paper, regardless of whether they are top scholars or someone just starting. I give plenty of scope to anybody whom I invite to decline. What I do very much appreciate is when people give a reason for declining. “I am too busy”, “I have too many reviews”, “I have a deadline”… understood, not a problem, because I can quickly go to the next reviewer. What I “hate” is when people don’t reply. I invite them, I wait for seven days, no reply, second invitation, no reply… that really gets to me, because I think, how difficult is it to open an email, click on a link and say that you are not available, not interested, or whatever? It takes you one minute or less. It helps us as a community tremendously to keep up the speed of reviewing by simply doing your job to review, or not do your job, but at least be transparent regarding the reasons why you are not reviewing.

Could you perhaps say something about the reviews themselves and whether there is any difference between them?

An interesting question related to this is whether the journal editor should have a certain format for the review and impose that on the reviewers. On one hand, it is sometimes helpful to give inexperienced reviewers a framework to talk to. My feeling is that many of the reviewers have already done tremendous amount of reviews, so I think I should give them the freedom to write down whatever they want. So, there is no format in Higher Education Policy.

Obviously, some detail and some elaboration in the review is very helpful. Just saying “this is not a good paper” is not very helpful. I think that most reviewers take that developmental approach and try to explain to the author what should be improved. So, instead of going “this is not good, this is not good, this is not good”, they say “I would suggest to do this or to do that”. In more detail: “look at this literature or these reference”, “consider another (specific) analysis”, “have you controlled for this and this variable”, “be clear on to what extent your conclusions are generalizable”, etc. These are helpful developmental responses to a paper. Generally, I think most of the reviews are like that. It’s difficult to put a number to that, but in 200-300 words… you can say a lot.

Sometimes I get exceptionally long reviews, where people really go into detail and make comments on sentences. That may be a little beyond the call of duty, because there’s always a proof-reader and a check on the text. But OK, it is still helpful and I never discard these comments. Sometimes, on the other hand, a review can be very short, but if you think a paper is bad, poor, for one crucial reason, why write 500 words about that? You can say in three sentences that the methodology is not appropriate for the question, if you feel like that, obviously. So, I take the reviews as they come and try to read them closely in order to build a consistent response to the authors on the basis of the reviews. In case reviewers share diverging messages, I try to guide the author as much as possible: “particularly address reviewer #2’s third comment” or even “although I think reviewer #1’s comment on the methodology is valid, addressing this point would make your paper too complicated and too long”.

In case reviewers share diverging messages, I try to guide the author as much as possible.

The journal also has the Editorial Board. What would be the role of its members in this process? How much are they involved and in what way?

I use the members of the Editorial Board if the paper is in their area of interest and expertise, definitely. There is this idea that if you are on an editorial board, you should, if you are asked, do one or two reviews a year. I think that’s not too demanding. If you are on a board, you commit yourself to a journal, so it’s more than just having your name on the cover. However, it all depends on the expertise of the members. I have 20 or 25 members and they have a wide expertise across domains of higher education policy and also geographically.

I rely on the editorial board members if they are experts, but I also rely on them if I am stuck. “Stuck” means that I have tried seven reviewers and all of them are either declining or not responding to my invitation which is – as said – a real frustration. Then I say, it is not fair to leave the author of this paper in despair for such a long time, and then I write an email to a member of the Editorial Board and explain the situation: “I have a paper, it’s been in the system for two months, nobody can review it, please help me, give your generic view of this paper as a scholar in the field”.

How common is that the authors challenge your editorial decisions or reviewers’ comments?

Occasionally, people get back to me and this is in the area where the verdict has been pretty harsh. But if people genuinely want to engage in the debate by asking, “what exactly was wrong, can you explain what this means in the review?”, I’ll try to explain as best as I can. These are, I think, genuine developmental exchanges between author and editor about how to move forward.

Sometimes you get people who are angry. I have two of these case a year, I think. I will give a clear example of this. Sometimes I get papers which show a significant overlap with papers which have already been published by the same authors. To the extent that 60% or so of the paper is the same. Cut and paste from older papers, which are then rehashed. Sometimes something is added, sometimes not. I do not comment on the content but just tell them this is not enough of a contribution. I say that in nice words and I don’t use the word “plagiarism”. I say there is too much similarity between this text and another text. So, it happens, the author comes back saying “but this is ridiculous”. Of course, it is easy to prove it is not ridiculous, but sometimes it is difficult to have discussions with this kind of authors because they think they are entitled to use their own previous work in that way.

I find it increasingly more challenging to balance the ‘gatekeeping function’ with the ‘developmental function’.

To move beyond the more practical aspects of the job, what do you see as main challenges which come with editing a higher education journal nowadays?

It’s become more challenging to find reviewers. I wish to stress “find” here. Once they have said “yes”, it’s OK, reviews are generally of high standard and good quality, and I can move on. But finding reviewers is difficult.

I find it also increasingly more challenging to balance the “gatekeeping function” with the “developmental function”. If you have 80 papers coming in a year, you have to desk-reject or reject ultimately 40. You can spend some time and really give an in-depth feedback. But, with 300+ submission, and desk-rejection, from top of my head, 60-70%, it is impossible for me as an editor to write a lengthy expose on a paper. So, the authors should expect that the editors must be brief in their response sometimes. I use, as most editors do, the same template. In the body of the message I insert a paragraph or a couple in which I give specific feedback on that paper. If the paper is not about higher education policy, the message can be short.

If the paper is about higher education policy, but I have quality concerns, I try to elaborate and I do it bullet-point-wise. Say, I have methodological concerns because, for example, the sample is too small… or, I have conceptual problems because I do not see clearly how you relate your theoretical framework to your empirics… or, your discussion is interesting but it is not sufficiently reflecting on what you found. Trying in general terms to give feedback and point the authors where the major concerns are with the paper and then, hopefully, they take some of that on board when they are rewriting the paper and submitting it elsewhere.

Things that struck me in discussion with other editors, for example, was that some say they do not accept case studies. You can have a wonderful case study which is very telling and really adding to our understanding. So, by default saying, “we do not accept case studies” is to me not productive, as you can throw away very interesting papers which must be published. So, I do not have any requirements or criteria I could think of above, you know, methodologically robust, using a clear framing, embed the paper in pertinent literature… you know… and these are the kind of phrases I use in my response.

Having been the journal’s editor for about a decade now, what in your view have been the major changes in how the journal operates since, but also more generally in the field of higher education research?

Geographical changes would be one. Not surprising, we see now many more international submissions and in particular Asia is on the rise. That is a big change. When I started, I had some papers from Hong Kong, and an odd paper from mainland China. There is a shift there, definitely.

We do not expect all papers to develop a new theory or to make path-breaking contributions… no. We have to understand that in our field developments are gradual.

I find it hard to say anything about quality and whether the quality has improved. But, very generally speaking, I would say that… quality is on the rise. There are still very poor papers and there are still excellent papers, but the amount of papers which I would send for review has increased. In terms of quantity, of course, there is a tremendous rise in submissions to the journal, but that’s not different from what I hear about other journals, Studies in Higher Education, Higher Education, and so on. There are more submissions than we can publish.

I still struggle with, as many editors do, how to actually assess whether a paper adds to our understanding. If it is close to my comfort zone, or the comfort zone of the reviewers, you can give a clear message, but sometimes it’s a bit difficult to say if it is a real addition or a real novelty. Of course, we do not expect all papers to develop a new theory or to make path-breaking contributions… no. We have to understand that in our field developments are gradual. Another case study could be interesting. Another study on the same topic could be interesting. But it is a challenge sometimes, in particular in the grey zone, when we receive a nice paper, well-written, good topic, interesting geography, but not adding that much to our conceptual or methodological understanding of the phenomenon, which then leads to a desk-reject. While, in principle, the paper is OK. I find that still very challenging.

Aren’t those things connected in your view, the quality of the paper and how well the author contextualizes it in the literature?

I fully agree. You can either say as an editor, or editorial team, every paper must have qualities A-M, or certain qualities should be there. Or, you take the stance, and I am more inclined to take that stance, this paper not perfect with respect to the qualities C, D, and E, but otherwise, it makes a stellar contribution to our field. And these could be very different things, you know. It could be the first paper on an under-researched higher education system. It could be interesting, I am not saying by default it is, but it could be interesting to see how New Public Management affects higher education in Madagascar. Just an example. Or somebody looking at the same phenomenon, which has been over-researched, but from a slightly different perspective. But this should go further than just saying we expect things to be different, and you should have a conceptual or a theoretical argument around that. But it does resonate with what you are saying. As the author, it’s your duty to explain somewhere in the introduction, why people should read this paper and why this should be published.

The idea of higher education field as a fragmented one has been long present among the scholars. In addition to thematic divisions, the field is also characterized by geographical divides, for example between the US and the European higher education communities. Could you share you views on this?

There is the divide and I am not sure whether it’s a productive or an unproductive one. On the one hand, the US is so big and there are so many things going on and maybe it is entitled to be talking to itself. Maybe there is sufficient leeway in discussions about differences between Iowa and Alaska. It is difficult to say. What worries me to an extent is that it is difficult to get access, as an author, to some of the American journals. My guess is that European journals are more open to contributions from the US than the other way around. And of course, the scholars and editors can say, “but it’s the quality and the quality of stuff from the US is better”, but I don’t buy that. I don’t want to buy that. Using the word “nationalism” would be exaggerating in this context, but sometimes you get the feeling that they are not interested in things happening in other countries. And that would be worrying.

We need more critical debate on papers, a kind of review after publication.

We should have an open mind for everything that happens, whether it’s Madagascar, US, or Europe, or Asia. There should not be any geographical boundaries and it might be that some editors and some scholars, in the US or other parts of the world close off their community for interesting developments elsewhere. Even stronger, some things cannot be investigated in certain continents or countries because the phenomenon is not on the agenda, such as, for example, supra-national policy-making, brain drain, binary systems, and private higher education.

What would you like to see more of, in terms of journal submissions, but also more of in the field of higher education research in general?

What I miss, and maybe journals are not a good platform for that, is the discussion on contributions to our field. Obviously, when you write a paper, you take a stance, you embed your paper in the literature. But we all do that in the comfort zone of sitting at our desk and writing that down. But I find it surprising that we do discuss a lot at conferences and when we meet, and say things like, oh, this is a good paper, and why it is a good paper; or, this is a poor paper… what I read yesterday, it’s terrible… But we never speak out in public on that and I would like to see much more discussion on that.

If a paper is published, in whatever journal, within the scope of that journal or on its website, where people can say, I like this paper. Maybe followed by a “but”… So, more critical debate on papers, a kind of review after publication. This is as important for the development of the field, as it is important for the development of scholars. And I am not saying this is only relevant for young scholars, no, it is relevant for any scholar. I’d also like to see many more linkages between papers and what happens after people have read it, how people read it, how do they experience it, that’s what I miss.

I think we do not talk enough about publishing patterns and particularly about open access in the field of higher education.

I would like to see, as a scholar, appreciation for my work, of course, but I would not mind at all to be publicly scrutinized about what I’ve written in a certain journal. Someone may take an issue with the methodology I used in a particular paper, yeah, I’d love to read that. It’s possible that authors say, thank you, I’ve learnt something but I am not doing it any different, but I hope it inspires us (as a collective) and leads to further (re)thinking of one’s research approaches. In general, I would be open to that, either in the journal, or the website of the journal, to have comments on papers. It takes time to manage that but I think it’s helpful for the community. That’s the debate we are missing, because we are all thinking, OK, I have submitted something, box checked. I know that not everybody is thinking like that, but it looks like we are moving in a direction that we say, yes, we’ve published it, case finished, move on to a new one.

I think we do not talk enough about publishing patterns and particularly about open access in the field of higher education. We still very much stick to the traditional patterns of having papers published in journals and people have to buy journals or have access to these journals through their libraries. The world moves on and we have various developments with open access. It happens in our field as well but I do not see the debate on this topic. I don’t see any higher education scholars talking about it, unless I am reading the wrong journals. It would be helpful for our community, which is partly practice oriented, partly policy oriented, and I would expect us to be at the forefront of these discussions, but I do not see it happen. I neither see so many open access publications in our field. I do see a couple of open access journals emerging, but some are clearly driven by a business logic, not by a quality perspective.

Do you have any suggestions for early-career scholars when it comes to publishing higher education research in general?

Generally, I would suggest, think carefully what kind of message you want to share. The choice of outlets is here very important. Think though carefully where you want to contribute, to which audience you want to talk. Do you want to contribute to the generic literature on higher education? Is it really an Academic contribution, capital “A”, or a more practical contribution? I think these reflections are important to find the right journal or other outlet. Keep an open eye at where you can publish and I think a chapter in a book is as valuable as a journal article. A blog post can sometimes be a better fit for purpose than a contribution to a journal. We indeed all have the mantra that we have to publish in journals, but I would like to open up and say, look for the right medium to share your message and think carefully about the format of that message.

Rely on people you know, your network, do a kind of an internal review process and discuss your paper before it goes out to a journal.

Don’t see the writing of a paper as an exercise solely for yourself, as the author or only with your co-authors. Do share drafts with others. Conference presentations are helpful, but I would think it is even more efficient to rely on people you know, your network, do a kind of an internal review process and discuss your paper before it goes out to a journal. Do not keep it to yourself and think, oh I am a brilliant scholar, I can do it on my own, but talk to others and be open for criticism. You can still put that criticism aside, but at least you are aware of potential shortcomings and that is I think very helpful. That can significantly improve the quality of your paper and in that sense increase your chance of getting it published in a particular journal.

Thank you very much!

Jelena Brankovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany. She is also one of the lead editors of ECHER Blog. You can follow her on Twitter.

Photo by David Alberto Carmona Coto from Pexels

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