“I had the right skills at the right time”: Interview with Joseph Crawford (Joey), Editor-in-Chief of “Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice”

This time in the “Meet the Editors” interview series we meet with Dr Joey Crawford, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice (JUTLP). Joey currently works as a Senior Lecturer, both in Management and in Educational Innovation, at the University of Tasmania, Australia. He tells the story of his career in higher education and how, through happenstance, he became the Editor-in-Chief of the JUTLP. He shares detailed insights into the strategy and operations of the journal, which is increasing its popularity and status. Joey also provides valuable descriptions of the characteristics of quality journal articles and helpful tips to help early-career scholars publish and progress their careers.

JUTLP is a double-blind refereed open access online journal, which publishes papers that add significantly to the body of knowledge describing effective and innovative teaching and learning practice in the higher education environment. Read more about the journal here.

Could you start by sharing how you became Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the University Teaching and Learning practice and what your motivations were?

I became Editor by accident, which seems relatively common among journals. You do some good research or technical stuff and then it’s like, ‘we’re looking for a new editor in this particular area. Would you be willing to do it?’ So, my journey started from reviewing. I reviewed for the journal because a colleague of mine said, ‘I really need some expertise in quantitative methods. Can you review this paper for me?’ I did, and he said, ‘wow, that was really good!’ and I got another review request, and another, and then they asked me to join as an Associate Editor.

So, I joined as an Associate Editor and a few months later I was a Senior Editor and then, about a year later, I became Editor-in-Chief. That’s probably not how you would normally join an Editorial Board – it was just that I had the right skills at the right time, and it just all sequenced up. Typically, you go through a reasonably extensive application process. Once I became Editor-in-Chief, we stopped the practice of tapping people on the shoulder and inviting them to become a leader. It is now a very formal process. The last application round we had about 100 applicants for the editor roles that we were filling.

My motivation is that we’re part of an editorial community, a publishing community. We talk a lot about publishing and peer review reciprocity. So, if I want to publish frequently, I should also review other people’s work. Editing, in turn, is a way for me to learn more about what happens on the “other side” but also is my way of contributing to and advancing the field.

Have you always worked in higher education?

No. I accidentally fell into higher education. I was finishing my undergraduate studies and, while I studied, worked in government and other management roles. I was planning to continue working in a government role after graduating. However, someone co-opted me to do an honors degree and, by the end of that, I realised research is really fun. I was then nudged in, with a scholarship and a few teaching roles, to do a PhD. And I’ve stayed in academia ever since.

But it wasn’t my intention. It was never really an ambition of mine to be an academic. But I do like reading and I like research and that kind of stuff, so I continued on that path. But higher education as a discipline is one that I actually don’t sit in. I am there by virtue of the fact that I believe that, if you want to be a good teacher and academic, you should engage in research and scholarship relevant to being both a teacher and a subject area expert in order to continually improve your practice. So that’s why I nudged my way into the higher education discipline in addition to my subject area.

What does being an Editor mean to you?

It means a lot. You’re the gatekeeper. I think that’s a big one. But, also, you control fates and that’s something I don’t say lightly because it’s something that I try to say quite regularly to editors around me. In reality, a lot of academia is based on publishing. So, the numbers of publications and citations, the papers you get published to support promotion applications, or your quotas for jobs in some universities. If you don’t publish enough, you lose your research load. You have to teach more, and so eventually, over time, you lose your ability to do research, which is sometimes the reason why people become academics. Editors have an incredible responsibility to make sure that, when we let papers through the door, they are of high quality, but also ensure that we carefully check those that don’t get to the finish line.

This year, about 300 papers came through our journal in six months – that’s almost two a day. And we only have room to publish about 60 per year. So, only a very small amount, approximately 10% of the total yearly pool, can get published. This means we have to be very careful about how we gatekeep and assess quality, making sure to be fair and open to improving our practice.

Do you convene with editors of other journals?

You should explore how other people are engaging in practice, how they might learn in that context, and what you can learn from them.

Not with frequency, and I think this is something that I would like to do more of. However, I recently published an editorial about journal editor practice and actually went out to all the Q1 major Editors and Editors-in-Chiefs, in particular, across Australia. I emailed them and said ‘hey, I’d if you were willing to contribute to reviewing the work that I’m publishing, which talks about editorial practice, I’d love to hear from you on this space.’ All the editors who responded are listed in the Acknowledgements section, so you can see who they were.

We have also had a former editor of BJET do a session for our editors. So, we’re trying to embed professional learning because it’s part of our practice, as being editors, to learn how we could be better editors, and you don’t learn how to be better at something if you’re always looking at your own practice. You should explore how other people are engaging in practice, how they might learn in that context, and what you can learn from them.

What do you like most about being an Editor?

You get to build. So, when I first started, it was very much about building the number of contributing authors and I spent a lot of time building that base. Now I like the opportunity to assist authors improve the quality of their works, particularly those works that the reviewers, Editor and I believe are important contributions to the field. We make decisions about whether or not we will spend additional time and energy with those authors to improve the quality of that work. And, when we do provide that additional support, we get to see the paper and its author transform.

As I’ve moved into more senior editor roles, I now do that a lot more with editors, as opposed to authors, meaning that I spend time training editors and working with them on improving their practice. And our journal’s growing quite a lot, particularly in the last couple of years, so I spend time bringing new editors and junior editors up to speed with quality processes and teaching them the practice of saying no, ‘I don’t like rejecting things, but we have a limited number of spaces for publishing.’

So, we have to work our way through engaging with as many papers as we can reasonably publish in a particular year. Learning that practice has been a really good opportunity for me because it’s a leadership and management role in the way that we work with other editors in our journal and then how they go and work with authors and reviewers and guest editors and all the rest.

What do you believe is the most difficult aspect of being an editor or the biggest challenge you have had to overcome?

We’ve had a few interesting papers come through that have required us to work out how to deal with them. The Committee on Publishing Ethics has some examples and best-case responses that have been useful. We have to work out whether data is made-up and if there are ways to determine the integrity of papers because you don’t get a signed note saying, ‘this is authentic’. You just get, ‘here’s the paper and we think it’s right’ and you have to scrutinise it to check. The paper that saw me transition into a Senior Editor was a paper that we’d accidentally accepted with minor revisions, so it was still in the process, but I read the paper and the maths didn’t work – they were insignificant findings. And so, their argument was inadequately supported by evidence. In such instances, we go back to work with these authors. Sometimes they don’t like being told that their analysis has errors.

Authors can believe in their work a bit too much, fail to consider feedback or aren’t responsive to the process.

I find that junior editors, in particular, can have trouble working with authors, which is why we have our decision-making tree – if there’s a conflict, it goes to me, and I deal with it. This type of thing doesn’t happen very often, but authors can believe in their work a bit too much, fail to consider feedback or aren’t responsive to the process, and you just have to reject it if the author’s not willing to respond or attempt to fix the problems, or at least defend the accuracy of their work by explaining their decision-making.

I’ve seen those papers later get published in other journals where they went on to get good citation counts and downloads because they’re good papers, but they just had things that were wrong with them that the authors weren’t willing to fix. We just have to accept that. There’s literally a paper out there, which I know has 70 or 80 citations currently, that I remember rejecting because part of it was lacking in quality and the authors weren’t willing to respond. And that paper still has those errors but the part that was good is the part that’s being cited. We look at paper in its entirety. It can be difficult watching stuff come through our door, which we reject that is later published, and feeling we missed that one. But we also didn’t sacrifice our integrity or our quality standards because the authors weren’t willing to respond.

What are your regular tasks and responsibilities as Editor-in-Chief?

So many meetings! At the moment we’re building some new sections of the journal. As we’re growing, we’re asking strategic questions about what we want our journal to be and what we want to achieve. We asked questions about a year and a half ago now, which led to us forming the current four sections of the journal – theory and practice of teaching and learning; student experience; educational technology; and developing teaching practice – which were based on making sense of what came through the door.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of management organising to ensure that, as we get bigger, we don’t lose sight of the small teams of editors and work on high quality publications together. As we’ve progressed, we’ve been asking the question, ‘what kind of a journal do we want to be?’ That’s a really difficult question to answer. It means that we potentially have sections that we don’t think are part of our future or that there are sections that are missing from our future that we actually want to involve and embed as we grow. So, day-to-day, I’m thinking about this and working my way through these tasks.

I also check all incoming papers, which typically get assessed by Senior Editors who do the day-to-day rejection processes, although, I do review papers that align with my areas of expertise; quant stuff quite often. We’ve just been through a big recruitment process, so I worked and managed my way through a process of assessing applications, bringing on new associates and spent the last month running induction programs for each of them to bring them up to speed. So, my job is becoming less Editor and more making sure that we are achieving editorial quality and building up the quality of those around me in the journal.

Our impact factor has more than doubled in the last year and a bit, and we index ourselves every month because Scopus releases new CiteScores every month. We’re the only journal, in our short index of really high-profile journals, currently ahead of its last year’s score, so we are moving quite quickly into more senior impact ranges. That’s because of our strategy, which is obviously working. All that extra work we spend in making sure editors are high quality, training them and developing them, and making sure that our practices are improving consistently, is something that I measure by impact factor.

Do you think your background in organisational change management has made you a great strategic thinker for reshaping the journal?

I think so. That’s been a natural part of my process, to think about the journal as a not-for-profit board, and bringing in people who are volunteers and working out how you work with volunteers. My parallel research area is in the volunteer leadership space where we think about how to effectively support people to lead and manage other people, all of whom work for free, yet gain benefits from the act of volunteering. So, I personally benefit by being a journal editor; my chance of promotion is increased; I have had access to training and resources that have improved the quality of my research; and I have access to the research literature before it’s published, so I am ahead of the industry as an editor. But I also get to realise benefits from an organisational perspective, for example, by being able to structure the journal’s practice and place in the sector.

I consider journal management like managing a board; everyone is accountable and responsible, and we have structures and guidelines to help us organise effectively. But it’s also group of volunteers who, with too much poking and prodding, would likely tap out and say, ‘no thank you. That’s OK. I’ll go and be a journal editor for somewhere else.’ I suspect there are plenty of journals out there, particularly lower ranked journals that are desperate for editors.

What kinds of decisions are you expected to make?

The typical editor makes decisions around accepting and rejecting articles, as well as whether they proceed to major revisions. Or, if we include a new section, for example, I decide how big that section will be. How many papers will that section publish per year? If we add a section that has very little pipeline, what impact does that have on our likely impact factor or quality factor, if we have a small number of papers coming in for a decent number of spots in the journal? It means there will be a high acceptance rate in that particular section, which could decrease the quality of our work. What do we do then? How do we recruit? How do we recruit people into a section we’ve never had, or a part of the journal we’ve never had people in? So, these kinds of business decisions are what I do as Editor-in-Chief.

Right now, we’re re-examining our four sections again. I keep going back to them because that’s how we organise our sections, like committees. Each section is its own committee and has its own Senior Editor, and they each manage themselves separately. But we are at the point now where we’ve had them running for about a year and a half, and we’re starting to see that some of the sections have really high impact in terms of citations, downloads and submissions, and are really high quality, whereas other sections are not performing as well. So, the decision we’re making now is: what do we do about it, and do we care?

The COVID landscape means reviewers are a commodity that’s very difficult to access.

But our core business involves making decisions on rejecting and accepting articles, choosing reviewers and then, when reviews come back in, whether we agree or disagree with the reviewers. If one reviewer says reject and one reviewer says accept no changes, what do we do? How do we engage with our practice, particularly when it’s incredibly difficult to get more reviews at the moment; the COVID landscape means reviewers are a commodity that’s very difficult to access.

Decisions isolated to Editor-in-Chief are usually about conflict. So, there are papers that have ethical issues or papers where the authors are a bit problematic in terms of their personalities. In those instances, I ask the editor to send them straight to me and I deal with them. We had a special issue proposal a while back that we rejected, and the authors were not accepting the rejection. That was interesting! And I’m like, ‘well, that’s nice, but we’re not changing our mind on this one so, yeah.’ And we don’t then engage in further conversations. However, if they’re really high-profile researchers, and we aren’t going to change our mind, but we reply to make sure they don’t go to all their other high-profile friends and say, ‘don’t go to that journal cause that journal rejected me’. They don’t get special treatment because they’re top tier publishers and that’s important because it’s about quality. It doesn’t matter to us who the author is, what matters is the quality of the work.

I’ve also been trying to move us away from giving blanket sentences to reject, which is why we separated the rejection and major revisions process (managed by the Seniors Editors) from the acceptance process, which is managed by the Associate Editors. So, we have more time for the Senior Editors to reject articles, while still giving quality feedback. A Senior Editor for one section, for example, will publish 16 papers and reject about 160 to 170 papers, so they need more time. We try to put the human at the forefront, so we make sure we think about the person, whether it’s the author, the reviewer, the editor going through those processes, making sure that we create space for the humans within the process, rather than process driven activity that we deliver and run off.

How do you choose your reviewers?

That’s one of the most difficult questions that you’ve asked me because it’s actually not a very easy practice choosing reviewers. We have a reviewer list, which we’re constantly adding and subtracting from, based on quality and who responds, etcetera. We try to send out review requests to two reviewers. One person is selected for methodological expertise, an expert in that particular method that the research is using, and one person who’s an expert in the content.

We’ve been doing a lot of work on how we could communicate that to the reviewers, because at the moment we don’t; we use an old template and review system that we want to enhance. We don’t want two blind reviewers to look at whether they’ve referenced correctly. We don’t want two blind reviewers saying, ‘is this paper relevant to a higher education audience?’ Because if we’re putting a paper out to review, we already know those things. Instead, we want to ask the methodology expert, how does this methodology stack up? How does the method, the assumptions around the method and the findings stack up? That’s your area of expertise and I want to ask you to do the best thing that you can do as a reviewer and focus on that part. You might have some peripheral comments around the discussion and the introduction and literature review, but actually your area of expertise is in this specific form of quantitative research or phenomenology conducted using interviews. And then you have someone else, who’s an expert in graduate employability. Or an expert in depression in students or this particular type of curriculum, or this particular type of pedagogy. I want you to focus on how they have engaged literature in that area. What are their arguments like? Are the other arguments sound? Do they do what they need to do? And that’s something that we are trying to get a little bit better at, in terms of the way we engage with the reviewers, because I think that when we decide on who the reviewers are, if we can communicate that to them in the system, which we can’t right now, that will help us get high quality pieces of feedback.

A lot of editors find reviewers in looking through Google Scholar for people who are publishing on a topic recently. If your paper happens to hit the kind of top end of the Google search, you tend to get a lot more review requests, so that’s obviously a really big challenge for reviewers. Also, some papers are timeless as part of our human condition right now, and others are time sensitive with relevance right now, so time is an important factor to consider. We occasionally prioritise papers that are time sensitive because we don’t want us to be the reason why a paper has lost relevance or doesn’t get to the market when it needs to, when people are looking for solutions to immediate problems. As a practice-based journal, that’s something that we think about quite carefully because the people who download our works – DVC’s, PVCS of Learning and Teaching, and Academic, Academic Developers, for example – they’ve got a problem right now that they’re trying to resolve. They’re looking for evidence that they can transfer to their institution’s practices. And we want to be able to help with that practice, while also contributing to research outcomes and the continuation of evidence, which is where impact factor comes in.

Our journal has been working quite hard on the time it takes for a paper to get to publication because people are often relying on publications for promotions and grants and things. We give authors and reviewers deadlines to help with this, and our associate editors have a limit of about four articles at any one time to manage so they can do it properly.

In your view, what characterises a good or a poor submission?

First, I look at whether the article is evidence-based, adds value to the evidence, and there’s a link between the value and evidence (via a clear method). There needs to be a strong problem statement in the introduction and a really clear ‘why or so what?’ So, before getting into theory, you must explain the practical reasons for the research. Then, refer to the relevant literature. If you’re proposing something new, you must base it on justifiable evidence.

There needs to be a strong problem statement in the introduction and a really clear ‘why or so what?’.

The middle sections provide information to explain how you got from the evidence base to contributing to evidence. A really strong method is essential and an explanation about how it is framed in theory.

At the end, you need to ask, in our case, is it contributing to evidence of practice and evidence of theory? Does it have strong findings and a discussion that actually supports the contribution to evidence with respect to current knowledge? A lot of people say, ‘here’s the thing that I learned and it’s really important and interesting’, but don’t talk about how it connects to other works and situates in the broader literature.

Do you have any recommendations for early career researchers interested in submitting to your journal?

Prepare a high-quality piece of work prior to submitting! Actually, I’d recommend submitting to top tier journals, getting rejected from them and using that feedback to enhance the work. If you believe in your work and you’ve done really good work that feedback could be really high quality and it could help inform the rest of the process.

If we can’t decide on quality, why wouldn’t we work with the person who we think is going to be the most responsive to effective feedback?

Playing by the rules is also important. So, when there’s no comparative difference between two articles in terms of quality, we consider which author grouping would be more likely to respond effectively to feedback. And we don’t search author names, we don’t know whether they are early career or senior professors, but if they’ve played by the rules in following the style guidelines correctly and they’ve engaged with the journals works, they’re actually adding value to previous journal works, rather than just throwing in random citations like some people do to show they’ve engaged with the journal or those who do not engage with the journal at all and just throw it our way. Those things matter when deciding on the threshold. If it’s a really poorly organised paper and it hasn’t followed journal convention, then, as a small non-for-profit journal with volunteers, someone has to copyedit and go through with the author on what they need to fix. We don’t necessarily need it to be perfect but if it’s very close to being up to speed, we will opt towards the author who has demonstrated diligence. If we can’t decide on quality, why wouldn’t we work with the person who we think is going to be the most responsive to effective feedback? And that’s a difficult decision to make because as we increase the volume of papers, we get more and more papers come through that are of high quality and we have to keep working out which one is of higher quality and which one will be of higher quality, which is a really difficult question to answer.

Thank you, Joey, for sharing your experiences and insights with us!

Photo by Arwen Jayne on Unsplash

Elizabeth J. Cook is currently a Senior Analyst, Strategy and Planning at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. Her research interests include graduate employability and career development learning, inquiry graphics and sociomateriality, student experience, retention and success, and higher education policy, research and evaluation. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply