“It is our duty as editors and reviewers to help advance higher education scholarship”: Interview with Manja Klemenčič, Editor of “European Journal of Higher Education”


This year, the European Journal of Higher Education celebrates its 10-year anniversary. Although a relatively young scholarly outlet, the journal occupies an important space, not only in European but also in the global higher education scholarship.

For this edition of ECHER’s “Meet the Editors” interview series, we are talking with the editor of the journal Manja Klemenčič. Manja is Lecturer on Sociology offering higher education courses at the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, as well as Lecturer in General Education at Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Manja’s research covers several areas within the sociology and politics of higher education, as well as international comparative and European-focused higher education. Her prolific work on student governance has been particularly important for expanding our knowledge on student agency in higher education and the effects that student have or can have on higher education.

I asked Manja to tell us a little about the journal’s beginnings and developments since the early years. We also spoke about what it means to grow a journal and keep it in dialogue with the field of higher education research, as well as about more practical aspects of the editorial work, peer review process, and the journal’s expectations regarding the focus and quality of papers. Finally, I asked Manja for some advice for early-career scholars, but also for all those who wish to publish in the journal.

European Journal of Higher Education is a relatively young journal. And yet, it is already an established outlet opened not only to European scholars, but also those from other regions interested in European higher education and higher education more generally. Could you start by telling us about the journal’s beginnings? How did it all start?

We are a very young journal, but if we count the legacy of Higher Education in Europe, we are in fact 45 years old.

This journal has a very interesting history. In 1975, UNESCO’s Centre for Studies on Higher Education – CEPES, which was UNESCO’s regional office for the study of higher education located in Bucharest, established a journal called Higher Education in Europe. The journal was three-lingual, but the French and the Russian editions were discontinued earlier in the days, while the English version kept coming out until 2009. In 2009, UNESCO decided to dissolve the UNESCO-CEPES office and the journal was discontinued together with it.

The journal’s publisher Routledge tried to acquire the title from UNESCO but was unsuccessful. So, Higher Education in Europe ended. In 2010, Routledge decided to establish a new journal, which would be in scope and purpose exactly the same as Higher Education Europe, but with a different name. Routledge asked the past editor of Higher Education in Europe, Daniel Lincoln, who was also an official in the UNESCO-CEPES, if he would start off the new journal as the founding editor. That is how, in 2010, the European Journal of Higher Education was created.

Now, in the year 2020, we are in the 10th volume of the journal, which makes us a very young journal, but if we count the legacy of Higher Education in Europe, we are in fact 45 years old. However, apart from symbolic legacy, Higher Education in Europe cannot help the European Journal of Higher Education. “On the paper” we are a different journal and indexing agencies treat us as such.

And how did you become the journal’s editor?

My engagement with the European Journal of Higher Education started in 2011, when I proposed a special issue on student governance in Europe, which I was working on at the time. When in 2012 the special issue was published, Daniel – who was still running the journal alone at the time – wanted to grow the journal and was looking for an associate editor. He invited me to join him in 2013 as Associate Editor.

In those days we were still managing all the submissions manually, which means I had an Excel sheet to record all submissions, when they were sent to peer review, to who they were sent, who submitted peer review with what recommendation, etc. I would generate the messages inviting the reviewers and informing authors manually, and so on. It was a lot of work, even though it was a new journal and there were not so many submissions.

At that time, Daniel was thinking about leaving academia. He had some new opportunities in the Gulf countries and in 2014 he decided to step down. Since I was in editorial position already, I was trained, I was the natural successor, which is how I was offered the position of the editor.

Before accepting the position, I had conversations with my informal mentor Philip Altbach. He suggested to try to negotiate obtaining an online submission platform for the journal, which I did. The publisher agreed and the journal was moved to the ScholarOne submission platform, which was incredibly helpful. Without ScholarOne, I probably won’t take over the journal since managing peer review process was incredibly time consuming and growing the journal would be impossible without it. So, in 2014 I started as the new editor-in-chief, which is the position I still have in the journal.

You mentioned that the aim was to grow the journal. What was your approach to this? Could you reflect a little on what growing the journal meant for you in practical terms?

In July 2020, we had a 157% increase in submissions, compared to July 2019. 157%. By July 2020 we already had 53% more submissions than in the entire year of 2019.

The first goal I set for myself was to have the journal indexed in Scopus. If you’re not indexed in notable indexing databases, you’re not even a second-rate journal. This is reflected in the number of submissions, in the quality of the manuscripts that are submitted, in the journal recognition. So, I had this goal and it took us about four years to build the journal to the point of acceptance into Scopus.

To achieve this, I consulted, and have received good advice from the publisher on what needed to be done. There is no recipe really, just do the rigorous peer-review process, try to get the best possible articles published … because the best possible articles will also be the ones which get most citations down the line. Also, it helps to have a strong Editorial Board with recognizable people who are also publishing themselves…and as Editor and any Associate Editors you bring in also have to be active researchers and continue to publish. There is not much more one can do.

For our journal it worked, but peer review process is a lot of work and we tried to make the journal also visible at relevant academic conferences and within academic associations. If I gave a keynote at conferences, I would sneak in a reference to the European Journal of Higher Education or at least make sure that it is mentioned as part of my biography. So, in January 2018, I got the message from Scopus Title Evaluation Team that the European Journal of Higher Education was evaluated for inclusion in Scopus and accepted. After that, it took about a year to for the indexing process to be completed and that authors see that the journal is now indexed by Scopus.

After the acceptance to Scopus, I opened a call for associate editors, because I had anticipated that the acceptance would lead to a rise in the number of submissions. In December, I selected three highly competent scholars to join me as Associate Editors in January 2019 and for the initial period of three years. Marco Seeber from the University of Agder and Giulio Marini from the UCL Institute of Education are current associate editors, and this fall, we will have a call to engage one more.

Within a year from our acceptance in Scopus, something quite remarkable happened: the submissions skyrocketed. Literally, skyrocketed. In July 2020, we had a 157% increase in submissions, compared to July 2019. 157%. By July 2020 we already had 53% more submissions than in the entire year of 2019.

This rise in submissions was, I think, a result of two effects. The Scopus effect obviously kicked in. Scopus-indexed publications are counted differently for promotions, for research funding applications, especially in the countries where they have bibliometric criteria for promotions and funding. Scopus indexed journals are ranked higher and bring more points than those who are not indexed by Scopus. They are obviously not as high ranked as journals indexed by the Social Science Citation Index, but Scopus still gives them a good number of points.

The other effect which I believe was at work in the last five months of 2020 is the COVID-19 pandemic. People have been locked in since March and at least some managed to put time into finishing up their research manuscripts. I had a conversation with our Journal Portfolio Manager recently and increase in submissions, perhaps not as significant as in the European Journal of Higher Education, is noticed by other journals also.

Moreover, the changes were not just in increase in submissions. We have also seen a 23% increase in downloads of our published articles which also shows more visibility of the journal.

Congratulations! It does look like a long way in a very short time. Given the journal is Europe-oriented in the first instance, but thematically of the most general kind, could you say something about how maintaining the scope and purpose work in practice?

Despite the fact that the articles either focus on Europe or compare Europe to other countries, our readership is global.

When I joined the journal, I discussed with the publisher and with the Editorial Board members whether to keep the same scope and purpose with an explicit focus on the European higher education or not. We came to the decision to keep this focus because, on the one hand, this was really the identity of the previous journal, and on the other, because we don’t see that we are suffering from the lack of submissions due to the regional focus. In the European context, higher education studies are an extremely vibrant, prolific, and a growing field and the journal benefits from that.

However, the journal’s readership is truly global. When we look into where in the world articles are downloaded, only 45% of all downloads come from Europe. Asia takes 21%, North America another 14%, Africa 11%, and Australasia 6%. Interestingly, the two top articles according to downloads, each having over a thousand downloads, are on quality assurance. Our Altmetrics score also shows the global character of our outreach. Despite the fact that the articles either focus on Europe or compare Europe to other countries, our readership is global.

The only exception to this geographical focus are the articles published in special issues. In special issues we accept articles that focus on other countries as well, as long as the entire special issue has the European focus.

When it comes to the thematic areas, the journal has a comprehensive coverage. We are not wedded to one single domain of study of higher education and we invite different disciplinary perspectives to study of higher education. Both conceptual and empirical articles are welcome.

You are based at Harvard University, but you are also very much embedded in the European higher education landscape and its higher education research community. This is not so common, as far as I can tell. Could you say something about the European context in comparison the US one?

We have a very established higher education research community in Europe. We have our professional academic associations, we have a number of journals, whose editors are at least based in Europe or are Europeans. Yet when we look across the Atlantic and different communities in different parts of the world, the situation is slightly different.

In the American context, there is the journal of the ASHE – the Association for the Study of Higher Education, that is, The Review of Higher Education that focuses explicitly on higher education. But other publishing venues are within discipline-based journals or in practice-oriented journals that are established by the professional associations, rather than academic associations. So the field is, as Jeroen mentioned in his interview, hugely fragmented and it is very difficult for the individual scholar to decide what would be the best publishing venue, from the point of view of that scholar’s future employment opportunities, what would count for promotion, or in applications for research funding.

Let’s talk about your expectations in terms of the quality of the submissions. What do you look for in a manuscript?

The submissions that are not in conversation with the scholarship published in higher education journals are likely to be “reinventing the wheel”.

We look for originality. In addition to this, we are looking for articles that are methodologically sound, theoretically robust, and which are in conversation with the existing higher education scholarship. It happens sometimes that there is a submission to our journal, which is on a topic that has been widely covered by journals such as the Studies in Higher Education, Higher Education, Higher Education Policy, our journal and similar. But the submission does not have a single citation that would draw from publications in any of these journals. Instead, the authors cite exclusively from the publications in their disciplinary journals which tend not to cover the higher education topics as closely as the journals that focus on higher education.

The submissions that are not in conversation with the scholarship published in higher education journals are likely to be “reinventing the wheel” or missing some important developments in the field. I find this to be a weakness in the submission. If manuscript is sound otherwise, I would return it to the authors with a note to work on the literature review and better connect it to the existing publications in the field.

On the other hand, articles that are firmly grounded in a discipline tend to be theoretically robust and empirically rigorous. If they are also original in their contribution and “in conversation” with existing scholarship published in the higher education studies, that is a recipe for a strong submission.

Could you walk us through the stages of processing a manuscript, from submission to acceptance? How do you decide what gets rejected? How do you choose reviewers? And so on.

As Editor-in-Chief, I filter articles at the submission stage, before I assign them to one of the associate editors. Some of the articles are rejected at that stage. And it’s not a small percentage. They are rejected either because they are not suitable or because they are not sound.

When I assign a manuscript to one of the Associate Editors, they have a full discretion to decide whom they will choose as a reviewer and they come to a decision after the recommendations from reviewers have been received. In choice of reviewers, each has a slightly different approach. Most of us rely on people that we are familiar with their publications, or who have published in our journal on the topic. If people have published in the journal before, they should accept to review at least once a year. I do the same when I am asked to review by other journals. So that would be the first choice. Then, we look for people who have published elsewhere something significant on the topic of the manuscript. Our submission platform, ScholarOne, gives us suggestions for reviewers based on the publications from the Web of Science.

Typically, what we do, we invite at least three people in the first round, sometimes even four, even though in principle we need two, because more often than not there will be at least one decline to review. It can happen that we have many more declines. It depends on the topic, but also time in the year. Summers tend to be tough for finding reviewers.

In terms of seniority, senior scholars tend to have a better overview of the field, as Simon suggested, and they can make a recommendation often more competently, but they have less time. So, their reviews are often less detailed. When it comes to the middle-range, upcoming scholars, they might not have such a good overview of the field, but they tend to go through the article very meticulously and we get a very conscientious, very detailed and thus developmentally helpful review. As much as possible, we try to have both senior and upcoming scholars reviewing each manuscript.

Our Editorial Board members are the last resort as reviewers. This happens when we have a tie in recommendations, and we need a third review. I try not to overburden our Editorial Board members since I usually ask them to review proposals for special issues.

I have been now with the journal for six years, we got it into Scopus and we are now looking into the Social Science Citation Index as the next stage.

I am invited to review for other journals as well a lot. I occasionally say “yes”, but I often have to say “no”, because I am editor as well and I am reading all these manuscripts for my journal. I only accept if the manuscript is on the topic I have written extensively on and I am actively working on now. This is part of the service we do in our profession. ScholarOne platform is great help sine it records for each person in our pool how many times they have reviewed in the last year. We check this carefully since we don’t want to overburden individual reviewers either. Reviewing is important, time-consuming voluntary service and as editors we immensely value the contribution of our reviewers. We of course also compete with other journals for reviewers.

So, the recommendations from reviewers come back. Most of the articles, maybe even 98% would have had at least one round of revisions, if not more. But it can happen, although very rarely, that a manuscript is accepted after the first round.

Once the article is accepted, it goes into production. We have a very short production turn-over. In about two to three weeks after acceptance, the article is published OnlineFirst with DOI number. It will take some time, sometimes even up to a year depending on backlog of articles, when the article is then assigned to an issue.

Taylor & Francis / Routledge is very helpful with promoting each article published in the journal via readers’ alerts and social media. Their outreach also helps promote the journal, which is important to attract high-quality submissions, gain citations for articles published in the journal and for publications to have impact on policy and practice.

How much time does it take you, on a weekly basis, to take care of your editorial tasks?

I try to reserve time for the journal on Fridays. I don’t work on it daily, except if something comes up. And then it can take me two, three, four hours… it depends on number of submissions. I also work on anything open with my other editing position – I am also a co-editor of a book series for Bloomsbury, Understanding Student Experiences of Higher Education.

But to be honest, this practice of working only on Friday worked well in the past years, but nowadays I have to check ScholarOne submission platform in the mid-week as well. The submissions have gone up significantly. I am planning a new editorial structure for EJHE by engaging a co-editor in a year and keeping more associate editors, like Simon has done with Higher Education.

I have been now with the journal for six years, we got it into Scopus and we are now looking into the Social Science Citation Index as the next stage, so it is time for me to get more people involved.

What has being a journal editor meant to you as a scholar?

Being editor of the European Journal of Higher Education has helped me stay abreast with the field… in touch with the field broadly. It has pushed me to read much more widely than I would have if I had not had this position. If you’re doing research on one topic, you’re go deep into that topic. Being a journal editor has improved my general sense of where the field is going and my familiarity with a broad variety of research into higher education. And because of this editorial experience I think I’m a better researcher, and definitely, I’m a better teacher of higher education.

I teach courses on higher education at Harvard: sociology of higher education but also a general education course with multidisciplinary perspectives to study of higher education. I am much more aware of the developments in our field and also developments within different disciplines because I am an editor of a journal with a broad-based interest in higher education.

What would be your advice for early-career scholars who wish to publish in the European Journal of Higher Education?

Don’t hesitate to submit to the journal, even if you’re coming from the countries in the places where higher education research is not so developed.

I would say, first, what matters most is the originality of the topic, something that brings original contribution to our understanding of higher education as fascinating and fast-changing social institution. I think that’s key along with theoretical robustness and empirical rigor, of course.

Second, as I said before, regardless of which discipline or profession authors come from, they need to be aware of the scholarship in our field. Their manuscript has to be in a conversation with the field, and that means that their manuscript needs to reflect the major publications in our field. It takes a lot of work to review the latest publications in the field since the field is so fragmented. Looking at higher education journals only is not enough and looking only at journals in one’s own discipline is not enough. One has to consider both plus the books, of course.

The third advice, please clean up your submissions. Don’t send in half-baked submissions. A manuscript that does not follow the guidelines for authors in terms of style, formatting, references will be sent back before review. We don’t want to waste peer reviewers’ time for something that is only half-baked, with things missing and grammatical mistakes. People should not be lazy on that. If they have put all of this work into the manuscript content, they should also make sure that it is polished to present it in best possible light. If you see a messy article, it can taint the overall contribution and reviewers look at it more critically.

And the fourth advice, don’t hesitate to submit to the journal, even if you’re coming from the countries in the places where higher education research is not so developed. Both editors and reviewers try to do our part in helping authors develop their manuscripts to be publishable. And often we know less about higher education in peripheral parts of Europe. So, the potential for original contribution is greater when researching peripheral countries is greater. I find it that it is our duty as editors and reviewers to help advance higher education scholarship, which also means advancing it in the places in which higher education research is less developed.

Manja, thank you very much for your time and for sharing your views.

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 Elijah O’Donnell from Pexels

One Reply to ““It is our duty as editors and reviewers to help advance higher education scholarship”: Interview with Manja Klemenčič, Editor of “European Journal of Higher Education””

  1. This is a really insightful and interesting interview. Thank you for publishing it!

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