“We as editors are really just caretakers”: Interview with Peter Bentley, Editor of “Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management”

This time in the “Meet the Editors” interview series, we talk to Peter Bentley, the Editor of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, associated with LH Martin Institute and the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM). The journal aims to bridge the worlds of higher education researchers and policy makers, senior managers and administrative staff in universities. Peter Bentley is a Research Fellow at the LH Martin Institute and works on projects investigating the changing nature of the academic profession, institutional diversity within the university and vocational education sector, university finance and R&D bench-marking, and course redesign.

In this interview, we talk to Peter on being the editor responsible for managing a community-of-practice-related journal. We also discuss the nuances of the editorial work and a broad range of the support and attention that the editorial board of the journal gives to the authors.

Thank you for agreeing to become part of the ECHER interview series “Meet the Editors”. What are your responsibilities as the editor-in-chief of this journal, and how did you become the editor?

I started as Editor-in-Chief in 2017. The previous editor, Ian Dobson, had been in the job for quite a long time. Ian and the journal owners were looking to transition to a new editorship. The journal is co-owned by LH Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne and ATEM. I was working as a researcher at LH Martin Institute in 2016 and was asked if I would be interested in taking over the role of editing the journal with Carroll Graham, who had experience with ATEM. This allowed the two owners to each have someone representing them in editing the journal. The owners also wanted a hierarchy with an Editor-in-Chief, someone who would ultimately be responsible for all articles accepted and in cases of disputes. It does occasionally happen that there’s a dispute. It was decided that I would take on the responsibility of being Editor-in-Chief, and Carroll as Associate Editor.

In 2017 we needed to establish an editorial board. The existing board had been there for a quite a long time and as new editors we were expected to establish a new one. With the guidance from the owners, we set up a new board in 2016, prior to formally commencing our roles.

The articles need to connect the literature and theory with the practice, and engage with an international audience.

We also needed to set up an online submission system. Until 2017 the submissions were managed manually via emails between authors, the editor and peer-reviewers. Our first year was really busy setting this up. The publisher, Taylor & Francis, has some standardised approaches, but we wanted the online submission system to fit the journal, rather than fitting the journal into their standardised systems. For example, we had to decide what information we wanted from reviewers – like scores etc. We wanted to integrate the system with Publons, so all the reviewers will be able to get the recognition in that way. We spent a lot of time on that in the first year.

As inexperienced editors we also needed to establish the networks with people whom we may call upon for reviews. Unlike the other editors that you have interviewed in the series, who had been researching and editing for decades, we did not have the same deep networks.

Journal ownership probably doesn’t matter much to authors, but as editors we work for the journal owners and their members. People pay subscriptions to be members of ATEM, and part of that subscription money goes to support the journal. It is their journal. One of the challenges for us is to be able to serve the membership of ATEM and ensuring that the journal is publishing material that is valued and read by its members. Traditionally, the journal has been more professionally oriented, looking not so much at purely scholarly and theoretical issues, but at investigating organisational problems and exchanging experiences within the practitioner community. The articles need to connect the literature and theory with the practice, and engage with an international audience.

Correct me if I am wrong, but as for the journal which has about forty years of its history it sounds as if you were responsible for starting it anew.

Policymakers and policy advisers need to be able to read the articles quickly and understand the basic steps that led to results.

We were certainly responsible for getting the online submission system sorted out. One of the first things we did was engage with Clarivate Analytics to get the journal indexed in the Web of Science, it was already in Scopus. After a couple of years, it progressed from the Emerging Sources Citation Index to the Social Science Citation Index. Maybe that first year was – to say it in a bit of a harsh way – bringing the journal into a new era, but it can also lead to a sort of homogenisation. Once you are indexed in the Social Science Citation Index, you start looking at citations and feel like maybe the practitioner-oriented and practitioner-written articles are less likely to be cited internationally. But the journal is supposed to serve a practitioner audience – that is why it was established, so we mustn’t focus just on publishing papers we think are most likely to be cited by the scholarly community. Papers need to be accessible to people who are not academic scholars. Policymakers and policy advisers need to be able to read the articles quickly and understand the basic steps that led to results. Authors can go into the methodological details for the peer reviewers and scholarly community, but then they have to have a really accessible discussion section. To clearly say: “look, this is what we have learned”.

Taking into account your work as editor-in-chief, you have said that your first year was rather busy with solving all the practical issues, like indexing or setting up the online submission system. During the last year, when all these practical issues were finally solved, how does your regular week or month as an editor looks like? How much time do you spend on the tasks related with the journal? What are your roles in relation to it? What are the decisions that your responsible to take?

I try to spend one day a week on the journal, but it is surprising how much of that time is not spent sitting and reading the submissions. It is amazing how many other things take up your time. Just searching for the reviewers or thinking about the journal, reporting to the editorial board and journal owners. I try to contain all that in one day. Previously it was a part of my academic salary to do the editing at the LH Martin Institute, but that job ended at the end of 2017. I immediately started a new role within the university sector, but not in academic position. My current employer considers the journal editing to be beneficial and supports me to do it partly during my regular work time and in more quiet periods.

In those first couple of years as an editor you have a handover period, where you have submissions already set up by the previous editor. You have a pile of accepted articles that have not got into the printed issues. We have to deliver six issues per year and we had articles for two issues already accepted when we took over, as well as others under review. The first year was managing the handover. In the second year we started to be a little bit short of content because we were rejecting a lot. In the third year the journal was indexed in the Web of Science and that increased the number of people who wanted to publish their research with us. We shifted from getting about 200 submissions and publishing around about 35 to 40 articles – an acceptance rate between 15 to 20% – to 400 to submissions but still only accepting the same number of articles, halving the acceptance rate. For this reason, our role changed from looking at the articles and thinking “does it have a potential to be published?” (in the first years) to a situation where manuscripts almost need to be very good upon submission.

Carroll and I split the editorial workload equally, and with 450 submissions per year, we each see about 20 submissions a month. If we are accepting 35 to 40 articles a year, we can only accept around 2 or 3 articles each month. One or two from each of us. For new submissions we must now think: “Is this one of the best submissions I am going to see this month?”. If I think it is, then I send it out for review and it has a good chance of publication. If I was to send out more, such as half of the articles out to review or 10 per month, we possibly end up accepting hundreds of articles after major revisions and many reviews. It is shifting that mindset from…

From being supportive to being selective…

Yes, to being sort of a gatekeeper. Making sure that the articles meet a certain scholarly standard and a practitioner significance. Being a curator of knowledge for the journal readership.

In the first years we were busy in setting the journal up, understanding our role as editors. Now it is about identifying these handful of articles each month to send out to review, and then looking at the review reports. Because we are very selective over what we send out to review, submissions are now more likely to receive positive and constructive reviews.

We are also using our editorial board more in some desk review decisions. Our board members have more expertise than we do in some topics areas and are better placed to decide on quality and significance of some submissions. For this reason, some of our desk rejects are not typical of other journals. Submissions may have been read by myself and another board member prior to desk rejection. When the desk reject rates are so high, the editor has a great power and responsibility. Therefore, we want to be careful and consult on some decisions.

Could you navigate me through the editorial process of the journal? Let us move through all the stages that the article goes through. Once I have submitted the article what is happening with it? From the perspective of the author, it might just look like a long process of waiting – and during our conversation you have touched upon many different procedures that you use in relation to the articles. Could you please describe the stages as seen from the perspective of the editor?

Desk rejects are done quickly. I would say that most desk rejects are done in one or two weeks. When papers have not been desk rejected in one or two weeks, it often means that we are considering whom to send them out to review or we are considering revisions prior to review. Maybe there are some changes we think would improve the chances of positive review, because when we send the papers out for review, we want positive reviews.

A very peculiar approach…

If I am interested in a manuscript but have some concerns, I will write back to the author and say: here are some suggestions. There might be some technical issues, cutting words, making charts more legible or just suggestions which the authors may accept or ignore. After they re-submit, I send the manuscript to review. We usually expect reviewers to complete reviews within four weeks.

The first thing I look at when papers are submitted is how many words it is. The authors have to declare this. We have the word limit of 7,000 words. If a submission is more than 7,000 words, that irritates me. It puts me in a bad mood. Editors read so many submissions, we expect authors to be able to read the word limit of the journal. Over-length submissions are an obvious signal that authors are not targeting our journal. Therefore, I look at the word limit. That takes a second or two, but sometimes authors lie.

The first thing I look at when papers are submitted is how many words it is.

Then I look at the title and abstract. I can often get a reasonable idea if the article is likely to be relevant from this. Language issues also expose themselves in the abstract. I also get an idea about the research question.

I then may look at the reference list to see if this paper is engaging with higher education research journals. There are a lot of papers submitted that do not engage with prior higher education research, such as discipline-specific research in psychology or human resource management.

Then I have a quick read of the article. When I am desk rejecting every eight out of ten submissions, reasons to desk reject are always on the mind. For submissions that look interesting and relevant, I will print them out and set aside some time to look at them in more detail. Sometimes I will consult with Carroll and swap submissions with her if she has more knowledge or interest in a topic, or if I feel some sort of conflict of interest, such as if I know one of the authors.

When reading manuscripts, I will think about who might be a good reviewer. Does it build on some research that has been previously published in higher education journals and whose authors could be called upon as reviewers? If it is nationally focused research, I also like to have a one person who really understands the local context.

When I write to a reviewer, I always indicate my rationale for inviting them. All invitations are personalized. For example, reviewers may be asked based on their familiarity with the theoretical framework, national context or methodology, and I make this clear in my invitation. If I know a reviewer is not a quantitative researcher, I may indicate that I have contacted someone who is an expert in this area. If someone is not be familiar with the national context, I may indicate that I have sought another reviewer who is familiar with this. In the end, reviewers will see each other reports.

Overall, the best papers are the ones where the reviewers’ reports are consistent or complementary. I can then write back to the authors and say, look, these might appear to be major revisions, but there is some overlap or complementarity, and I think your paper could be improved by addressing these areas. I really like to see papers improved. That is what the review process is about. The published manuscript should be better than what was submitted, even if it the original submission was very good to begin with.

The published manuscript should be better than what was submitted, even if it the original submission was very good to begin with.

Do you resend papers to reviewers?

Yes. It is one of our custom questions for reviewers in our online submission system, asking them about their willingness to review a revised version. Our review system has standard questions that all the journals will use, but we also include this as an additional question.

A reviewer’s willingness to review a revised version does not directly affect our editorial decision, but it does indicate some enthusiasm from them. If it is major revisions, we will probably send the paper back for a second review, but it also depends on the extent of the revisions and if I feel confident that I can judge it adequately.

Ultimately I may end up reading papers three or four times before they are published. That is why it is so important that papers are clearly written and interesting.

You might be one of the most dedicated readers of higher education articles on the planet.

I am certainly the most dedicated reader of the articles published in our journal. If they are accepted, they were read by at least three people, me and two reviewers, and read by me multiple times.

It sounds like a huge advantage of the journal – like if people struggle to get some attention and readership – at least during the process here they will get more than in many other journals. It seems to me a very strong side of the journal.

As a society-owned journal we cannot increase the number of accepted articles, so we try to make the most of what we accept. We have sought to increase the number of pages that we can publish, but this is a slow process. Historically, every page that is accepted needed to be printed in the physical issue, placed into a plastic sleeve and shipped around the world. There is a cost involved into that. These days most articles are printed at home, but we still have publisher enforced page limits and a print version. For this reason, we are very selective.

I would like to ask you a question about the reviews and reviewers. How satisfied are you with the quality of the reviewers and the reviews they submit?

I am very satisfied. We need a minimum of two reviewers. And they need to be of a good standard. Some reviewers will recommend “reject” without providing much feedback. If it is brief but relevant, then that is fine. Some people will recommend “accept” without much feedback. These cases will usually go to a third reviewer, unless I have a lot of confidence in the reviewer and the manuscript. Occasionally I have a reviewer report that even I as editor do not quite understand, and I will seek a third reviewer. Then I write to the authors and explain in a polite way that I am providing three reports, but you may focus on the report B and C and take what you can from the other report.

We try to involve our editorial board as reviewers because they have an understanding of the aims and the scope of our journal, particularly for the practitioner community. One of our challenges with reviewers is that they do not always understand that some of the articles will be written by people who are not academics, not designed to advance theory and not intended for an academic audience. Academics as reviewers also tend to demand more and more, but papers need to be kept within the word limit. I often write back to authors asking them to consider specific elements of the reports and to keep to 7,000 words, implicitly encouraging them to limit their changes in order to keep manuscripts succinct and targeted.

Academics as reviewers also tend to demand more and more, but papers need to be kept within the word limit.

Overall, I am quite satisfied with the reviewers’ reports. We have some countries that are harder to get expertise from. Quantitative papers can also be a challenge. Reviewers with expertise in econometrics might understand the methods, but not necessarily understand the literature and theory. Quantitative reviewers can get really caught up in methodological details and lose sight of the practical implications.

Which, as I understand, is the main task of the journal – to serve the specific community of practitioners?

Yes, and policy advisors and those involved in shaping the policy.

What would you indicate as the biggest challenge that you face as an editor-in-chief in the totality of the process of running this journal? You have mentioned one in your previous answers – the need to balance between academicness” and practice-related side of both the review process and authorship process. Could you say something more about the challenges you face?

I can start with one big challenge. I want this journal to be read. And I want it to be read by people in the management and policy roles. I work in this space, and even I would struggle with good conscience to tell the senior leaders who are very, very busy: “You should read this particular article.”

The high rejection rate also makes it hard for the authors. If they submit to our journal, there is a good chance it will be rejected. They want to publish their research and we cannot really expect them to cater the unique desires of me as editor and our audience when we are rejecting so many papers. That is one of the key challenges, and one of the key unknowns as well: Who is reading our material? Is it having impact? Is a 7,000-word article framed around the standard way of introduction, methods, research questions, really fit for purpose for the journal read by practitioners?

One of the broader challenges for higher education research is how to maintain sustainability of the peer review process with so many people wanting to publish.

One of the broader challenges for higher education research is how to maintain sustainability of the peer review process with so many people wanting to publish. It is hard to keep on top of your area of knowledge and hard to get reviewers that are on top of their knowledge base. We are managing 450 submissions this year (2021). We need to be prepared for 600 in 2 years’ time. We need to be prepared for 700 a year after that. What do we do when we will have 1000 submissions? We can see this big problem, but don’t know how we will manage it.

General growth of the field and the imperative to publish.

This is the case all around the world. We have more PhDs enrolled and we are expecting PhDs to publish during candidature. We have more people graduating with PhDs and academic ambitions seeking to publish. Then you have people embedded in the system who are expected to publish more. Therefore, each year this number increases. And the double-blinded peer-review process is facing a lot of pressures. And editor roles are under pressure as well.

So those are the broad challenges. The specific challenge for our journal is to be read by policy and management people. And I should say, I think the journal is read by the scholarly community and we have seen an increase in quality. The journal is doing very well on the scholarly side. But I am not sure we are doing so well in influencing people in policy and management roles.

That is a challenge and I think it cannot be targeted solely with means of academic publications. In order to attract the attention of practitioners you need to have also other mediums at your disposal. And the problem probably is that the more international you are the less targeted you are on specific practitioners’ community. Then the message that you are sending with your journal is becoming more and more blurred. It is not understandable for people who are interested often with the practical issues to be solved in national systems. I have two more questions. The first question is about the role of the publisher – Taylor & Francis – in the publication process and its impact on your internal policies. You have mentioned one, which is the limit on the number of articles that you are able to publish because of the physical constraints of the distribution process. Maybe you can mention something else. What is your involvement with the publisher? Are there any expectations or pressures on you?

We do not face any pressures from Taylor & Francis or the journal owners. The journal owners are responsible for negotiating a good commercial arrangement with Taylor & Francis to generate revenue from the journal, to financially support the society and the journal.

We as editors are really just caretakers of the journal. We put our heart and soul into the journal. Yet we are going to leave at some stage and the journal will be taken over by someone else. We do not own the journal, ATEM and the LH Martin Institute own it, but we believe we are adding value.

As editors of a society-owned journal we are not involved in the commercial arrangements between the owners and the publisher. That is very different to, say the journal Higher Education, which is owned and published by Springer. Publisher-owned journals are probably freer to publish more if they want to because the journal revenue is embedded with the ownership.

I know from my discussions with other editors that they have more difficult arrangements with publishers and their expectations, but this is not really the case for us. The challenge for us is probably to get the publisher to provide the best service. Commercial publishers always talk about amazing ways to automate the review process and to identify the reviewers, but it never works. The publisher adds value by helping us manage the review process, but the claims about identifying reviewers are in a real infancy stage, despite the rhetoric.

I would like to conclude our conversation with the question that is of crucial importance to ECHER blog readership, that is: what recommendation would you give to early career researchers who submit their first articles to your journal?

7,000 words is the word limit. That is the number one needs to keep in mind. The next most important thing: have a clear research question. Don’t write thousands of words before stating what your research is seeking to find out. Make it explicit, upfront and answerable. And then, in the discussion section repeat to everyone what it is that we have learned from your research.

Thank you very much!

Krystian Szadkowski is a researcher at Scholarly Communication Research Group of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. His interests cover Marxian political economy of higher education.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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