“Your article is more important than the journal you put it in”: Interview with Petra Angervall, Editor-in-Chief of “Journal of Praxis in Higher Education”

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This time in the “Meet the Editors” interview series, we talk to Petra Angervall, the Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Praxis in Higher Education (JPHE), a new, open access journal established in 2019. Petra is a Professor of Education at the Department of Educational Development and Research at the University of Borås, Sweden.

We asked Petra how it is to run a newly-founded journal and how she sees the role of publishing in academia today. She also provides some ideas for early-career scholars to consider when choosing the journal they want to publish in.

Hello Petra. JPHE was only founded in 2019. Would you like to share the birth story of the journal?

The journal actually wasn’t my initial idea. It was my two colleagues, Marcus Agnafors and Kathleen Mahon who were already employed by the University of Borås before I was. They had a vision that they wanted to start a journal that would be something different that the existing journals; Kathleen probably from the perspective of being within the field of practice-involved action research and praxis research, and also being involved in the Pedagogy, Education, and Praxis (PEP) network, which is connecting researchers all over the world around issues of action, praxis, and issues like teacher profession. Marcus, my other colleague, is a senior lecturer in practical philosophy. I think his intention in asking me to be the Editor-in-Chief was simply that he thought I would be interested in starting a journal.

The University of Borås is quite a small university in Sweden and we had no journal or no real outlet at the university which addressed education from different perspectives, research-wise. So I think Marcus’s intention was more academic and maybe also more conventional perhaps. And then they asked me to get involved, and I just spontaneously said “yes, I’m interested in this”. I didn’t use any time to reflect on this issue. I didn’t know what it meant, or the workload that comes with it.

The main reason I said “yes” was, and still is, very personal, however. JPHE is an “underdog journal”. For many years I have been publishing in high-stakes journals—I have several publications in these top-ranked, number two journals, which is the highest score on the Norwegian list. And I have been disappointed. They have been a disappointment to me in regards to the comments and the time spent on the texts that I’ve sent in. Also, I have noticed that my articles have never really taken me anywhere anyway. They haven’t really been a big help in my career and they haven’t even been read that much. So, for me, it’s been trying to do something different; something that means something, because that’s also become more and more important to me: What does all this mean? It felt like those publications didn’t lead me anywhere. I didn’t learn anything new; it was basically about repetition in a sense.

The birth story of this journal is easily described: It’s a couple of people finding a common ground in their shared interest in trying to do something that is different, from an underdog perspective. About the fact that we CAN do it because we’re professionals and hard-working people. And we have very different experiences, but we are all interested in education and issues concerning praxis and practice in education. After that we invited a few more people who then filled in the gaps that needed to be filled. Since then we have done this as a kind of a personal journey.

How would you position this journal among other higher education journals out there?

I think that starting a journal from the bottom-up perspective means that it’s very difficult to get people to publish in the journal. You need to work with your network and try to inspire people to say yes, “yes we can send you a paper”. You also need to work hard with reviewers and you need to be personally engaged. You start very small-scale, work your way up and become, bit by bit, more and more recognised as a journal in relation to other journals, which have a huge support structure behind them, and also resources to support the process. We have none of that yet. What makes the whole thing worthwhile and possible is that we have a journal that fills a gap. It’s a higher education journal but related to day-to-day problems that people have, whether they are researchers, teachers, or administrators. If they follow our instructions, they can get their paper published if their question is interesting enough, and if the reviewers say “yes” of course. We’ve had papers sent from a broad variety of backgrounds. From administrators, from highly recognised researchers but also from lecturers working in education. Some of them have successfully published.

Could you elaborate on that a little bit? Why or when should an early-career researcher send their paper to JPHE?

Journals have a much more important role than I thought previously: It’s through the journals we can also make an impact.

It’s not an easy question to answer because there is no right answer. When I was an early-career researcher, the only thing I thought about myself was that if I’m going to put the work in, if I’m going to focus and do all the work that comes with publishing an article, I might as well go for the good, “high-stakes” ones. But from the position I’m in today, I see it differently. I see that first of all, journals have a much more important role than I thought previously: It’s through the journals we can also make an impact. In fact, you could actually affect a full topic or a theme, or also affect how research is understood, what research is, what it can be. You cannot do that as a single researcher. Through a journal, instead, you can voice your ideas about what research is in a way that is academically legit. Much more than a blog or a podcast, or through other media, but still make an impact content-wise. For me that is the essential thing with a journal, and I think JPHE is an absolutely fantastic opportunity to do exactly that.

As an early-career academic, you could either choose very individualistically that ok, you want another merit. It will take you a couple of years to maybe get this article accepted to this high-stakes journal. But it’s so important for you and your institution that you’re prepared to do that. OR you could actually try a less known journal like JPHE because you become part of a collective. You will never become part of a journal collective if you choose a high-stakes journal, you’re just one among hundreds of others. And they will never really be interested in you. You need to be within a network, have really high-status friends, write about something that is very trendy at the moment for people to acknowledge you in a high-stakes journal. In a less known journal you become part of a collective that actually tries to debate on issues. And still the publishing process is the same, meaning you get the same kind of experience.

Departments and institutions talk about the necessity of these high-stakes journals. I think they are just pulling your leg. It’s not that important. They might get a bit more money out of high-stakes journal articles but, in my opinion, your article is more important than the journal you put it in, and that you’re part of the research community. That’s my strongest belief.

You already addressed some of the challenges of editing a new journal. Would you like to name a few others?

Journals are the very core of the academic debate.

It’s been very clear to me that starting a journal is very much up to the few people that are prepared to do the work. You get very little departmental and institutional support. I don’t only mean resources because, at least according to my own experiences, institutions and departments in Swedish universities aren’t interested in journals at all. But I would say that journals are the very core of the academic debate. Autonomous journals are essential to this. But the departments aren’t that interested in them but that is, in a sense, good because the journals need to be autonomous. That’s what gives them their quality. However, departments have to understand that hosting a journal means that you have to create a structure for people to do that work in a fair manner. That has been a challenge.

Another challenge has been the kind of political game that I, as an Editor-in-Chief am facing. I need to deal with “behind the curtains” because the departments might say that if they are going to support us with this journal, we need to be prepared to include a couple of specific people in the editorial team or the editorial board, or that they need to have a say how many articles we publish per year and so on. That kind of a political game has definitely been there. In Sweden we also have large amount of funds directed at journals every second year by the Swedish National Board of Science—administrative support funds, but it’s fairly generous. But recently I found out that how the Board is selected is not made transparent. They have simply selected a couple of researchers from large universities in Sweden, and nobody knows why these exact people. So, it’s this academic game continuously around you, and when you are doing the work, putting in so much effort without ever getting paid for it, or without getting the resources you need, you start thinking about the unfairness of it. To have a new, underdog journal, you really need to be prepared to be part of such a game.

It’s been quite gloomy so far, so what are the most enjoyable parts of editing a new journal?

I wouldn’t do this work if it wasn’t worth it. We’ve had this journal going on for a year and a half now, and we have published two issues. All the work around that, and all the insights that I’ve been able to get around these two issues has been a really interesting journey. I’ve come to know things about how journals work, how the review processes are, and so on. And you see how it is to work with people all over the world to get an interesting, international journal working, so it’s definitely been something worthwhile.

There’s such a potential in working with a journal as well because you can get in contact with authors, reviewers, and the editorial board but you can also get in contact with potential authors and reviewers. It’s never-ending, there are no borders for a journal. We have also talked about different forms of getting research out, which is also exciting. How to challenge the traditional way? Where are the limits of a scientific journal? All those kinds of questions are really exciting. The worry I have is that you see all these potentials and you could work on the journal 100% of your work time, but you can’t because you have all your other tasks as well. The balance is difficult. We have a fairly small team still, we have five senior editors, and two assistant editors, and I, but that’s all. You really get to know people and to work closely with them, in the way that you never do in any other setting, which is nice.

Could you describe what being an editor-in-chief entails in practice?

In the beginning when we started, we didn’t have very clear roles. This was because we didn’t have time to have them. So, I did senior editing work too, and even a little bit of assistant editing work. We shared roles and responsibilities. But after a year we started making sure that the roles are clearer because we had a couple of more in the team. We also realised that an editor-in-chief has a lot of that political stuff to deal with; being the person who is the “front figure” of the journal, keeping contact with the editorial board and with the network around the journal. So I have tried to take that position and started a dialogue with my own university and some other universities to create momentum around the journal, trying to discuss the agenda of the journal a bit more. I also organise the timelines of the journal. I also try to make the journal into a more professional one, so trying to apply for a Crossref membership, for example.

I put perhaps three, four hours per week into the journal work. Sometimes more but never less. That includes the meetings with the editorial team but also with departmental heads or vice chancellors, and creating a dialogue with the editorial board, updating ResearchGate, working with our new publishing platform Open Journal System, and so on. Then there are the more stressed periods of time when we are about to publish an issue, during which it can be two to three days a week that I work on the journal.

You’ve mentioned some other roles too, so could you explain what the senior editors, assistant editors and the editorial board members do?

The senior editors are in charge of the incoming papers, and scanning them to see whether they fulfil the scope of the journal and its quality standards. They are also in charge of sending the manuscript to two reviewers. We have a triple-blind review, which means that the assistant editor, who receives the manuscripts first, makes sure they are anonymised before sending it to a senior editor. The senior editors also have the dialogue with the reviewers and discuss the content of the manuscript with me to decide whether the article will be published or not, depending on the review.

The assistant editor has more administrative responsibilities than the others but in our journal they are also involved in content debates because you can’t really separate the roles in every instance. The assistant editor also does the proofreading, although senior editors also help in this. We don’t yet have a separate copy editor but we hope to have one in the future. The assistant editor is also the one in correspondence with the authors at the final stages before publishing.

We are very proud of our editorial board. Even though we are a small journal, we have been able to invite a strong editorial board thanks to our networks. We have twelve people in the board now, representing different perspectives theoretically and methodologically, and they also represent a wide range of countries, nationalities, and research interests, which are connected to the focus of the journal. Right now, their role isn’t very big still. They get information and if I ask, they comment on different issues. In the future, however, I would like them to be a bit more engaged because it is a very small, independent, outsider journal. So, we’d need a bit more support from them to develop the journal in the way I would like it to be developed. I’m working on to change this.

You mentioned JPHE is using the triple-blind review system. Why did you choose it over the more common, double-blind review system?

The formal answer is that we think it’s ethically more secure to handle manuscripts, articles, proceedings, and presentations in that way because we have a big network. So, there’s a risk that we would know the people who send in manuscripts. Now the assistant editor sends the manuscripts anonymised to senior editors to handle. Of course we could still probably figure out some of the authors, or accidentally send the manuscripts for them for review, but it adds to the security, in my opinion.

For me personally, I’ve studied how networks influence research career advancement and we know for a fact that groups and close networks tend to help each other also with publishing articles, and that you tend to send your articles to journals where you know the board and you know what they like. So for me this is the way I wanted to highlight this issue: that we try to challenge these kinds of networks and these unfair collaborations.

We have discussed the open review system as well and debated whether it’s necessary to have a triple-blind system. So far there are a couple of good arguments for an open review system, and it would be a good way to respect the process but we think the triple-blind works well at the moment.

How do you choose the reviewers?

In the early days we created a list of possible reviewer candidates, and actually contacted them before if they would like to do reviews for JPHE in the future. We later realised this was far too ambitious because we don’t have that much time in our hands. Now we are sending out review requests together with the manuscript, asking if the person would like to review. These people are part of our larger network but we try not to include people who are too close to us, such as close colleagues. We have some colleagues on the reviewer list in case of an emergency, if we have to do a quick review for some reason. But apart from that we don’t use colleagues but rather people from larger networks that we have, so people we met in conferences or we know through some other context. We’ve collected the list of these people over time, and the list is getting bigger and bigger. And because the editorial team is also built upon different expertise areas, our joint network is fairly big. We’ve also asked editorial board members to review a couple of times, and they did it. They have also provided suggestions for reviewers.

When the senior editor finds two reviewers, the reviewers have four weeks to complete the review. We can extend that to five but normally it’s four weeks. We’ve had a couple of cases where the process has taken far too long, although we also need to appreciate the fact that we’re dealing with very busy people. But we’ve had good reviewers in the journal. And what’s been fascinating is that although we have small resources, a lot of good scholars have found our team and the scope of the journal very interesting, so they’ve wanted to become engaged. That is fabulous.

Moving on to higher education research. How does the journal deal with the fact that higher education research is so versatile in terms of disciplinary backgrounds?

The way we have formulated the scope is that it has “education” at the centre. It’s not explicit but, implicitly, education is part of every question or topic we mention. So even though we have had people from other disciplines, such as psychology, or a group from Canada representing different disciplines, we try to emphasise the importance of highlighting the educative perspective in the texts, in our comments, and in the dialogue with the authors. So even if education is a broad concept and a broad discipline, which can include different subdisciplines, it is still very interdisciplinary. So, the scope of the journal allows quite a lot but also frames what we want, in a good way I think.

Would you have any particular advice for early-career scholars in terms of publishing?

I would’ve liked somebody to tell me that if you work more collectively and horizontally, it will pay off, much more than this kind of vertical movement towards the sky. Because you will end up being so lonely there and it’s not worth it.

I think one of the biggest worries for many early-career academics is that they fear sending something to a journal, for basically no reason. This is obviously part of our society today, but publishing is not a matter of evaluation. I mean, it is but it isn’t. It is much more than that. It’s taking part in the research community, being engaged in it. One thing I’d like to say to early-career academics is to not be afraid of taking part in the debates, and to focus less on the format or “doing the right thing”. I know it’s very easy for me to say now but I’ve definitely been in the shoes where I had to struggle for many years, on my own, with no networks or support. I would’ve liked somebody to tell me that if you work more collectively and horizontally, it will pay off, much more than this kind of vertical movement towards the sky. Because you will end up being so lonely there and it’s not worth it. Maybe that’s the reason why top journals are boring. Even though top journals and vertical movement are considered “success” today, I would say that they are more about repetition and learning the format, rather than taking part in the serious debate that we definitely need, especially today. Maybe you can do it once or twice because it’s also something you need to learn; to learn how to write a manuscript that is accepted by top journals. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, anyone can learn that. But once you’ve done it once or twice, you know the format. So instead you could try doing something else, to publish in a journal that is perhaps trying to do something different, and not be scared of that.

How would you like to see the future of JPHE?

I wouldn’t want this journal to become part of professional publishing houses. I don’t think anyone would be interested anyway, but if they would be, we should say no. Even though they have huge resources and opportunities, and of course they engage differently in the global market, I think this journal should be independent but at the same time become more influential and grow. Our goal is to publish three issues per year, something we want to reach within one year. We would also want to have a more solid editorial team that can perhaps take turns in the work because we can’t work as hard as we do now for many years.

I definitely think that we should find a path that is very current in relation to what is going on debate-wise in the global market and engage in political issues. We now have this debate in Sweden about feminist knowledge, what it is, means and can contribute with or risk contributing with. It’s going on all around the world. Part of the debate concern a critique of current hegemonic discourses. For example, the book by Nora Hämäläinen: Is Trump postmodern? but also the more conservative debates about gender research “going too far”, influencing too much, and returning to a more essentialist knowledge concept. I would like JPHE to engage in such debates and how they affect higher education. Finally, I’d like to illustrate, through research, how debates are part of something more, part of the knowledge regimes we are producing, and part of how we understand and can challenge the political. So that is my goal: to make this journal into political too but still based on science.

Melina Aarnikoivu has recently defended her PhD in applied linguistics at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. She is an assistant editor of JPHE, which you can read about in an earlier ECHER blog post. You can follow Melina on Twitter.

Photo by Sensei Minimal on Unsplash

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