“People are busier, there are more journals, there’s pressure to publish. It’s an escalation of everything”: Interview with Rosemary Deem


In this edition of our “Meet the Editors” interview series, Richard Budd talks to Rosemary Deem, a co-editor of Higher Education. Rosemary is Professor of Higher Education Management in the School of Business and Management, Royal Holloway University, London, and the Director of the Doctoral School (Quality, Enhancement and Inclusion).

Richard asked Rosemary about what being an editor actually involves, how the academic journal landscape has changed, in particular the huge increase in the volume of actual and potential publications. Rosemary introduces us to the notion of the “vanilla paper” and offers sage advice to those seeking to publish for the first time, particularly at the end of their doctorates.

Hi, Rosemary. Can you start by telling us something about your role and history in journal editing?

I’m a co-editor of a higher education journal, I think there are eight or nine of us, there’s quite a lot. And we have an editor in chief. We do keep in touch by email from time to time and we’re supposed to meet once a year but often not everybody’s able to go because it’s an international group. It’s not the first journal I’ve edited. In the mid-2000s I was a joint editor for The Sociological Review for about 5 years and before that I started a journal for teacher development and I also started an abstracting journal, so I’ve got a fair amount of journal experience.

Out of interest, what’s the difference between the editorial team and board?

It depends on the journal, but I think there’s quite a big difference between being an editor and being on an editorial board. Sometimes editorial boards do nothing, they’re just there because of who they are and the hope is that having the great and the good will attract people to submit to their journal. I’m not really sure if that works. Some journals get their editorial boards to do a certain amount of reviewing. We don’t do that with ours, although some do.

I see. Can you say something more about your editorial work?

In terms of being an editor, I think it’s less stressful to be a single or joint editor because you see the whole picture. There are good and bad things about being one of several co-editors. Firstly, I’m not sure we always do things consistently because I think people have different ideas about what they’re supposed to do, although we do discuss it from time to time, but we very rarely get everyone in a room together so it can be hard to sort those things out. The other thing is that people have different patterns for doing things. Recently we had a discussion about how long people are taking to do their editing. Sometimes, if I’m writing [papers], I might not look at it for two weeks, unless it’s urgent. But looking at papers is quite demanding, if you have meetings all day or you’re reviewing a department which takes up all your waking hours for a few days, of course you can’t.

I think the idea is that you do a little every day but unless you have routine that has virtually no teaching, virtually no meetings, I don’t see how you can do that. I would rather spend a whole day or a half day, than do bits and pieces. If a paper has come back with reviews and they’re straightforward, or if it’s a resubmission and you can just send it on, fine. But if you’ve got something complicated to do, like if you’re going to reject it, you need to go through the reviewers’ comments and put it in a coherent way so the person doesn’t get completely contradictory advice and they have no idea which one to follow. That can take a few hours.

From an author perspective, you write it, fine tune it, and fire it in. Some time later you get a response. What does it look like from your perspective?

It’s complicated for a journal with multiple editors. Normally the editor in chief is quite efficient and sends papers on within a few days. Then it comes into your box so you have to read it, you have to read it properly. I like to read it and think about it – is this a paper I want to encourage or not, and what are the reasons? It can take me well over an hour to explain why I’m not going to review or forward a paper for review, I don’t just say ‘I’m not doing it’. If I can think of an alternative journal, I suggest it. Springer also has a system where they can pass you on to their other journals.

The response rate is so bad now that I think you probably need something between 12 and 16 reviewers before you’re likely to get two.

So that’s a desk rejection.

Yes. Some people think that a desk rejection’s really quick, but if you actually go through it, that takes quite a lot of time. If you’re going to reject it you have to write a letter. Sometimes they come back and complain to the editor in chief, that’s becoming more common. When I first edited journals that never happened, and at the Sociological Review it was only a few times. It’s quite common, I guess because higher education is a smaller field, and people think if they speak to the most important person, usually male, that they’ll get their articles accepted.

Anyway, so you sit down and you decide that you’re going to send something out for review, some people think this takes about ten minutes. No – the response rate is so bad now that I think you probably need something between 12 and 16 reviewers before you’re likely to get two, and you queue them up at the start. I’ve just done a special edition for another journal, and there you can’t queue up alternative reviewers, you have to go in and send it on, but in ours, you can put 14 people in and it does it automatically for you. So you don’t have to do it yourself. Sometimes you’re lucky and the first two people you write to agree to do it, but that’s not common. We typically get between 10 and 17 articles a month, each. The journal gets well over a thousand submissions a year.

How do you choose who you send it to?

There’s a variety of ways. The first and obvious one is where if you know the field well, you have people who you know. In doctoral education I have three or four really reliable reviewers who probably do far too much, but they’re good. If they’ve done one recently, or they’re busy, you start looking through the bibliography, you pick people there. Sometimes it’s hard to track them down if you can’t find the first names of the authors – A.S Smith could be a large number of people! The worst is when you have books because they don’t often tell you the institution, and don’t have an email. Most journals have one for the corresponding author. Sometimes they come back, though, i.e. the emails don’t work.

So I’ll use the bibliography unless I know the field. If you pick people who are well-known, they may turn it down, but they have a stake in that field, but they obviously get a lot [of offers to review]. After that I start looking up the topic on Google Scholar and seeing what comes up, as well as looking back through the journal to see who’s published on that.

So it looks like finding people can be hard work…

It can take you 2-3 hours to find 14 people. Sometimes you do all this detective work and you find they’ve recently moved to a non-academic job, or if they were a PhD student and they’ve moved. It’s not an easy process, and the notion that you can do this in the odd half hour, you really need to do it as a whole. You could just find four reviewers, but if it comes back you have to do it all again. Sometimes if articles get a lot of declines you wonder whether you should have reviewed this. If a lot of people are turning it down then you have to wonder why. Then you’re a bit stuck, and sometimes you have to review it yourself, which is not ideal. It’s a long process. Also, we only use two reviewers, some journals use three. The amount of work that would involve is way more, you’d need 21-24 in your queue. For a special issue paper for another journal recently, I had one that had 18 declines. I think it wasn’t that good quality, but the other editor thought it offered something interesting.

The pressure to publish is why there are more journals, because all of the work that people want to publish can’t be fitted into what was there before. It’s an escalation of everything.

So you have your queue of people, and eventually you get two reviews. What happens next?

Some journals, apparently, only take things if they’re minor revisions, but then you miss out on some good papers. There’s something I call “vanilla papers”, where English is the first language, they’re talking about their own systems, they’re not necessarily brilliant but they’re competent, they’re well written and haven’t got masses of typos or grammatical errors. Those are the ones that probably come back with minor revisions. But there are papers on countries or topics that we don’t often publish on which are really interesting, and they may not be in the shape we want them to be in. Sometimes I’ll send out for further review ones which have major revisions because I think there’s something in them which is worth looking for. If I get a paper on a country that we don’t get many papers from, I’ll try and get a reviewer who’s in that country, at least one. Sometimes it’s not possible, and there are a few people, a lot of recent work on that country, and they’re overloaded. You try and do that but it doesn’t always work.

How do reviews vary, in terms of length? I try to write the reviews that I would want to read, so they’re probably a bit longer. I know some people write back with less.

Some people write back with a paragraph but you don’t use them again, and I generally send it to another reviewer if I get that. If people haven’t got time to do it properly, I feel there’s no point in sending it back, they’ll just get irritated. Some people write more than there was in the original paper in the first place and that’s not very helpful, to say “here’s how to write a completely different article which I would have liked”. If you comment on a research project, for example, you don’t have to write another one.

I often feel bad for turning articles down, if it’s not close enough to my field or when I’m overloaded. Does that count as a black mark against you, turning things down?

No. I think everyone is turning stuff down. Before it used to be on index cards, now you have electronic systems and everyone can be on them, so people get more requests. I think there are a lot of issues in there. When I was on the Sociological Review, I’d have sent it out to six [referees] in order to get two. People are busier, there are more journals, and the systems means that everybody is on these databases. The pressure to publish is why there are more journals, because all of the work that people want to publish can’t be fitted into what was there before. It’s an escalation of everything. Workloads are high, there’s more pressure to publish, more journals, the system’s giving everybody’s names. They make it easier but there were less journals and less pressure in the past. Some journals allow potential reviewers ten days to respond, which doesn’t seem fair. People may want to think about it, putting too much pressure doesn’t work. But if they have too long then they forget about it. Some people who submit papers write and say ‘you’ve had my journal for two months’, and you have to explain that you don’t get them straight away.

There’s an issue of reciprocity, if you never do any reviews, why would you expect people to review yours?

Ours are also checked for length – if they’re more than a few hundred words over they get sent back to be reduced. If they do get accepted then we know they’ll grow anyway. If they’re already over length, they’ll be huge. This doesn’t affect the online version but it does affect the postage costs for the hard copies. Then they come to the editor in chief, and some get sent back at that stage, I think he has some standard letters, then they get filed out to us and we have to sort them out. The thing that takes the time is finding the reviewers. I have four, two I’m going to reject, those are done, but two others I now need to spend time finding reviewers. Some editors say they can do it very quickly but I don’t know how they do it. Maybe that’s the depth at which they first review the paper. Sometimes that’s good because it gets it out quickly but you might end up picking referees who are not quite suited to it, or rejecting [weaker] stuff that could have been interesting.

Other problems arise if people agree to review and don’t, or they ask for extra time. Generally we give that – sometimes this is easier and quicker than sending it out again. If the person doesn’t produce the review you have to start again, send it out, wait three weeks, maybe they respond, and they do, or don’t. You have to explain to people that people are not queuing up to review papers and that’s quite hard. I think some people don’t realise that, and some people are militant about not reviewing. I had a discussion with someone who said they turn a lot of stuff down, and I said that there’s an issue of reciprocity, if you never do any reviews, why would you expect people to review yours?

Years ago, on a grants board, some people never got back to you, but they still expect to get their grants [reviewed] and funded. You can’t blacklist them but you do think carefully before you use them. I understand that people don’t have to review everything they’re asked to. People ask “why can’t we be paid”, and you could be, and the publishers do make a lot of money, but realistically that’s not going to happen. Editors do get paid, but it’s the equivalent of a day’s consultancy. If anyone says they’re in it for the money, there’s no way. The money is pathetic. The editor-in-chief gets more but he does a lot more as he has to go through all the papers.

So even before papers get to reviewers, they get read twice. That’s something you don’t see from the outside. Okay, so let’s say I’m coming to the end of my PhD and I have something to publish. What advice would you give me?

First of all, have a look at the journals you’ve been using and the journals that you’ve found helpful, because first of all you know something about them. Secondly, you know that they have some interest in the topic that you are going to be writing about, and thirdly, you may know people on the editorial board, and most importantly, you’ve seen recent copies of it. I never cease to be amazed by people who submit to journals they’ve never read. I understand that in some developing countries, that’s a problem, and I’m sympathetic to that, I suggest how they can get hold of free copies. Often the reason they haven’t seen your journal is that their library doesn’t have it.

Try not to write the whole thesis in a single paper. Try to pick out something which is distinctive.

Try and pick a journal you know something about and covers the field that you’re in, look at the editorial board, and read carefully what they want you to do. If it’s the wrong length, has the wrong references, doesn’t have things you want like dataset references, follow the instructions, get someone you trust and who knows the field to read it. Preferably present it at a conference, you’ll get some feedback. And if it’s from a thesis, try not to write the whole thesis in a single paper. Try to pick out something which is distinctive. Remember that you’re probably going to publish more than one paper. And it’s impossible to write a paper that sums up your whole thesis. Find an angle of it, that you think is something interesting, and remember that you can’t just take a chapter, top it and tail it, that’s written for examiners. In a journal, particularly a general journal, a lot of people don’t necessarily know all the literature. So you have to appear knowledgeable about the field and what’s been done, but also accessible to people who are interested in the general area but aren’t a specialist in that particular area.

I know that advice on this differs, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea to go for the top journal for your very first paper. You’ll learn something from them but it depends how they do it. Some top journals don’t give you any feedback if they don’t review it. So all you get is a rejection saying “we’re not going to review your paper” and they don’t give meaningful feedback.

In management they have a limited number of places you can publish, but the social sciences tend to be a bit more eclectic, and impact factor’s not important.

Economics have the top five journals that everyone tries to publish in and then a hierarchy below that. Maybe social scientists realise that impact factor doesn’t say much – it’s going to go to open access or be reformulated in quite a different way. And there are good articles in journals which aren’t seen as that good because the author is inexperienced or the article fits the topic. I don’t think every paper that every so-called top journal publishes is top class. That’s a complicated one.

The other thing that inexperienced authors don’t know is that everyone gets a lot of things rejected.

I think the most important thing for inexperienced authors is to get as many people to listen, to read it, comment on it, before you send it off. If you can get two or three people to read it properly and comment on it, if you can go to a couple of conferences and get some sense of how people respond to it, it gives you some idea. That’s in the end, going to make a better article.

I guess the other thing that inexperienced authors don’t know is that everyone gets a lot of things rejected. I used to run a workshop where I shared feedback I’d got and people were amazed, they thought it was just them. It’s interesting that a lot of supervisors don’t use that mechanism, they don’t say that we all get that. I think that sense of what to expect, that’s a responsibility of other supervisors and people that are mentoring need to say that everyone gets rejected, all the time. It’s common, that’s what’s expected. Even if you do get a paper accepted, often you’ll have to do a lot more work on it before you publish it. That can be quite a developmental process – if people do it constructively, at the end of it you have a much better paper. I had a paper on a governance regime on a Latin American country, and they went through two lots of reviews, and in the end it was a really good paper because it was a combination of an author who was listening and two people who were committed to improving the paper. A lot of people might not have put it out to review in the first place but I did because it’s a country we don’t get much on and I thought it was worth persevering.

As an editor, you seem very aware of parts of the world and parts of the literature which are underrepresented,

Yes, it is so easy to fill journals with vanilla papers and I often have to say to people in the UK that it’s a perfectly competent paper but we have too many UK papers at the moment. Sorry, here are some other places you can go. That’s another thing with a lot of vanilla papers, they assume that everyone knows the context, they assume the whole world understands how their system works. We have a global readership, in all sorts of different countries. They may be interested in what you’re talking about but they may never have heard about it. You have to find a way to interest them by explaining what the context is, then they’ll know whether it might be relevant to them or not. Otherwise you’re only writing for people who know that context and it’s a limited audience.

Richard Budd is a Lecturer in Higher Education in the Department of Educational Research at the University of Lancaster. He is mostly interested in how students’ experiences vary between universities and countries. His profile can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo by Scott Webb from Pexels

Leave a Reply