“Editors don’t want just standardized stuff”: Interview with Simon Marginson, Editor-in-Chief of “Higher Education”

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There are probably not many higher education scholars out there who are not familiar with at least some works written by Simon Marginson. Currently Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford and Director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), Simon is also Joint Editor-in-Chief of one of the major journals in our field – Higher Education.

In this interview, I sat down with Simon and we spoke about what it is like to be the lead editor of Higher Education, how the journal operates “on the inside”, how it deals with authors and reviewers, what makes a paper a good candidate to be published in the journal, as well as about what early-career scholars can do to improve the quality of their submissions.

For a few years you were the sole editor-in-chief of Higher Education. Since January this year, you have been sharing this responsibility with Brendan Cantwell and Jennifer Case. Could you tell us in a few words, what does it mean to be Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education?

I have never been an editor-in-chief of any other such large journal, and I do not know how others might handle it. In our journal, the three of us as editors-in-chief receive all the papers as they come in and then we split them between us. Previously I would have initially read them all myself. We start with scanning the papers, we do not read them properly. We try to understand what the study is about and then make the decision to either send it to the one of the coordinating editors, or take on the role as the coordinating editor ourselves, or do a desk reject. That means that we send the letter to the author saying why we are rejecting the paper. For this I work with standard letters. I adapt them pretty heavily in some cases. In other cases, the standard letter alone works pretty well to explain the reject decision.

This is the most common type of reject: papers which are small-scale, local and mostly using questionnaires – single questionnaire reports of one case.

Fortunately (because we handle a large volume of 1500 papers a year), rejected papers mostly fall into specific categories. Wrong field perhaps. Or they have a business view of higher education focused on brand, student satisfaction surveys, business-style quality assurance, rather than a social policy-based view, or an organisation and management focus, or a focus on teaching and learning, or history, or conceptual and theoretical view of the sector – the kind of articles we publish. In cases of a bad fit, we send the authors to other journals, saying: “we are a wrong journal for you”. Sometimes there are papers in psychology that use the higher education as a site, but they are basically studies in psychology rather than illuminations of higher education. Such papers do not tell us anything new about higher education; instead, they tell us about people who happen to be in higher education. We reject those papers as not part of higher education studies.

There are also very local papers. And this is the most common type of reject: papers which are small-scale, local and mostly using questionnaires – single questionnaire reports of one case. One body of students, or not more than two or three, usually not longitudinal, just one snapshot. One questionnaire report can easily fill seven or eight thousand words, but it rarely tells us anything particularly interesting or new about higher education. Unless it involves a new set of questions, with a new idea, which generates novel data, tells us something new, that kind of local studies have no point for us. I suppose there is an exception – I very rarely see this – where a small-scale local study is situated contextually so well that you can see what might be variant and what might be universal in the study. But people usually do not operate at this level of sophistication when they produce questionnaire reports. So that is a very common reject cause.

Any other practical issues worth mentioning?

The question of which paper goes to whom within our editorial team – the eight people who are coordinating editors, below the level of editorial-in-chief – depends on where the paper fits among our own specialisations. When we get a conceptual paper on globalisation and higher education, for example, I will not send it to any other editor since there is no one else in the group that could do that better than me. I also take certain categories of papers on student mobility. I used to take most papers on Australia, but I no longer do that, because I have been away from there for a long time now, and we have an Australian-based editor. If it is a paper about the public good and the common good, I will probably take it. It is one of the things I have been working on recently. But there are many other topic areas where others are better equipped than I.

In the end, I probably handle as many papers as an individual coordinating editor; I keep quite a few back to myself. That’s where the work is and where the time is: when you take the responsibility for a paper. Otherwise, I know the coordinating editors well enough that I know who could manage almost each paper. So, I assign the papers accordingly and divide the workload between them. That’s become complicated with three of us, as there’s a danger that operating simultaneously, between us we will load an individual coordinating editor with too much. However, the journal system does allow as to monitor workloads to a degree. And I know more or less whom Jenni likes to work with, while Brendan is more or less like me and works more or less with everyone. We plan to produce monthly reports that will allow us to see if anyone is overloaded.

Are there any other responsibilities the editor-in-chief needs to take care of?

There is a range of other things that editor-in-chief does; smaller and less frequent than the routine paper handling. You get the requests to create a special issue proposal and the proposal comes in. We confer amongst ourselves, as editors in chief, and then decide which coordinating editors we will ask to review the proposal. Usually we ask three people to review the proposal and we make the decision on the basis of these reviews, and one of us writes the letter. We usually do that in a month. People in the editorial group like working on special issue proposals, you don’t have to motivate them – they are interested.

We’re getting more than one hundred papers a month, averaging to a bit more than one a day per editor-in-chief.

Then there are complaints, mostly from authors. I have been handling those because I know what to do, but I am happy when I can find someone else to do it amongst the other editors-in-chief. Complaints are things like people questioning the reviewers’ decisions or people questioning the editors’ decisions. Sometimes you get handling issues within the journal, like someone putting a paper and withdrawing it and that creating problems in the system. The author puts it back again and the system rejects it, because it was processed already. Bugs in the system. We have a person at Springer who handles the journal, together with lots of other journals, I think. That person is very important, because she helps to process things on the routine basis and also helps to sort out problems.

When you have a special issue, the guest editors are expected to handle their own papers, which can be quite complicated. You can get into a mix-up between the main journal and the special issue, which needs to be sorted out on request by the handler at Springer. I think I have seen most problems that can arise by now. Perhaps once a week something comes up. However, most of the work is just the processing of papers, because there are lot of them. We’re getting more than one hundred a month, averaging to a bit more than one a day per editor-in-chief.

How big is the actual workload of an editor-in-chief in the case of Higher Education?

It is not much less now on a shared basis than when I first became the sole editor-in-chief, because of the vast growth in the number of submissions. You get papers in batches on a daily basis from the Springer handler. I never quite know, it is a bit of a black box for me, what happens between the time someone submits the paper and the time we receive it. Sometimes this may take up to two weeks, but usually it is less. I do know that prior to the papers reaching the editors they are processed through the Springer software and checked for plagiarism and previous submissions. This sometimes does spot problems, for example, when people put the same thing in twice, and the first one was rejected (we never consider papers again that have been rejected). That happens more than one may expect.

Journal editing is a hard thing to combine with a challenging job, but I think that you have to keep at it every day if you can. That’s how you manage it.

Last year we received almost 1,500 papers and I was then sole editor-in-chief. If you are really busy with other things, and you cannot work on the journal for a day or so, you could have 25 papers in two days and you had to sit with them for the whole morning to get through them all. Writing rejections letters is the main thing that takes time. But with three of us it is more manageable. I think I am now spending about 45-60 minutes a day on the journal, while I was averaging maybe two hours before that, or more. Let’s say it is now five hours a week, and it was 15 hours before.

That sounds like a substantial workload then, right?

One thing you cannot do is allow the things to grow without attending to them frequently. This is fatal. I see that among the coordinating editors. Some of them allow the things to drift, then they have three weeks of work to do and suddenly it is becoming too much. And then one struggles to keep up. In the past I have done this myself a few times; I never do now. Journal editing is a hard thing to combine with a challenging job, but I think that you have to keep at it every day if you can. That’s how you manage it. And also instant response really improves everyone’s state of mind and performance. Quickly processing things when they come across your desk really helps. Keep things moving.

You described the first stage, which is the moment when you decide whether to take the paper yourself for further processing or to allocate it to one of the other eight coordinating editors. Could you guide me step-by-step through the decision-making process, from the submission to the very end being acceptance and the publication?

Once I receive a paper, in the role now of a coordinating editor I look at it and think whether this may be turned into a publishable article. I am a developmental person, so I tend to be optimistic and I see a wide range of things as potentially able to become articles. I will, however, expect fairly finished work. If it is not fairly close to a publishable article, I tend to reject at this point. There are always good reasons for that. I use this rule of thumb – if there is more than one major deficiency, it is a good idea to reject it.

There are rare exceptions to this rule. I occasionally get something which is really, really interesting and has a couple of big flaws. It looks to be potentially important for the field, for example by shining a light on a national system that has not been covered in the literature, or by raising a genuinely new idea. I will work on that paper, make efforts to develop it. This absorbs more reviewer energy. I have to ask more of people for processing the paper. So we don’t take it on without thought. But not many things are like that, to be frank. Most papers are like… well, if they are published they do not matter, frankly. This probably applies to half of what we actually do publish. This does not mean it is unworthy of publication or that it has nothing interesting to say. It means that publishing it does not really change anything in our knowledge of higher education, it is a competent study and might be of lesser interest to those who are researching the topic area but in reality its main role is to help someone’s CV. There are not many flawed brilliant pieces, ripe for development, this is what I am saying. I wish there were more.

If the paper has more than one major deficiency, it is a good idea to reject it.

In summary, you make the decision about further development on the basis of how close the paper is to a publishable article that makes a contribution, or whether it is flawed but it contains significant originality. Then you decide if you think it can be further processed, whether it can be improved. Then if the answers are yes, you need to select reviewers. Sometimes you find yourself using the same people too often, but certain people can handle certain kinds of papers. You have the list of people on whom you rely. Some of my colleagues search for the reviewers using that facility in the journal system. I generally work with the people I know from the field. Occasionally I search, if it is a country-specific article. I will put Malaysia in the database or Kenya and see whether I can find an appropriate reviewer. However, I never send things to the reviewers I do not know at all. There are many people in the database I do not know. Other editors do that and they often get declines. Everyone gets review requests from everywhere now. Using reviewers not known can lead to a long line of declines, and if you get those declines coming in every three weeks, or lapsed invitations, each leads to delays. You find that the paper cannot be processed in five months or more. That is a disaster. So I only go to people I know and only when there is a good chance that they will review.

How do things proceed once you have found reviewers?

Then the paper is in their hands. We will send them reminders if they are late. I usually use two reviewers. Hugo Horta and some others often use three. The minimum required is two. We don’t share identical approaches to reviewers. I think that it is the editors who should make the final decisions. Some others think it is mostly the reviewers. We do not insist on standard practices in our journal. All 11 editors make final decisions about papers, and people write their own reject letters, with their own reasons for judgements. We do not have a standard line. We work more organically. We work successfully together because we know each other well enough to believe we are in the same field, and none of us does things that others think are wrong. If it were otherwise, we would be in a much more difficult situation. We depend on having trust. We have to have mutual respect. Because we have those qualities between us, individual coordinating editors and individual editors-in-chief can all make individual final decisions about papers, on the basis of whatever criteria that they think are proper.

Some junior people provide the best reviews, but junior scholars do not necessarily understand the field so well.

In general, though, people do not handle papers that they do know nothing about. They send them back. And those papers go to somebody else. That does not happen very often. Some editors are more specific than others in terms of what they think they can do. Others, like me, will do anything. Several people are like that. Others are more specialized.

When reviewers’ reports arrive, when acting as the coordinating editor for the paper, I will skim through it, read parts of it closely, and sometimes look at it thoroughly, depending on the need; I will make the next stage decision partly on the basis of the reviewers’ reports. I generally try to keep the paper alive a little bit more than many reviewers do. On the other hand, I know that some reviewers will never reject. They will always say: “revise”. And I take this into account. I am usually on the side of inclusivity, but if the paper is just too weak it will never become a publishable article. If it is too narrow, too localized, it lacks the imagination or theory or methodology or some other necessary ingredient. You must give authors of inadequate papers a chance to go somewhere else before too long, because they probably need the publication.

Every paper is a different paper. In the editors’ group discussions on whether something fits the field, or not, go on all the time. Those discussions are the main way that we shape a common approach. Because we have a broad penetration of the field between us, we can use anything quantitative, qualitative, historical, or philosophical – any methods are OK. But the subject matter is what determines what higher education studies are about. As I mentioned, we do not do business studies of higher education. We do not do branding, literature on marketing and stuff on organisational topics form the wholly corporate viewpoint. We would expect authors to think critically about models which are external to higher education as such, to higher education as a social function.

How satisfied are you in general with the quality of the reviews you are receiving?

I was a reviewer for the most of the time of the development of my academic career, so I know the process on the other side pretty well. For the first ten years I used to write really full and proper reviews. I read the paper very carefully and offered a lot of developmental advice and the editors were clear that they liked my reviews, they were good for the authors, they were good for the field, and for the journal. But I cannot do these kinds of reviews anymore. I do not have time anymore. Especially since I became a full professor. And I know that most of my better reviewers cannot devote their time fully either. The paradox is that well-developed scholars give the best reviews potentially, but they do not have time to do proper reviews. People are too busy. And they are asked to do reviews for a lot of different journals. Often it is good that they do any reviews at all.

The reviewer’s summative decision is not very important, except that it is one input into what happens next. It is the developmental content of the review that really matters.

Some junior people provide the best reviews, but junior scholars do not necessarily understand the field so well. So there is a kind of mid-point somewhere there, where people who do not have such a huge workload but have had some experience and contact with knowledge in the field can operate as good reviewers. Their work is very valuable. I can name people in that category I use quite a bit. However, I would say that more than a half of the reviews we receive are not satisfactory – they are not comprehensive and detailed enough. They largely focus on some element of the summative decision. Such reviewers provide a simple reject/revise and very little information about the content that the decision is based on. This definitely does not help, because then you have to work it out the reasons for the decision yourself as an editor. You do depend on having at least one good review each time. I often try to get differentiated reviewers for each paper. For example, if it is a national case study built with the use of a specific methodology, I try to get one reviewer who is strong on the national context and one that is strong with the particular methodology. If the study is based on Bourdieu, I try to get a Bourdieuan person. But it is hard to do that consistently. I am happy if I have two good reviewers. Even if they are similar kind of people in terms of focus and knowledge. Because usually two different readers with a similar starting point will say different things (as we know from assessment of student essays!).

In fact, the reviewer’s summative decision is not very important, except that it is one input into what happens next. It is the developmental content of the review that really matters, as this is a real currency that the author may gain from. It guides the authors, it guides the editors. I do not think that the reviewers should make the decisions, as I emphasized before, I believe that the editors must make the decisions. They must take and exercise responsibility. I will without hesitation go against the reviewers judgements on the summative issue if I want. Without hesitation. But we differ in this respect within the editorial board. Some might see it as the correct collegial principle to follow the reviewers’ summative decisions. I do not question my fellow editors’ modes of operation. They all do an excellent job. It may be in their selection of reviewers my colleagues are careful to delegate on the basis that they fully trust those they choose. I am more sceptical, perhaps.

Have you ever asked the reviewer to revise the review if they are, for example, too short or using inappropriate tone, if they are mean or derogatory to the authors?

Problems of inappropriate tone very rarely happen. As an author I have received these kind of reviews in my career, a lot of them. But I have not seen any like that in Higher Education. Rude reviews, contemptuous reviews, opinions with no substance, abusive reviews. I used to get these from English academics and I still do receive them. English people seem to do that more than most, certainly more than other English-speakers. I wonder why? Perhaps it is something to do with the well-developed and fruitful critical spirit that runs through English academia, or perhaps it is just bad manners.

The difficulty is to make everyone writing for the journal start to think in terms of knowledge, and genuinely advancing the field, and contributing to the discussion – rather than seeing journal articles as a kind of private good, “my CV items”.

Would I modify a review with inappropriate tone? Occasionally I interpret the review, especially when there are differences of opinion between the reviewers. I will say what I think as the editor, to give the authors some room to move in relation to the review. And occasionally, I do not copy in a reviewer’s report and take it out of the journal processing system, at the point when advice goes to the author. I just leave in the review material that goes to the author, those parts I think are valid. That happened very few times.

What are the biggest challenges at your work as the editor in this journal?

Ohh… just the workload, I mean, getting through it, and doing a good job while doing it. A few years ago I would have said the challenge is the danger of missing a good piece, a work of value. But I don’t think that happens. Good pieces jump to attention amid the mass of rubbish. The problem is that the volume of bad papers is enormous. It is the “publish or perish” culture. The difficulty is to make everyone writing for the journal start to think in terms of knowledge, and genuinely advancing the field, and contributing to the discussion – rather than seeing journal articles as a kind of private good, “my CV items”. To get authors to become scholars, discarding the private good state of mind, is very difficult. Authors we receive are mostly self-seeking, career-forming, without being particularly interested in the field. Really. It is relatively small minority that do the serious papers.

When we went from 500 to 1,500 submissions a year, the number of really good papers did not go up by three times. Much, much less. Maybe it rose by 50%, maybe less. I am guessing. Every year we get hundreds more bad papers. And dealing with those takes a lot of time. Because I am always polite and try to be developmental. Always. That’s our responsibility, to the field and those who seek to contribute. You have to write proper rejection letters that explain to people what they should be doing. My reject letters explain how the journal works, what this field is, what kind of things we accept and do not accept and what you need to do to make this paper into a proper article. I always do this. That is why I spend so much time on the journal. It is the reject letters, in aggregate, that take the most time – not developing the good research into something better. Even though I know that unfortunately, only one out of ten of the rejected authors will read what I have said.

People need to be helped, they need to have it explained to them what they need to do in order to get published.

We get hundreds of papers from Iran, India, Pakistan and Turkey – these four places. And nearly all of them unpublishable because the writers lack a journal culture in their own setting. They lack mentors, they lack the conventions, and often they have not read academic journals much. Often these submissions are coming from people who are trying to get English language publications for their careers. Maybe they want to get out of their countries, and move abroad with some form of an international journals publication record. These people are not well prepared scholars but they are human beings, and some genuinely want to be scholars. I feel for them and want to help. I can’t help by publishing bad papers in the journal. But I am aware that even if most such would-be publications are rubbish, sometimes when you write back with developmental advice it may, in time, contribute to a growth of publication culture. That’s where it starts – people need to be helped, they need to have it explained to them what they need to do in order to get published. I do not think that getting a letter from someone who is rejecting your journal submission is a powerful educational tool. But it is better for editors to write proper rejection letters than not.

What is the role of publisher in relation to your journal? Does Springer interfere in any way with shaping journal’s internal policy?

I do not have any particular complaint about Springer. We work with Yoka Janssen, she was very supportive for the journal from the earlier times when volumes were much smaller and she still keeps an eye on the journal from within the company. There is also the person who is the handler, who is offshored somewhere, probably in the Philippines.

The publishers’ culture is different from the selective culture of the journal which is focused on the quality of ideas and information, and the contribution to knowledge.

The publisher has different criteria in mind compared to the editors. One thing that the publisher does is that they see the rejected articles as potentially publishable in their wide family of journals. For this reason they ask us, unless the paper is terrible, to recycle it, to reject it in such a manner that it goes back to their system. And correspondingly, until recently, we were receiving rejects from other journals. Ostensibly rejection – as the publisher sees it – is most often about bad field fit. Actually, more often, it is about the thing not being good, but there is a hierarchy of journals and items rejected by high demand high impact journals can sometimes go elsewhere. So the publisher has a clear preference for not rejecting outright whereas we feel it is often the honest thing to do and the approach more likely to lift the quality for the field.

In other words, the publishers’ culture is different from the selective culture of the journal which is focused on the quality of ideas and information, and the contribution to knowledge. We are constantly dealing with that tension. I am glad that we got rid of having to deal with papers rejected by other journals. Because we are a high-impact journal, Springer lifted from us the obligation to deal with transfers. We ourselves deal only with the new submissions, though we do pass most of the rejected articles back into the pool in compliance with the publisher’s requirement.

There are practical problems that arise from this system. For example, we discovered that the desk reject letters that we were writing and customising carefully were not passed through to those who authored the articles, when being transferred between the journals. They were getting the standard reject letters, a single paragraph without reasons for judgements. So we made a fuss, and made the system change in order to be sure that the stuff we think should be recorded in the system is made visible to the authors. When I reject something, I want the people to see the letter in order to access the developmental advice – in order get to know what they should do to achieve a publishable article.

Usually, journal systems work according to central standard decisions about article processing and you cannot change things much to customize them for a single journal. We are essentially pushing against the wall when we try to do so. Every month or two something happens that raises questions about how the system works. Also, you have to keep an eye on the things as they can get changed unilaterally. Our website was changed and some stuff removed from it, information that we think authors should have. We asked for it to be put back. Things like that happen when you are a part of a much bigger operation. But when we have problems with Springer, we have found that Yoka will fix them, if they are fixable at all. Other things we live with.

To conclude our conversation, is there any advice you may want to give to early-career scholars who wish to publish in Higher Education?

There is of course the most basic advice; read the journal and get to know what it is like before you send an article to it. But let me emphasise also the contrary advice – in the first instance, do not write a paper according to what you think the journal wants, write it according to what you wish to write – then adapt it to the journal when you make your submission. Keep command of our own creative identity! It is really important to focus on your contribution to knowledge, and not on the system and the process.

Expect that if you’ve got a really good new idea, then it will probably go through at least one reject before it will get published.

Other advice is more mundane. We clearly indicate a maximum 8,000 words limit with few special case exceptions and you have to follow that, as it otherwise leads to an extra process. Authors get the request to shorten their paper. Then, if they push back and say no, we simply say OK, but we do not accept your article. That is a journey into pain, it is not much fun for anyone. It is better to just comply with the requirements, whatever they are. Though I know well from my own work that length can be the hardest thing to manage.

Beyond that, I would say, if you have an article that matters, make it as strong as you can. Revise. Clarify. Support the argument as well as you can. Because good content always jumps out. Editors will notice it. You should not perceive them as stupid and think that all they want is just boring standardized stuff. That they want papers that resembles everything that has ever been published and only such papers. That is not true. You get very bored with standardized stuff – papers the same as other papers already in print. There are some people and journals who may think that unless things are orthodox then they are wrong. I think that most of editors in our journal would like to see a bit of unorthodoxy. I mean unorthodoxy in terms of format, as well as the content. But the content is what matters most. Content is king! If your content is good then you’re going to get published by us.

Of course, then there is a question how do you handle the reviewers. As I have said, the reviewers are often not like that. Some reviewers do not like new ideas, they want orthodoxy, they want you to write the paper as they would write it themselves, and there are even reviewers who want you to write a paper which mentions their work, if you are in their topic area. All this stuff can get in the way. That is a nuisance, you have to kind of put up with it, keep on going and defend your idea politely and effectively. And there is this – expect that if you’ve got a really good new idea, then it will probably go through at least one reject before it will get published. Nearly all of my most highly cited journal articles and books went through at least one rejection and some went through repeated rejections before being accepted. And mostly, when they were rescued, it was by an editor and not by a reviewer. Be patient and be robust – stick to it! The emotional experience of being rejected and told to completely rewrite in a way that is antithetical to you are rarely pleasant, but be persistent. Just improve your contribution every time you are being told to revise. Revision is an opportunity to improve – even if it is a revision for the wrong reasons.

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 and transformations of higher education systems in Central Eastern Europe. He worked as a researcher for Education International (Brussels, Belgium) and as a consultant on policy projects funded by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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