“Western concepts don’t always apply everywhere”: Interview with Yaşar Kondakçı, Editor of “Higher Education Governance and Policy”

This time in the “Meet the Editors” interview series, we talk to Yaşar Kondakçı, the Editor of the new journal Higher Education Governance and Policy (HEGP), established in 2020. HEGP is the scholarly journal of the Association for Higher Education Studies in Turkey. The journal has an international perspective towards higher education policies and management practices and aims to inform an international audience.

Yaşar Kondakçı is a full professor in the field of educational administration. He currently works at the Department of Educational Sciences, Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey.

In this interview, we talk to Yaşar on being the editor of a brand new journal. We also discuss his vision for the future of this newly established journal and the higher education field overall.

Could you tell us in a few words what being the editor of Higher Education, Governance and Policy means to you as a scholar?

It is, of course, an academic responsibility. I do not have any material return from this task. And I do not actually expect any material return or reward in monetary terms, but I feel collegial responsibility to make the research from this geography, I mean, not only Turkey but also the Balkans, Caucasia, maybe Central Asian countries, the Middle East and Africa. We want to be the outlet of scientific products or research conducted in these geographies. So, I feel a kind of collegial or scholarly responsibility to make the research in these geographies a little bit more visible to the other parts of the world.

When we examine the prominent journals in the field, we can easily notice that these geographies are relatively underrepresented in those journals. However, it does not mean that there is no research on higher education in these geographies, but it means that researchers working in these geographies are either not able to present or, publish in these journals, or they need some support to make their research a little bit more visible. We also want to be a kind of a communication channel among these higher education scholars. We would like to be the journal where people from these geographies actually meet, but we are not restricted to these geographies. If you examine our editorial board, you will notice that we have members from all over the world.

Higher Education, Governance and Policy is a newly established journal, with the second issue published earlier this month. What are the particular challenges of being the editor of a brand new journal?

Naturally, we have a visibility problem. Almost every colleague knows me and the editorial board by name. But, of course, when you contact people about a new journal, they have questions and are cautious, especially because of the growing phenomenon we call predatory journals. Your name must be a reputable name. Then people can engage with your journal. They do not easily say “yes” when you invite them to review a paper or when you invite them to submit a paper.

Launching a new journal consumes more energy than editing a well-established one.

Of course, for any journal, which is recently established, the problem of keeping a minimum quality standard is a challenge. For our journal, it was less challenging because we had good networks; myself and especially my assistant editor Barış, we are part of a big research program around the world. So, we already had contacts with scholars in higher education from almost every country. Therefore, whenever we contacted a scholar, either for taking place in the editorial board, or submit or review an article, luckily, we received a positive response.

As a new journal, we have to make our purpose and identity very clear. We have to stress the fact that we are the journal of Turkish Higher Education Research Association. This made our job easier. As we were a little familiar with the task of editing a journal, we simply built on our previous experiences. However, launching a new journal consumes more energy than editing a well-established one. So, while we are trying to increase the visibility of the journal, we are also trying to increase the reputation of the journal. And we are simply trying to do this by attracting quality manuscripts from well-known scholars around the world. So, if you examine our first two issues, you will notice that they are written by well-known scholars in higher education. 

What are the most enjoyable parts of editing the journal?

Bringing people together is, of course, very joyful. Contacting people in higher education from all over the world, contacting prominent scholars in the field of higher education, and putting their ideas and manuscripts into the journal is very joyful. And the feeling that the journal is being used, I mean, the manuscripts or the articles are used, either for research or teaching purposes, gives the feeling that you are contributing to the field in terms of teaching and research. This is a priceless joy for any scholar. And the fact that you do this from zero point is an extra joy. Because it’s your idea, it’s your approach. It’s your construction. This is very joyful.

As early-career researchers, we wanted to learn more about the editor’s responsibilities and tasks. For example, what kind of tasks and responsibilities are you entrusted with as a founding editor? 

I work together with my assistant editor. We are responsible for every single aspect of the journal. We are not just editing, but we are also trying to deal with some many back-office issues. For example, now that we are established, we want to take place in different indexes. So, there is huge paperwork regarding that. We are developing the design, we are editing, we are reading. Sometimes we have to edit the English as well. So, we are actually responsible for many invisible back-office issues and tasks as well.

Normally, in well-established journals, these tasks are undertaken by secretaries or administrative staff. But in a new journal, these tasks are your responsibility. So, building or bringing the editorial team together, constructing the network, I mean, the small network advisory board, and then deciding on the design, receiving the manuscripts, sending them to the reviewers, getting the reports of the reviewers, these are all responsibilities of the editors. We do not have back-office support, we do not have any financial resource to finance this, we are thankful for the advancements in technology because we don’t need money to run this task. And we simply have to make more room for this task. Lifting up the journal takes time.

How much work is this on a weekly or monthly basis?

When we approach to publishing of an issue, the time we allocate to the journal increases. The rest of the time, we normally need to spend half a day each week. At the moment, we guarantee we will publish two issues per year. But, for example, the planning of the journal took two years and we worked intensively before publishing the first issue. We had to discuss the issue in the council of the Turkish Higher Education Research Association. We had several of these discussions. We also had a kind of Advisory Committee. We formed a smaller committee afterwards. Right now, we have a routine more or less established.

From the author’s perspective, once the manuscript is submitted, all we can do is wait. Can you lead us through the decision-making process and the editing process between submission and response?

Once you submit the manuscript, we need to decide on two things first: is this an appropriate manuscript in terms of scope, content, and format? If yes, then second task beings: we have to find a reviewer. This is very, very challenging because when we decide on the reviewer, we actually need a reviewer who will accept to fulfill the task on time and who is matching with the content. Naturally you cannot know every single scholar in higher education. Sometimes you find a matching reviewer, but the reviewer might be very busy. So, the authors are not aware of this fact, but we are quite busily in involved in these two tasks. It is really annoying for me to send the manuscript to a reviewer and not to get any response, I mean, either positive or negative.

Desk reject can be a positive thing because it saves so much time.

I know that especially young, novice researchers are annoyed when they receive a desk reject. However, in my view, desk reject can be a positive thing because it saves so much time. I don’t see any point in keeping the manuscript for two, three, four or six months, and then reject the manuscript with the reviewer’s decision that the manuscript is not appropriate for this specific journal. It is the editor’s responsibility to decide at the beginning. I know that there are many journals and many editors who leave the decision to reject the manuscript to the reviewer, but in my thinking, this is the job of the editors, especially if you reject the manuscript because it is out of scope. So, I find a desk reject always better than a reject by a reviewer decision.

Once we receive a manuscript, we try to find a good, matching reviewer in terms of content, diligence, and commitment to the task. Once we find the reviewer, we try to accelerate the process, or ensure that we get the response on time, so that the review process is not delayed. This is very challenging. The reviewers are very busy. Based on my experience in this and other journals, I think the current academic publishing practice, with the peer review process as it is now, is not sustainable.

We are receiving too many manuscripts. And the response rates of the reviewers are declining. Sometimes I have to assign seven reviewers, especially if we receive a manuscript which is in between fields or in between disciplines. And we cannot accept or publish any manuscript without getting at least suggestions from two reviewers. When the recommendations or suggestions of the reviewers are conflicting, we have to consult a third, and sometimes a fourth reviewer. This is a bit challenging and it takes too much time. 

What characterizes a good submission and what characterizes a submission that will be desk-rejected?

The first thing we check is the format. The format must be clear. In our field, we have a certain structure. We would like to see this structure, especially for conceptual papers and for empirical papers. If it’s a conceptual paper, we need to see a clear, good idea and a good argument at the beginning. We need to see a good construction of a problem there. In the rest of the paper, we need to see an inspiring and intellectually attractive resolution of the promises that are advanced at the beginning. For empirical papers, we have a format, we have a structure, we have a flow. We want to make sure that the authors follow this structure in terms of academic writing and in terms of structuring the paper. If this is okay, then we can go to the content. 

By format or structure, do you mean the APA style or…?

More than APA, actually. It is the writing manual that issued this format, I mean the font etc., but it is more than this. I need to see an argument, and I need to see it in the introduction. I need to see the problematization of the issue. I need to see a purpose. There must be a methodology if it is an empirical paper. This is the first thing. The second thing is the content, and, of course, we have to check in terms of research and publication ethics. In research ethics, we rely on what is declared by the researchers. If they declare that there is no harm, there is anonymity, or there is a consent of an ethical committee, then we can proceed with the review process. Otherwise, if the scope, the format, and the ethical standards are not met, we definitely reject the paper.

If it’s a conceptual paper, we need to see a clear, good idea and a good argument at the beginning.

The most frequent reject decisions we give are related to the incompatibility between a manuscript and the scope of the journal. This has practical reasons. If the scope is not appropriate to the journal, we will not be able to assess as editors. And second, we will not be able to find a reviewer to review the journal in our network. And third, it will not build upon the knowledge that we present in the journal. So, there is no point in accepting a manuscript which is not compatible with the scope of the journal.

So, I guess your first recommendation for early career researchers who plan to submit to this journal is to look at the scope. 

Check the format, then scope and make sure that you follow the research and publication ethics. We have guidelines on our website, and you can find these guidelines in any manual. 

How would you compare your journal to other journals in the field? Which specific space or niche does your journal occupy?

We focus a lot on policy and management issues in higher education. I know that there are several other journals that focus on these issues in higher education. We wanted to put a kind of distance between the scope of the journal and teaching and assessment in higher education. Teaching and assessment are a little bit different issues which require different expertise.

Although we align with some prominent journals in the field, we are quite distinguishable from them in terms of our policy regarding the content. In some prominent journals, like Studies in Higher Education, Higher Education, or Research in Higher Education, you can find articles related to any dimension in higher education, including teaching and assessment and critical issues in higher education. We are not positioned to solicit manuscripts from these sub-dimensions of higher education. So, we are not focused much on, for example, teaching in higher education. It is not within our scope. However, articles primarily involved in policy, management, and leadership issues are quite welcome. We are disadvantaged in this regard because there are several different prominent, well-established journals that occupy the same niche.

How do you see the future of the journal?

In the future, we will grow. I’m confident about this because, for example, when we look at Turkey, the Middle East, Russia and post-Soviet Republics, the Balkans, we see a very fast-growing cohort of higher education researchers. They are actually interested in different journals. They are interested in making their research more and more visible to the external, to the international area. We position the journal as an international journal. Although we are located in Turkey, our publication language is English and our standards are universal standards. So, relying on the fast-growing research output in Turkey, in the Balkans, in ex-Soviet Republics, Eurasian region, the Middle East, and even North Africa, I think we will grow very fast.

I’m confident that by this time next year, we will double or even triple the number of manuscripts that we receive. We also aim to make ourselves visible in different indexes. I am confident that we will receive many more manuscripts and this journal will be more and more visible to the world. We are quite careful about not publishing two articles from the same country [in an issue] and we will continue this. In three to four years, we will be able to publish more than two issues per year, but for the time being, we will not increase the number of issues.

What about the role of publishers in this? As far as I know the journal is published by a Turkish DergiPark. Do they have expectations, pressures?

They have strict expectations and standards, in terms of both how we structure the journal and ethical standards. We have to fulfill these rules. The good thing about DergiPark is that it is like ScholarOne infrastructure. We are using the same infrastructure. ScholarOne is more practical. However, DergiPark is not bad compared to ScholarOne.

The most frequent reject decisions we give are related to the incompatibility between a manuscript and the scope of the journal.

DergiPark infrastructure is totally free. I think it is a very good initiative of ULAKBİM [Turkish Academic Network and Information Center]. ULAKBİM is a branch of TUBİTAK [Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey]. It’s a very good initiative because, on the one hand, it helps Turkish academic publishing flourish. On the other hand, this is a kind of standardized and ethical flourishing.

Before wrapping up, I would like to get your opinion about higher education as a field. How do you see the field of higher education studies in a broad sense? 

Both at national and international levels, it is enormously growing. We are occasionally discussing among ourselves and with different colleagues about the reason of this growth. Until 2010s, or perhaps 2005, we realized that the field of higher education was a neglected area, academically. Although we spend most of our lives in universities and although the universities are very influential on the lives of societies, these institutions are quite under-investigated compared to K12, for example.

This neglect happened because, in the field of higher education research, at least related the scope of the journal, things used to run on what we call the rule of thumb. However, this is a professional area, and university is a formal organization. We have to approach higher education and university as a formal organization. Or if you consider the systems of higher education, these are formal systems. They have certain requirements. They have certain responsibilities towards their societies. These concerns put the responsibility of managing these organizations a little bit more evidence based. We cannot run higher education by the rule of thumb anymore. We need a knowledge base and we need research in order to back our decisions on higher education. We need to see different practices around the world.

For example, in Turkey, we have the recent debate on the selection of university rectors [presidents]. Naturally, you look at different practices in different countries. However, an “academic look” at the practices in different countries should be different from a “layman look”. We have to have an academic and methodological perspective on this issue, like on any other issue. For example, we are not focused on teaching, but for centuries we considered teaching almost like a non-negotiable practice in higher education. However, currently, we believe that teaching must be developed and improved by the teachers [university instructors], because what we, academics, do in higher education is, again, teaching. We have to fulfill certain standards in teaching. These and other concerns brought higher education studies in front of scholars, both in the field of education and in other social science fields, such as political science. Because of the increasing importance of higher education, we will see more and more academic output in the field of higher education research.

We cannot always get the concepts and discussions from the West to understand higher education issues in peripheral regions.

However, there is one issue, which is not specific to higher education studies as it is present across both social sciences and hard sciences, and it has to do with unethical practices in higher education. Unfortunately, we are facing a growing pressure on the universities and researchers [about publications], and this pressure leads to increased tendencies to ethical violations in academic research and publications. We have to be careful about this. However, my call for caution is not like calling for control or calling for policemen policies. My caution is instructive and educative. We have to teach about ethics in higher education, ethics in academic research, ethics in publication in higher education and other fields. In my perspective, this is the only viable way to deal with issues of ethics. Apart from this, it is quite joyful to see that the field of higher education is growing day by day.

Can you give us one example for ethical issues that you mentioned, just so that we can have a better grasp?

Plagiarism is the most common one. This is especially the case for young researchers, because when we say “young researcher”, these can be nearly graduated PhD students, but master’s students as well. And a master’s student is a student who just got a bachelor’s degree or undergraduate degree. And most of them may not have any notion of publication ethics. On top of this, we have the issue of predatory journals in Turkey. Unfortunately, this predatory academic publication practice is very common in Turkey, India, and Nigeria. And Turkey is both a supplier and a high-demand country. As academic publishers, as scholars, we have to put a very clear line between ourselves and predatory publication business.

What would you like to see more of in terms of higher education research in the field?

To be honest, I want to see more representation of certain regions around the world. I would like to see underrepresented regions. Unfortunately, prominent journals in the field, I don’t have to hide the names, but they are quite Western-oriented in terms of the papers published and in terms of the discourse in these publications. This leads to, in the words of Altbach, the dominance of the core. We need to see what is going on in the periphery. And especially peripheral regions need to grow in academic publication. Hopefully, academic publications from the periphery will guide the policymakers in the periphery to build their higher education systems. We need to do this for just and fair development and advancement in higher education around the world. We cannot always get the concepts and discussions from the West to understand higher education issues in peripheral regions, including Turkey, Balkans, Eurasian region, Africa or certain regions in Southeast Asia. We need to break this cycle. And this is a very big motivation for us in building and constructing this journal.

Thank you very much.

Yusuf Ikbal Oldac is a fully-funded PhD student at the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. His doctoral research is on self-formation and societal contributions in international higher education. Yusuf is a member of the Higher Education, and Comparative and International Education research groups at the University of Oxford. You can follow him on Twitter: @YusufOldac.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

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