should a journal editor know if a paper is from a doctoral researcher?

One of the most obvious difficulties of a PhD which requires published, rather than publishable, papers is the dependence of the doctoral researcher on the reviewing process. At a very early stage they must brave what can be a lengthy and sometimes feral process – certainly unpredictable. Despite the best intentions and expertise of the supervisor – who may even have co written the first paper with the doctoral candidate – it is still the case that submission of the paper may lead to disappointment, unhelpful critique, even confidence sapping rejection. Of course, the same reviewing angst can also apply to doctoral researchers who are doing a Big Book PhD, but a least their award doesn’t hang on the peer reviewers.

Here is one story which illustrates the difficulties that might be encountered, but it’s a story which also shows an intervention which made the publication process more manageable – and also educative.

Thomas completed a PhD by publication. He was required to write three articles and an exegesis, all of these in English; his first language is Norwegian. His PhD depended on having the three articles accepted for publication.

Thomas’ first article took two years from initial submission to final publication. During that time he had to make major revisions to it. His second article was accepted with minor revisions. His third article was rejected and had to be submitted to another journal altogether. But in the first and third articles there were conflicting reviews and an extended set of exchanges with reviewers and editors over many months. At times Thomas did not know whether he would meet the requirements for his PhD because of the level of critical comments he received. The time lapse and prolonged nature of revising and resubmitting, then revising again and resubmitting again, were extremely challenging. Thomas says

The nature of blind reviewing implies that the candidate receives the same level of feedback as is given to experienced scholars. The critiques of the reviewers and editors often appear frank and direct, which can be difficult and even destructive in the fragile course of learning for an inexperienced scholar. The role of the supervisor is crucial in helping the PhD candidate interpret and digest the feedback in order to make the comments beneficial and help the candidate revise his or her work.

Such high stakes publishing for a PhD raises the bar on the riskiness and importance of publication. Early career and doctoral researchers are highly dependent in such awards, not only on their supervisors as brokers, but on skilful editors to lead them through a difficult review process.

Many editors recognise the complex, sometimes hostile and contradictory advice offered in reviewer reports. Good editors understand that they need to guide authors about how to negotiate harsh and conflicting reviewer demands. They take an active role in synthesizing and giving direction – which advice to attend to fully, which to background, perhaps which to ignore.

Thomas describes the critical role of the editor in brokering his third article. The Editor received two conflicting reviews and then asked the reviewers to sort out their differences.

The editor described the disagreement and also attached the follow up discussion that occurred between the reviewers. The most interesting part of this is how the editor conveyed his message. First of all, he displayed the grounds of the rejection, preparing me for the frankness of the reviewers’ statements and thoroughly explained the considerations an editor needed to account for. The editor also made an effort to motivate me to continue my research and invited me to submit to the journal again. In this sense, the rejection gave me, as a PhD student, valuable insights into the review and editorial process.

This editorial intervention is quite unusual. It is rare to ask reviewers to resolve their differences. However, this editor’s intervention gave Thomas the opportunity to see a dialogue between scholars with different positions as they discussed his work and then came to an agreement about what would be required to bring it to publishable standards. It is more common for the editor to do this work- deciding which review recommendations to prioritise. Thomas’ supervisor was also crucial in this process. She provided support and wise counsel, helping Thomas to come understand what was happening and what he needed to do.

One question Thomas’ experience raises for me, as a journal editor, is whether it would be advantageous to know if a submission is from a PhD candidate. If I did know this I would of course not pass the information on to reviewers. However I would be inclined to take additional care about communicating the reviewers’ feedback and the recommendation back to the author. I might be able to make it a pedagogical experience. But would this be fair? Shouldn’t all submissions get the same level of care? Or do I as an editor have a special responsibility to new members of the scholarly community?

What do you think? In the light of the increasing number of PhD by publication researchers, and the increased demand for all doctoral researchers to publish, should journal editors adopt the policy of asking for the status of the person making the submission?

Thanks to Dr Thomas de Lange, University of Oslo, for permission to use his story.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in dissertation, early career researchers, journal editor, PhD, PhD by publication, reviewing, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to should a journal editor know if a paper is from a doctoral researcher?

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Seems obvious to me that an editor should not know this — nor, really anything at all about the author. Neither should the reviewers. Because a work should be evaluated on its own merits.

    The problem described here is that sometimes reviewers are jerks, and this is a problem for postgrads. But of course it’s a problem for everyone else, too, from adventurous undergrads on up to senior tenured faculty. (The only difference in the Ph.D-by-publication case is that the time constraints may be harder.)

    Surely the solution is for reviews not to be jerks whoever they are reviewing for — and for editors to deal with jerk reviews appropriately, again irrespective of who the author is.

  2. Simon McGrath says:

    In my experience as an editor, I’ve been aware of the identity of authors as doctoral candidates in three different ways. Group 1 are those cases where the author has sent an accompanying note telling me that this paper is needed for PhD by publication. In all such cases, the paper has been rejected in the end as very weak. Thus, in the current environment, flagging up doctoral status seems a problem based on this experience. Group 2 are those that I know are doctoral students because they, like me, are part of a scholarly community and I recognise their names. Many of these too get rejected but I think that I have tended to ‘go the extra mile’ in trying to interpret and re-present feedback in constructive ways, and a good number of such papers have made it. Group 3 are the relatively large number of doctoral students featured in some of the special issues I took based on conferences. In these cases, senior academics had taken a view that papers from doctoral students had real potential and had worked with them even though they perhaps needed more technical support than the work of other authors.
    Perhaps what I have learnt is that sensitivity from editors is a good thing, but takes time and will probably need to be rationed. However, this runs the risk of reinforcing the advantages of having the right supervisors/networks. I have also learned to wonder whether at times the pressure to publish, which surely is greater for a PhD by publication, leads to trying to do ‘much too much, much too young’. As an editor, I’ve sometimes thought that supervisors should be doing more to discourage submissions that are very weak.

  3. Julie says:

    I agree with Mike, work should be evaluated on it’s merits and its merits alone.

    I have a paper which I submitted eight weeks ago to a good open access jnl which the Editor still hasn’t been able to find a review team for. The decision to submit or withdraw that paper and the consequences of doing either are my responsibility. The reviewing is theirs.

    I don’t expect to be treated any differently because of my status but i do expect to be treated the same. As Mike rightly, in my opinion, pointed out, it’s the reviewers who need marshaling.

    • pat thomson says:

      The editor however has the responsibility to convey feedback, not reviewers. The responsibilities are not the same. Important not to conflate the two. Thomas story shows editor is key.

  4. Julie says:

    Yes, thanks for correcting me there.

  5. I like it when i come across questions on social media that, in my view, can be answered in one word. This one I believe deserves a firm No! For one thing, PhD students are grown-ups. For another, what applies to PhD s applies to anyone else.For example, peer review should be rigorous, but the tone should not be hostile – that applies whoever the recipient is, novice researcher or experienced prof.

    PS I think there’s a case in graduate development for promoting Elizabeth Wager’s book, ‘How to survive peer review’!

    • pat thomson says:

      The issue is about editors.. And maybe more about a code of editorial ethics. I’m not convinced all editors manage difficult reviews as well as the one in this story.

      • The post conflates two issues: (1) should doctoral students be treated differently?; (2) how should editors manage reviewers?

      • pat thomson says:

        The post is asking whether editors should know the status of submissions so they can handle reviewer comments more sensitively if needed… It’s collocation not conflation:) Aside from the provocation, I actually think it might be about an editorial code of ethics rather than anything else.

      • Well, if it is about a code of editorial code of ethics, I have to say that, from the title onwards, I didn’t find that very clear! I can’t see how knowing whether an author is a doctoral candidate contributes to that theme at all. For one thing, it would require a huge act of stereotyping to infer from someone’s status how they should be treated. For another, I suggest that one rule for one, another rule for others would not make for a good code of ethics.

      • pat thomson says:

        I think it’s possible to suggest the answer is not to treat people differently, but rather to treat everyone as if they were in need of very helpful explanation… In that case an editor wouldn’t need to know. So it’s an answer of no but here’s another way to come at the problem..

      • I’m glad we’re agreed that the answer is No.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        “… treat everyone as if they were in need of very helpful explanation …”

        Yes. This. So in answer to the original article’s banner question “should a journal editor know if a paper is from a doctoral researcher?”, the answer is no; but in answer to the subsidiary question “should reviewers refrain from being jerks, and should editors do a good job”, the answer is yes.

  6. macademise says:

    I’m doing a PhD by publication (at the same institution as Thomas) and while I recognise the challenges outlined, I would be extremely against my work being identified as doc work to reviewers. I want to be assessed based on what I write, not on my status. The whole point of doctoral education is that we should become qualified researchers. I also think being published ‘as doctoral work’ would greatly backfire post PhD when you are applying for other jobs, and your publications will not be counted of equal value as that of other researchers.

    Some of the challenges outlined can be mitigated by
    a) co writing one or two articles with your supervisor(s),
    b) receiving proper supervision,
    c) receiving proper training in journal publishing, and
    d) having your supervisor help you ‘decode’ reviewers comments and help you strategise for how to address it.

    Merit, and merit alone. Otherwise, I’ll do a monograph! :)

  7. Steve says:

    Last year, I submitted an article to a 3* journal based on my 2011 Master’s research. I got a ‘revise and resubmit’, but with eight pages of densely written, candid requirements which might have made me feel as if they had missed the ‘reject’ button only by accident were it not for the contextualisation provided by the editor. She set up the feedback and, as far as I can tell, reproduced it in all its length and candour, but did it in such a way as to position it as achievable and worth attempting, which I probably would not have felt (so strongly) had I read the comments unmediated.
    My novice status was explicit in the paper (it was in a field which demands a high, almost alarming level of self-reflexivity), though the editor and reviewers won’t have known I’m still a doctoral student (as opposed to post-doc) until their receipt of my revision last week, since the requirement for methodological detail required by the reviewers (who mostly and fortunately agreed) could best be satisfied by locating the study honestly as an MA project. I would be horrified, though, if I thought the work were treated differently because of that, and will certainly not be pleading inexperience, albeit implicitly, in any future articles where I can get away with sharing less.

  8. In editing a special issue recently, I thought this was particularly important. With one doctoral student the question was a likely minimising of the positive feedback and panic at the scope of the revisions. With another, who had recently passed the PhD, the issue was the paper having almost the whole PhD within it. Knowing the status of the authors made contextualising the reports and guiding the authors easier, and more successful in my view. As you are highlighting Pat, this has nothing to do with the refereeing process – and I might add that both papers went to the reviewers twice before being published. Having reviewers who I think guessed they were dealing with doctoral students helped as well – it seemed to me that the reports were tailored to people who might be novices in the refereeing process.

  9. I don’t think editors should know the status of doctoral students. If PhD students feel as though they need to have negative reviews given to them a little more ‘softly’ (which seems to be the issue here) then perhaps they aren’t cut out for academic careers where there will sometimes be reviewers who are a bit harsh and sometimes even downright mean. An editor’s job shouldn’t be to coddle a student.

  10. Chris says:

    I might be a bit of an odd duck in this scenario. I’ve reviewed papers for three different journals (one during my masters, and two afterward) despite not having published and not being enrolled in a PhD. In all these cases, it was well established professors who knew me and my work who very kindly suggested me to the editor as a reviewer, meaning the journal editors would have known my non-PhD anything status. I think I was more nervous than the editors were about my reviewing skills, but it all worked out and I found their interactions with me to be very professional and courteous and I couldn’t detect any sort of bias on their part toward me. I wouldn’t want it any other way as the thing that matters to me is the quality of my review and not my relative status or credentials.

    Right now I have my first two papers receiving decisions. In one, just accepted pending a very small change after an initial revise and resubmit, I’m lead of two authors. In the other, I’m in my second round of revision – significant still, but much simpler and much more encouraging than the fairly brutal first round! I think in one case the editor may have known my status as I seem recall revealing it in the cover letter, but I’m unsure whether this was conveyed to the reviewers. In the other, I did not explicitly reveal my status and had to correct the the “Dr” before my name in one of the emails. The reviewers in most cases were detailed enough and as especially as someone relatively new at this, I’m glad for that level of attention as it helps me to better craft future papers and avoid some of the more tedious issues. Here too the editors to be direct, clear, and professional, and were upfront and very apologetic about one or two late reviews and the wait to hear about their decision.

    I suppose I’m of two minds…on the one hand if the editor knows (and maybe conveys a student’s status to the reviewers), it could result in a more thorough and tempered review as there’s a pedagogical value and ‘service to the profession’ value in mentoring new authors to the publising standard. Then again, if the larger goal is improving knowledge of ___, mindfulness, and decorum should be the standard at any level and the perceived status of an author shouldn’t determine the nature of the interactions between the editor and authors and reviewers…

  11. I’m glad I came across this thread. In these days of article-level metrics, we are challenged in the Publishing House by articles which typically don’t get used or cited much, and we are committed to working with editors and especially authors to optimize the dissemination and impact (broadly conceived) of their research. We are at the initial stages of researching this in Taylor & Francis Group journals (include Psychology Press and Routledge), both for Open Access and subs/sales model based journals. There does seem to be a correlation between career stage of the author and usage/citations on the journals we have looked at. We were considering introducing an optional career stage tickbox system in the online submission process, which we could suppress for authors/reviewers. We know that different types of promotional techniques need to be used for first-time and early-career authors. I’m looking for feedback on this on david.greem@tandf.co.uk. Many thanks.

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