Tag Archives: academic writing; academic reading; reviewing

Ugly Betty wasn’t like this…

For the last 6 months I’ve been an editorial intern on the board of an international peer-reviewed journal. When I first applied and was accepted as an intern I made lots of jokes to friends and colleagues about being the ‘Ugly Betty of academia’, going into my internship to learn the ropes of the peer review process from the inside.

Fortunately it hasn’t been anything like the tv show of Ugly Betty: no psychodramas, no power mad editors at the helm, no instructions for me to run around doing menial tasks removed from the actual work of the editors. Instead, being an editorial intern has been a time for learning where I have grown to understand more about writing, reading and the process of reviewing.

In this internship model, I worked as part of the editorial team, not standing on the sidelines watching what they did, but actively taking part in their work, reading papers upon arrival at the journal, participating in fortnightly teleconferences with the members of the editorial board and watching papers move through the process to final publication.

Before I commenced, I’d worked as assistant editor on a teacher professional journal but only had experience of the peer-review process as a fledgling academic. I wondered what the editors of peer-reviewed journals were like and what they talked about. Did they sharpen their knives, ready to wield them as they looked at papers submitted by nameless, hapless academics hoping to get their work out to a scholarly community? Were they to be feared? Loathed? Admired? Despite knowing rationally that they were academics just like any others, due to the positions they held, I saw them as something else, something other, something different. As an ECR, my imposter monster reared its head prior to the first teleconference- would I have the skills to do this? In the first teleconference we had a handover with the previous interns, who spoke with confidence and assurance and the monster woke up and shuffled around in my head again – I hoped that I could sound like this at the end of my term.

From the first meeting I was able to see the process of the editorial team as they looked at new papers, papers in progress, special issues, the selection of reviewers and more. I was heartened to see the warmth and compassion with which editors talked about papers and authors. As authors many of us pour our hearts and minds into our papers, like tiny, fragile birds, we send them out ready to face the world on their own. It’s easy to imagine faceless editors and reviewers butchering our papery birds when we send them in, not caring that there is a person at the other end, eagerly, tentatively waiting for news of them. This butchering of papers was not my experience though, rather, the editors were thoughtful and full of care as they thought about ways to improve papers in process or papers that were not suited to our particular journal. It is this notion of careful reviewing that has been at the forefront of my mind as I have completed my internship.

Throughout my internship I have looked carefully over submitted papers –  reading for the way the authors had linked theoretical and conceptual frameworks with methodology and analysis and discussion. I looked for gaps in the story, for where the paper could be improved, and for what it was teaching us that was new and important and would drive our understandings forward. Uploading my reviews of papers for the first time I was conscious of my inexperience in this role and hoped that I got my reviews ‘right’. As the months passed I grew to understand there is no ‘right’, there is just a careful, critical reading of papers. Sometimes I find a paper that really sparks my interest, but in the current form it doesn’t have the broad ranging appeal needed to make it into the journal, or it requires more work to get it to a point where the message is clear for those reading it. In those instances I recommend sending the paper bird back to where it came from until it is strong enough to fly on its own.

Over the last six months as an intern I’ve read all sorts of papers, by all sorts of authors. I have been immersed in a sea of ideas, concepts, frameworks, designs, methodologies, outcomes, implications, findings and discussions. I find myself becoming a more perceptive and critical reader, looking for the connections between the ideas and having a better understanding of the ways to structure a paper that allow this to take place. I think my own writing has become sharper in the time that I have worked as an intern. I think more about my audience when I am constructing a paper, imagining them reading it with a careful, critical eye and I am conscious of trying to fill in any gaps that emerge. I read and write for the ways theory and literature are intertwined with data, analysis and discussion. I return again, and again, and again to the ‘so what?’ question.

I hold paper birds in my hand and make a judgment about their ability to survive. I don’t underestimate the responsibility I have as an intern, I make sure I am fully present as a reader when I read, not allowing my attention to be captured by other things. This is what I owe to people who send their in work and so I take care in reading their words. I’ve watched papers go out to reviewers, returning with lists of things to be attended to and I’ve watched them disappear back to authors, only to return in time when they are stronger, smarter, sharper and slicker. In my mind’s eye I see this as something out of Harry Potter, with owls bringing papers to and fro. I picture people I will never meet hunkered down in offices, smiling when they receive an acceptance and shaking their heads softly and sadly when they receive a rejection.

Our fortnightly teleconferences are times for me to learn about the way the editors think and approach their work and I’m always impressed by the astute way they look at papers, their ability to think of the reviewer who might be a good match for a paper and the scope of their knowledge of the field. Sometimes the line is crackly and their voices seem distant, while at other times our Skype conversations are littered with laughter and you can hear a child’s voice in the background as the internet connects countries, states and lives. Some days I say very little in our meetings, I soak in the conversation and I listen for the process, the thought patterns, the critiques, piecing things together and building a framework for myself. Other days I talk about a decision or a possible reviewer and I find my voice growing more confident as the months pass. I see change evolve as the journal moves to online publication of papers before they move into the paper format.

Soon another email will arrive with some papers for me to review and the next few papers will be among some of my last as an intern. My time draws to a close and I have only a few weeks left in this role. I have been lucky as an intern as I have see one of the first papers I review move to publication, completing a full cycle. I hear the editors talk of how happy they are for authors whose work is accepted in final form. Here, in this moment is the human face of a process that from a distance can seem clinical and disconnected. Here is where we set the papery birds free.