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By Cally Guerin

Doctoral writers are often keen to publish their work in highly ranked journals, thus entering the debate about whether or not academics should publish their work in journals run by the big publishing companies. This contention continues, especially with regard to COVID-related research. Those powerful academic publishers are accused of exploiting the voluntary work of researchers and scholars through the administrative and editorial load they undertake in organising and performing peer review, in making decisions about manuscripts, in corresponding with authors, and in finalising the published articles.

Even though I have many sympathies with the open access movement and applaud the efforts to make publicly funded research freely available to the public, I still do unpaid work for journals owned by big publishers. There’s value for me in reviewing submissions and in handling articles as an associate editor. I want to explain my reasons for doing this free work so that doctoral writers make informed decisions about what is right for them.  

Publication processes: What goes on behind the scenes of journal publication? 

Being involved with journals as an associate editor means that I can see behind the curtain and learn about the attitudes, practices and processes that go into getting an article published. This helps me remember what is ‘publishable’ from the editor’s perspective as well as from the author’s point of view. It shows me why it takes time to get a decision on a manuscript: we often have to approach multiple reviewers before finding two who are willing to take on the unpaid review work in their very busy schedules. The sheer volume of submissions, and the numerous detailed steps in the processes, reveal the complexity that editors are navigating from the moment of receiving a submission through to finally publishing an article. Participating in the process also draws attention to the role of editors in mediating the reviewers’ comments and resolving differences of opinion. Understanding how the processes work makes it a little easier to be more patient and accepting of reviewer feedback. 

Review processes: What do my peers care about? 

Seeing how other reviewers respond to submissions shows me what they are focused on: how much do they care about the theoretical framework being mobilised to interpret the data? How much detail do they want to see in the methods section? Are they willing to accept fairly straight forward reports on activity, or is critique the most important aspect? This information in turn helps me in my own writing and in advising PhD candidates on their work. Being reminded on a regular basis of how peer reviewers go about the task of assessing manuscripts and what we are all looking for keeps those desirable characteristics at the forefront of my own mind as an author, a researcher developer and a supervisor.

As well as the voluntary work at the editorial end, I also take on reviewing tasks myself. These tasks not only maintain my own skills in evaluation, but also help me notice what other readers are looking for. I’m a big fan of the now-common practice of copying all reviewers into the correspondence informing authors of decisions about their manuscript. I like to see what the outcome was, and I especially like to see the comments from the other reviewers about the article. Any guidance from the editor about how to interpret that feedback is also informative. Doctoral writers may find they get a better sense of their discourse community if they begin to review articles as well as submitting their own for review. This DoctoralWriting post on “Reviewing can help” explains these benefits.  

Current processes: What is happening right now?

In doing this voluntary work, I am in touch with what’s going on in academic journal publishing right now. This first-hand experience keeps me up to date regarding current practices and conventions. This means that, in my work as a researcher developer and supervisor, my advice comes from real-life experience, rather than something I read in a textbook version or theoretical knowledge derived from seminars. As a bonus, I witness up-to-the-minute trends and concerns in my own field: both the reviewing and editorial roles feed into that awareness. Doctoral writers can also use such hands-on experience to build their own knowledge of current publishing processes and to read cutting-edge material ahead of publication.

So I continue to live in the contradiction, accepting that I’m part of propping up a system that worries me, and trying to translate research culture to doctoral writers. I’m hoping that you might comment on this issue if you have further thoughts. I’m sure there will be readers who might want to make the counter argument that doctoral writers should not labour for free behind the scenes of publication.