How To Deal With Reviewers’ Comments

editing textYour first set of reviewers’ comments lands in your inbox. Your heart begins to race. Will your work be accepted or rejected? Will they love it or hate it? Can you bear to open the email?

These may be reviews for a journal article, book proposal, or book typescript. In each case the process is the same. First you need to read the comments and give yourself time to react. Whether it’s the exultation of an acceptance, the despair of a rejection, or the mixed feelings that come with requests for revisions, you need time to process your emotional response before you do anything else. Whoop, cry, eat chocolate, do whatever you need to do.

Because of negativity bias, negative comments – even when constructively phrased – have more impact on most people than positive comments. We need to work to counteract this bias. So, unless you’ve received very favourable comments and you want to revel in their glory, I recommend waiting at least 24 hours before you read the comments again. This can help you to take a more balanced view, which is useful because if it’s a rejection or revisions, you’ll need to see how your work can benefit from the reviewers’ input before you send it off again. This can be quite a challenge, especially if the reviewers have different views of your work and how it can be improved. Your journal or commissioning editor may offer some guidance and if so you should take that into account. But sometimes they leave it all to you.

My solution to this is to treat the reviewers’ comments as data and go into analysis mode. I create a table with one column for the comments and another for each reviewer. Then I enter each substantive comment into the first column and put a mark in the other columns for each reviewer who has made a similar point. This helps me to pick up the instances where reviewers are effectively saying the same thing, though perhaps in very different ways. It also helps me to see at a glance which comments have been made by all or some reviewers, and which only by one of the reviewers.

I have said before on this blog that reviewers’ comments come in three categories: the no-brainer (act on this), the no-thanks (don’t act on this), and the oh-wait (probably act on this, though not necessarily in the way the reviewer suggests). So my next job is to sort comments into these categories.

If a comment has been made by more than one reviewer I will take it more seriously. That doesn’t mean I’ll definitely implement it, but I am more likely to do so. If a comment has been made by all reviewers I would need a very, very good reason not to implement it. If a comment has only been made by one reviewer, that in itself might be one reason I could decide not to implement it, though I would also expect to give at least one other reason.

Once I have sorted the comments into their categories, I will list them by category in the first column of another table with two further columns: a brief note of what I plan to do in response to each of the no-brainers and the oh-waits, and a brief note of what I plan to write in the cover letter against each comment from all three categories. This is useful because I can dip into it when I have a spare half-hour or so, and find a job or two to do to get me closer to the finish line.

It is important to be polite in your response to reviewers’ comments, even if you think they’re the biggest load of old rubbish you’ve seen since your last visit to the municipal tip. Some reviewers’ suggestions seem to be based more on what they would have written than on what you actually have written and this can be quite annoying at times. When you come across a suggestion you really don’t want to implement, there are some tactful ways to say so, such as:

“This is an excellent suggestion though unfortunately beyond the scope of this particular project.”

“I can see how this suggestion would improve my work but sadly I am unable to incorporate it within the allocated word count.”

“This is a really interesting idea. I have considered it carefully and concluded that it doesn’t quite fit with the thrust of my current article/book, but it will influence my thinking for future projects.”

Remember you are the author and, as such, you have authority. While authors do need reviewers’ input (at least, when it’s constructive), and your work should benefit from intelligent use of their feedback, you don’t have to do everything a reviewer says. Also, a rejection is only a rejection from this journal or publisher. It doesn’t mean your work is worthless; sometimes it’s only because they already have plans to publish something that is similar in some way. This post should help you make the best use you can of reviewers’ comments. That will produce the greatest benefit to your work and career, and is also a way to respect and honour the time and care (most) people put into writing reviews.

I Finished The Book!

Research ethics in the real world [FC]For the last three-and-a-quarter years I have been writing a book on research ethics. It has been like doing another PhD, only with reviewers instead of supervisors. Four sets of reviewers: two sets of proposal reviews and two sets of typescript reviews. I have to thank my lovely publisher, Policy Press (part of Bristol University Press), for giving me so much support to get this book right.

This has been the hardest book I’ve written and I hope never to write another as difficult. On the plus side, I’m happy with the result. It is different from other books on research ethics in three main ways. First, it doesn’t treat research ethics as though they exist in isolation. I look at the relationships between research ethics and individual, social, institutional, professional, and political ethics, and how those relationships play out in practice in the work of research ethics committees and in evaluation research. That makes up part 1 of the book.

Second, it demonstrates the need for ethical thinking and action throughout the research process. In part 2 there is a chapter covering the ethical aspects of each stage of the research process, from planning a research project through to aftercare. There is also a chapter on researcher well-being.

Third, the book sets the Indigenous and Euro-Western research paradigms side by side. This is not to try to decide which is ‘better’, but is intended to increase researchers’ ethical options and vocabularies. I am writing primarily for Euro-Western readers, though the book may be of use to some Indigenous researchers. There is a sizeable and growing body of literature on Indigenous research and ethics, including books, journals, and journal articles. Using this literature requires care – as indeed using all literature requires care (see chapter 7 of my forthcoming book for more on that). But Indigenous literature, as with other literatures by marginalised peoples, requires particular care to avoid tokenism or appropriation.

Many Euro-Western researchers are completely ignorant of Indigenous research. Some know of it but are under the misapprehension that it is an offshoot of Euro-Western research. In fact it is a separate paradigm that stands alone and predates Euro-Western research by tens of thousands of years. Some Indigenous researchers and scholars are now calling for Euro-Western academics to recognise this and use Indigenous work alongside their own. My book is, in part, a response to these calls.

It was so, so hard to cram all of that into 75,000 words – and that includes the bibliography which, as you can imagine, is extensive. There was so much to read that I was still reading, and incorporating, new material on the morning of the day I finished the book. I’ve found more work, since, that I’d love to include – but I had to stop somewhere.

I awaited my final review with great trepidation, aware of the possibility that the reviewer might loathe my book – some previous reviewers had – and that that could put an end to my hopes of publication. Was I looking at three-and-a-quarter years of wasted work? I was so relieved when my editor emailed to say the review was positive. Then the reviewer’s comments blew me away. Here’s one of my favourite parts: “In my view the author through excellent writing skills has covered very dense material (a ton of content) in a very accessible way.”

I was even more delighted because this review came from an Indigenous researcher. She waived anonymity, so I have been able to credit and thank her in the book. I will not name her here, as I do not have her permission to do so; you’ll have to read the book if you want to find out.

Finishing a book feels great, and also weird. It’s like losing a part of your identity, particularly with a book you’ve lived with for so long. Though there’s still lots of work to do: I have to write the companion website, give input on the book’s design, read the proofs, start marketing… publication is due on 1 November, which feels a long way off but I know how quickly five months can pass.

I think this book will be controversial. A senior and very knowledgeable academic told me that one reason I could write such a book is because I’m not in academia. I’m glad if I can use my independence to say things others cannot say – as long as I’m saying useful things, at least.

More than anything else, I hope the book helps to make a difference. In particular, I would like to make a difference to the current system of ethical regulation which is too focused on institutional protection and insufficiently focused on ethical research. It is also terrible at recognising and valuing the work of Indigenous research and of Euro-Western community-based or participatory research. When I was preparing to write the book, I interviewed 18 people around the world and promised them anonymity. Some were research ethics committee members and others had sought formal approval from ethics committees (or institutional review boards in the US). I heard tales of people completing ethical approval forms with information that committees wanted to see rather than with actual facts; people teaching students how to get through the ethical approval system instead of teaching them how to conduct ethical research; people acting ethically yet in complete contravention of their committee’s instructions; people struggling to balance ethical research with Indigenous communities with the inflexible conditions set by ethics committees. Although many of the people who serve on ethics committees are highly ethical, the system within which they are forced to work often prevents them from acting in entirely ethical ways. It seems to me that this system is not currently fit for purpose, and there are many other people who think the same. I hope the evidence I have gathered and presented will help to create much-needed change.

As an independent researcher, I am self-employed. This means I do all my writing in my own time; I don’t have a salary to support my work. Do you like what I do on this blog, or in my books, or anywhere else, enough that you might buy me a coffee now and again if we were co-located? If so, please consider supporting my independent work through Patreon for as little as one dollar per month. In exchange you’ll get exclusive previews of, and insights into, my work. Thank you.

Independent Research and Creative Methods

This week’s blog is a video. It’s a keynote I gave last month at a doctoral conference at the University of Birmingham. The conference organisers asked me to cover three topics: my career as an independent researcher, creative research methods in practice, and advice for anyone considering becoming an independent researcher.

The video was created and published by the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology research group at the University of Birmingham. You might want to get a cuppa… Enjoy!

How Open Is Open Access?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 18 January 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

partly open doorThose outside the UK probably won’t be aware of Jisc. The non-profit organisation’s role is to provide technological solutions to academic problems, including researching and developing new ways of working supported by technology. (Full disclosure: they are also one of my clients.) Jisc is publicly funded by UK taxpayers’ money and member subscriptions. Its members are from the UK, and its objectives are designed to create benefit for the staff and students of adult education institutions in the UK.

But its strategy includes a stated intention of ‘growing our offering internationally to further benefit our members’.

Jisc is also very keen on open sharing of information and resources. It advocates open access to research publications, which its says means making them ‘freely available so anyone can benefit from reading and using research’. It promotes the sharing of research data, and the use of non-restrictive Creative Commons licensing to enable re-use of resources. Jisc identifies various potential benefits of this, one of which is that ‘researchers in developing countries can see your work’.

So far, so many good intentions. I’m sure most of my Euro-Western colleagues will be nodding their heads and thinking yes, marvellous, jolly well done Jisc. And indeed I am not writing this post to criticise those at Jisc, who are doing their best to be good guys, and who after all exist in the UK for the benefit of their UK members. My point here is to critique our more general Euro-Western academic mindset, which Jisc’s example illustrates.

You see, until very recently, I would have been one of those people nodding along, with a satisfied expression, thinking “oh Jisc you are doing well”. But my eyes have been opened by a recent blog post written by Andy Nobes of international development charity INASP, featuring the work of Florence Piron from Université Laval in Québec and her colleagues from around the world. Piron and her colleagues have written – in French – some publications that offer new perspectives and ideas to Euro-Western advocates of open access. In particular, they challenge the idea that Euro-Western researchers simply making their work visible to ‘researchers in developing countries’, as Jisc suggests, equates to open access. By contrast, they see it as an extension of colonialism and an ‘alienation epistemic’. This is because it does nothing to make knowledge generated in other parts of the world equally visible to researchers in Euro-Western countries. In turn, that serves to reinforce the use of Euro-Western theories and models as normative, which is to the detriment of local epistemologies in other parts of the world (Piron et al 2017).

We don’t think of these things, do we, us Euro-Western researchers? We’re too confident that we’re doing OK as long as we’re making some kind of gesture towards those with fewer privileges.

Piron and her colleagues point out that many Euro-Western academics are unable even to think that ‘valid and relevant knowledge’ could exist in other places and other ways; they can be ‘blind to epistemological diversity’ and regard Western science as universal (ibid). Even those Euro-Western academics who do respect other forms of knowledge are unlikely to engage in truly reciprocal knowledge exchanges. Collaborative projects often involve Euro-Western academics acting as principal investigators while researchers from other parts of the world are restricted to data-gathering and administrative work (Sherwood 2013, Yantio 2013).

In some Euro-Western academic circles there are moves afoot to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. But this is not only needed in Euro-Western establishments. Some teachers in other parts of the world also choose exclusively Euro-Western literature and examples for their students (Mboa Nkoudou 2016). This is a direct real-world consequence of the pervasive Euro-Western conviction that any other way of thinking must be inferior to our own. It makes life harder – not easier – for people in other parts of the world to solve their own local problems in appropriate and sustainable ways (ibid).

Truly open access will involve a two-way exchange of – and respect for – knowledge and the epistemological positions on which it is based. Obviously this is beyond the power of a single organisation, such as Jisc, or a single individual, such as you or I. However, all Euro-Western researchers, and those who work with them, need to be aware of the difference between open access as we tend to purvey it, and genuinely open access. Only with such awareness will we find ways to move from our one-way, take-it-or-leave-it approach to a true openness and sharing with other academics around the world.

Thoughts On Writing Book Chapters

Sage handbook of QREI have written two chapters for edited collections, both on qualitative research ethics. The first was for a book called Qualitative Ethics in Practice, edited by Martin Tolich and published in 2016 by the late lamented Left Coast Press. I said ‘yes’ to that one straight away because it was the first time I’d been asked. Writing the chapter was an interesting and enjoyable exercise but economically pointless. I got a free copy of the book, but I could have bought the paperback for £24.99 from Amazon or, no doubt, for less elsewhere. (I recommend using the book price comparison site Bookbutler, though it doesn’t index all sellers; I don’t see Wordery on that site, and Wordery often have good discounts as well as free shipping worldwide. eBay is also worth checking for discounted new copies; as an author myself I am not advocating buying secondhand books). Given that the chapter took me at least a week to write and edit, an affordable paperback is poor recompense. Also, book chapters don’t carry the academic kudos of journal articles, so they don’t do much for my reputation with universities.

When I was a doctoral student, I loved a good edited collection for offering a range of viewpoints and arguments within a single book. As a reader, I still do, when it’s well done. That suggests I should contribute to such collections. Yet there is so little recompense.

I thought about this carefully. On the morning of 5 January 2016 I decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and made a belated New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t write another book chapter. On the afternoon of 5 January 2016 I got an email from Ron Iphofen and Martin Tolich asking me to write another book chapter, for the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics which they were beginning to co-edit. Ron and Martin are colleagues with whom I get on well, and that makes it harder to say ‘no’. I did say that I could not take on a chapter requiring primary research or any kind of extensive review of literature with which I wasn’t already familiar. (Well done, past Helen!) After some discussion we found an angle that worked, as it would cover an area where I already had some knowledge that I needed to develop, and it also suited the editors.

I got my copy of the book this week. It’s almost 600 pages, 35 chapters, and retails at £120 on Amazon. On one hand, that still represents woeful recompense for several days of work. On the other hand, £120 is way beyond my budget for buying any book, even one as extensive as this book. And I’m very glad to have a copy.

So I’m rethinking the whole book chapter thing again. Now I think I am more likely to say ‘yes’ if the book in question will be big and expensive and useful for my work. I also think I’ll keep to my decision not to write chapters that need primary research or extensive new reading. Some new reading is inevitable, and that’s OK, but essentially I’m only going to write chapters that I can actually write straight from my desk.

Another thing I have learned about writing book chapters is to ask the editors for the book proposal, so I can see where my chapter fits, and not duplicate work others may be doing in their chapters. It doesn’t seem to be common practice for editors to give the book proposal to potential contributors (I’m not basing this solely on my own experience, I’ve heard the same from other academic writers) though I expect some do. If you’re asked to write a book chapter and the editor doesn’t give you the book proposal, ask for it before you decide. It can give you a much clearer idea of what you’re contributing to.

As with all academic writing intended for publication, book chapters are likely to be peer reviewed individually, and the typescript of the whole book is also likely to be reviewed. (The proposal will have been reviewed, too, before being accepted by the publisher.) So be prepared for edits, proofs etc to come your way. You may also be asked to review a chapter by another author, as sometimes book editors and commissioning editors get around the difficulty in finding reviewers by having their chapter authors review other chapters. Overall, there will be more work than just the writing.

I’m currently reviewing the typescript of a book which is reminding me how much I like a good edited collection. The book’s theme is strong and consistent, and the variation in the chapters is fascinating, in terms of both their content and how authors are addressing the topic. This offers a particular type of richness that no single or co-authored book can achieve. So I’m content with my decision, now, not to say a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to requests for book chapters. I will say ‘yes’ to writing chapters that will benefit me in the process and the outcome, as well as benefiting editors, publishers, and readers.

Books on Academic Writing Productivity

This is a review of six books that address productivity in academic writing (though some cover other topics too). They are listed in order of publication date. Page counts do not include prelims or appendices, indexes etc. All costs are recommended retail prices for paperback editions apart from Helen Sword’s book which is only available in hardback. Prices were taken from Wordery (who offer significant discounts on the prices shown here) apart from Jo Van Every’s book where the information was provided by the author.

Zerubavel bookThe Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Eviatar Zerubavel, 1999, Harvard University Press. 98 pages. £15.95.

Zerubavel is a professor of sociology in America. This book is short, readable, and practical, with a decent index, and is lightly referenced using endnotes. It focuses on scheduling writing time, timetabling writing projects, and managing deadlines, both self-imposed and external. The voice is authoritative with touches of humour. Some points feel a little dated now: for example, Zerubavel advises the reader to check their electronic mail before they start to get it out of the way (p 19), but then the volume of email most people received in the late 1990s was very much less than it is today. But most of the advice given in this book is still sound, including the take-away message: that all progress is good, however slow or fast, and perseverance is key to making that progress.

Silvia bookHow To Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Paul Silvia, 2007, American Psychological Association. 132 pages. £15.95.

Silvia is a professor of psychology in America. He also focuses on scheduling, looking at goals, priorities, and ways to monitor progress, and again his book is lightly referenced. The voice is chatty, informal, often amusing, and the index is adequate. Silvia suggests setting up a writers’ support group as ‘a constructive source of social pressure’ (p 56). Only half of the book is focused on productivity, the other half addresses writing style and gives advice specific to writing academic journal articles and books. The short concluding chapter comes back to productivity and reminds the reader to set a schedule, get on with it, and keep making progress.

Murray bookWriting in Social Spaces: A Social Processes Approach to Academic Writing. Rowena Murray, 2015, Routledge. 135 pages. £29.99.

Murray is a professor of education in Scotland, UK, and has written several books on academic writing. She also conducts formal funded research into academic writing practices and this book is based on the findings from several projects. Although only one chapter of her book addresses productivity directly, it is a central theme. Her argument is that writing has a social aspect and that this can be leveraged to enhance motivation and productivity through goal-setting and progress management. The voice is clear and well-informed. This is a thoughtful book with a lot of detailed information on how to put its advice into practice. Sadly, the index rather lets it down, with only 32 main headings for a 150-page book, and no entries even for key concepts used such as leadership or containment. Nevertheless, the book is well worth reading.

Goodson bookBecoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing. Patricia Goodson, 2017, Sage (second edition – first edition 2011). 235 pages. £32.99.

Goodson is a professor of health education in America. She has developed the POWER model (Promoting Outstanding Writing for Excellence in Research) from a study of academic productivity research, psychology and neuroscience literature on talent and elite performance, and the writing theory of Peter Elbow (1998). Her argument is that academic writing improves with practice. Her first eight exercises focus on productivity, and (among other things) they cover the now familiar areas of scheduling writing time and monitoring progress. I don’t find exercises in books particularly useful, so I simply read the book and benefited from the information conveyed by the author. If you like doing exercises from books you’ll benefit even more. The voice Goodson uses is warm and encouraging, and the index is excellent.

Sword bookAir & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Helen Sword, 2017, Harvard University Press. 206 pages. £17.95.

Sword is a professor of education in New Zealand. She is also a poet with a background in academic literature. Her book is based on a specific research project: she interviewed 100 academics around the world about their writing. From this research she developed the BASE model (Behavioural, Artisanal, Social and Emotional habits) which demonstrates the complexity of the writing process. Productivity is covered in the section on behavioural habits which is designed to help writers identify their own best time, place, rhythm and ritual for writing. As you would expect from a poet, the book is beautifully written, and it has a calm reflective voice. Sword has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of relevant literature to draw on for the ‘read a book’ sections at the end of the chapters. Also, her book has a very good index.

Jo Van Every bookFinding Time For Your Scholarly Writing: A Short Guide. Jo Van Every, 2018, self-published e-book. $3.75. (paperback coming soon)

Van Every is an academic career guide in England, UK. I am grateful to her for the review copy e-book that prompted this blog post. Her book is full of practical advice on how to identify and manage writing time, whether that time is measured in minutes, hours, or days. Van Every covers the topics of scheduling and goal setting that are common to many of these books and, as with them all, the book is well written in itself. Like Zerubavel and Silvia, it is lightly referenced. The book has a lovely consistent voice, like that of a friendly, supportive, knowledgeable auntie; someone who is on your side and has helpful advice to offer. Van Every includes information about other resources: books – including those by Helen Sword and Rowena Murray mentioned above – and online resources. There is no index in the e-book, but that doesn’t matter because you can search it electronically.

Each of these books is full of wisdom. Perhaps you may think you have learned all you need from this blog post: schedule time, set goals, monitor progress, persevere. At one level it is that simple. But if you’re looking for ways to increase your writing productivity, I’d recommend reading one or more of the books I have reviewed. I hope this post will enable you to choose the book or books that suit you best.

Let’s Talk About The Index

indexDo you ever think about the indexes of textbooks and reference books? Do you ever wonder how they’re created? Because they don’t appear as if by magic, and as yet no software has been invented that can extract a good quality index from the text of a book. It takes human intellectual effort to figure out how readers will want to use a book, and so which words and phrases and ideas from the text need headings or cross-references in the index.

The best indexes are created by professional indexers. In the UK they are likely to belong to the Society of Indexers (SoI), which also provides training and accreditation for would-be indexers. The SoI’s distance learning course includes four assessed modules, online tutorials, an online workshop, and practical indexing exercises and assignment. The SoI also provides a conference, various workshops, and online resources for members and non-members. There are equivalent organisations in other countries, such as the American Society for Indexing, the Indexing Society of Canada, and the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers.

As a reader, I care a lot about indexes. A good index makes it so much easier for me to use a textbook or a reference book. Even if I’ve read a book thoroughly and taken notes as I went along, there’s almost bound to come a time when I want to look up something I remember reading but didn’t note down. Some academic publishers, such as Sense Publishers, don’t seem to provide indexes at all. I find that hugely frustrating, digging around among 240 pages of text to try to find the paragraph or two that I want to read again.

Other academic publishers pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to the author. That can lead to indexes of variable quality. Here’s a photo of one from a Palgrave Pivot book, Writing Anthropology by Francois Bouchetoux.

Writing Anthropology index

That is the entire index for the whole 120-page book. Palgrave is an established publisher which has published many fine books, some of which have excellent indexes. The author of this book is evidently highly intelligent, with many skills, such as writing; it’s a worthwhile book. But I don’t think indexing is in his skillset.

Some authors can produce good indexes. Pat Thomson is one, but she’s in a minority. Yet publishers still try to persuade authors to create or pay for indexes. As authors don’t get paid for writing books, and academic books earn much less for authors than they do for publishers, this seems both wrong and stupid to me. Wrong because an academic publisher should accept the financial responsibility of providing a good quality index, stupid because if they don’t then their book is less useful so fewer people will recommend it to others. I am not the only person who takes the quality of an index into account when writing reviews online (as I plan to demonstrate, next week, upon this very blog).

Several times in my life I have been in discussion with various publishers who have tried to pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to me. Each time I have argued that they should pay for it because I have neither the skills nor the budget, and the lack of an index will reflect more poorly on their reputation than mine. Each time I have won the argument. So if you are a writer in this position, fight your corner. And if you’re a publisher, be like non-fiction publisher Mango Books.

Round of applause!

Personal Branding for Academics

stylish-logoThis is a post with a difference: it’s written by Tee Ola, Managing Editor of Stylish Academic, a fashion and lifestyle website for academics and other professionals. Tee completed her PhD in Digital Media and the culture of democracy in 2015. And although she works full-time in digital marketing in higherEd, she is never faraway from the lecture theatre.

My own post for this week, The Unstylish Academic Speaks, is on the Stylish Academic blog.

Do you see yourself as a brand or just an academic/scholar busy with research, writing, publishing and teaching?

Your personal brand is the sum total of you and how you’d like to present yourself to the world – or at least certain target audiences (colleagues, students, employers, funders, etc.)

It is not vain or narcissistic to be intentional about your personal brand.

To be intentional about your personal brand as an academic is to carefully curate the aspects of your complex life that fit in with the professional goals you’ve set for yourself.

“I want to be a leading thinker in… <insert niche field> ”

What steps can you begin to take in this direction?

You are neither lying, nor pretending when you cater to your personal brand. You are simply putting your best foot forward (like we all should).

Branding and marketing yourself are not dirty phrases. And simply sitting back to allow your work to do the talking will not cut through the clutter of the information age we live in.

You can decide to stand yourself out, and by extension, your work, through your personal brand.

Here are 2 reasons why I think it’s important to pay attention to your personal brand as an academic:

  1. Because your personal brand is happening with or without your deliberate input…
  2. Because it is vital for career progression

Your personal brand is happening with or without your input

Your personal brand already exists.

You are already being perceived in a particular manner  – online and (or) offline; so why not get in there and control the narrative since it’s happening anyway?

In this highly digitised world, you have tools at your disposal to do this.

Gone are the days when opportunities for academics to provide public commentary on topical events in the news were limited to newspaper pages, radio and TV.

Today, you can tweet directly at a journalist, set up your own blog, podcast, or YouTube channel … and so many other opportunities for public engagement.

A few of my favourite academics (in my area of digital media and communication) that do this so well are Jeff Jarvis, Zeynep Tufecki, and Evgeny Morozov.

The first time I attended a conference in London where Morozov was a speaker, and I got the chance to speak with him in person – I was star-struck. I was a 1st year PhD student, so that’s excusable.

However, my point is, my respect for him and his work had grown over time from following and listening to him on Twitter.

His views influenced my thinking as I wrote my thesis.

Morozov’s commentary on topical events as they happened helped shape and make me rethink my arguments as I wrote about the democratic potential of the Internet.

His personal brand as a thinker who runs counter to certain dominant ideas that the Internet is a panacea to the woes of the world was established and clear, so I understood it and engaged.

(The Net Delusion – how not to liberate the world by Evgeny Morozov).

Is it clear what you stand for as an academic/scholar?

I like to tell people that my Twitter followers wrote my thesis with me.

Part of my personal branding road map was being vocal about my research work online, and inviting commentary from others.

This was effective in that people understood what my research was about (I also blogged about it), so I got mentioned on Twitter threads (conversations), which often ended up as great illustrations in my thesis or talking points at conferences.

Your personal brand is vital for career progression

Selling ourselves as academics may run counter to certain long held ideals about the rarefied world of academia – mostly unwritten or unspoken – but adhered to all the same.

As an aside, another of those ideals I challenge through my platform, Stylish Academic, is that academics are not meant to be stylish or pay any attention whatsoever to physical appearance and so on.

In fact, the shabbier you look, the more likely you are to be perceived as working hard in your field – and vice versa. It’s as if this “is our way of telling the world we’re too focused on matters of the mind to care about what we put on our bodies.”

There are many more ideas like these, firmly rooted in age-old academic culture.

Hence, on personal branding, unlike our counterparts in the corporate world, we may tend to keep our head down, eyes peeled to the screen, and fingers glued to the keyboard – let the lines fall where they may.

It’s a new season. And like this Times Higher Ed article says in the title, being brilliant doesn’t cut it anymore.

I love how the author, John Tregoning puts it, “we have two things to sell, our ideas and ourselves…the main product we sell is ourselves. This product is defined by our CV: where we have worked, on what and with whom. But these strands need to be pulled together into a single memorable “personal brand”… This brand comes into play when meeting potential collaborators, conference organisers and funders.”

I find this so persuasive.

Handling your personal brand is vital for career progression – in and outside academia.

There is so much more I have to say about personal branding as an academic.

If you’d like to engage with me on the subject of intentional branding for academics and/or practical steps to follow, or you have any questions at all, please feel free to contact me here.

Thank you for reading.

And for readers who would like to know more, Tee Ola has kindly provided some useful online resources:

Navigating your digital profile – YouTube

Use brand thinking to build a stronger you – Vitae

A Twitter thread on social media tips for Early Career Researchers – Prof Nathan C Hall

Is Peer Review Bad For Your Mental Health?

peer review peopleI am currently waiting for peer reviews of two books I’ve worked on: one sole-authored, one co-authored. We don’t talk much about the experience of waiting for reviews, and it’s not something that appears to have been researched. Yet it’s something everyone doing academic work has to go through and it may be bad for our mental health.

I’m finding it particularly difficult at the moment because a lot rides on these reviews. The sole-authored book, which is on a contentious topic, has already had one set of reviews. Reviewer 1 was utterly damning, saying ‘I couldn’t find anything to praise’. Luckily, reviewers 2 and 3 were more measured, offering both praise and constructive criticism, and their input helped me to revise and strengthen the typescript. However, in the process, my editor and I realised that we needed further reviews from people with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. My editor approached around 10 potential reviewers, but only one agreed to do the job. So I’m gibbering – what if that person agrees with Reviewer 1?

The co-authored book is in a contentious format. My co-authors and I decided that I would be the person to liaise with publishers, as I have form in this process. The last time I liaised with academic publishers for a co-authored book was in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how heavily responsible it makes me feel. Fortunately, I’ve found a publisher that is interested and has sent the book out for reviews, to two professional academics and two students. This is great – and terrifying – but at least there are four reviewers. Even so, what if they ALL think it’s rubbish?

In many ways I love the peer review system. I welcome feedback on my writing, and I’m not at all averse to constructive criticism. I am by no means arrogant enough to think I can write a good book without input from others. Yet peer review, as a process, is fraught with uncertainty. Comments may not be constructive, or may not come at all. They may be positive, or negative, or in between, or a mixture.

There is a body of research which demonstrates that uncertainty has a detrimental effect on mental health. Luckily for me, my mental health is fairly robust right now, so I can use this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to build further resilience. But what about those who aren’t so fortunate? We’re hearing a lot about the mental health crisis in higher education, but nobody seems to be talking about the potential contribution of the peer review system to this crisis. Given the evidence of links between uncertainty and mental health, it seems likely that there may be a relationship here.

I’m not arguing that we should tear down the peer review system and replace it with something completely different. Time spent waiting for reviews also has a positive effect, in that it creates necessary distance between the author and their work, meaning sensible revisions are easier to make. But I do think we need to be aware of the effects of uncertainty and take steps to reduce its impact on us. Here are four ideas.

  1. Aspects of life fall into three categories: those you can control, those you may be able to influence, and those you can neither control nor influence. Spend most of your energies on the first, some on the second, and none on the third. So I will spend my energies on hard work and good fun, and with any luck I won’t have much energy left for fruitless worry about the outcome of the peer reviews.
  1. Plan for different outcomes. Plans for positive reviews are easy, plans for negative reviews more challenging. For me, the worst-case scenario is that the publisher decides not to publish after all, which would mean – for either book – several years of work down the pan. However, that is unlikely, and if it does happen I/we can revise and submit again elsewhere.
  1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Writing this blog post is one way for me to acknowledge my own difficult feelings about this waiting period. In professional UK society the culture is not to talk about feelings much, if at all; if anyone asks how you are, the standard answers to give include ‘I’m fine’, or (with an eyeroll) ‘snowed under’. It’s as if we’re not allowed to give a real answer to the question. Yet suppressing our emotions is also bad for our mental health, so let’s talk about the difficulty of waiting, being in limbo, for unpredictable peer reviews.
  1. Practise self-care. All the usual stuff: eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep – or, if you can’t sleep, rest your body quietly in a dark room and try to still your mind. There are some good video soundtracks and podcasts online to help you sleep. Work can be part of self-care when it’s work you enjoy and you don’t do too much. Spending time with loved ones is definitely part of self-care.

The peer review system can also be hard on reviewers, such as by asking more of people who are already too busy, and offering only intangible rewards. Saying ‘yes’ to a review request adds an extra burden of work, saying ‘no’ comes with an extra burden of guilt. Some people deal with this by deciding how many reviews they will undertake, such as 12 in a year, or three per draft article or book they themselves submit. That’s a great example of focusing on what you can control.

If you’re waiting for reviews yourself, the wait will be over, sooner or later. I hope you will be able to use the advice in this post to help make the process a little easier – as I intend to do myself. I wish you luck.

Why and How to Negotiate with Academic Book Publishers

poor writerThe academics I have met who write books seem to assume one of two things. The first assumption is that publishers are doing authors a favour by publishing their books. The second is that the royalties offered are a set figure. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

I suspect the first assumption exists because academics need publications so badly that when someone agrees to publish their work it can feel like a massive relief and a cause for celebration. Yet publishers would not exist without authors. Nevertheless, publishers are hard-headed business people, and they are not going to publish a book if they don’t think it will turn a profit.

The second assumption may exist because we live in a society of set prices in shops, set salaries and fees for work, and so on. The notion of haggling is unfamiliar. So you need to know that the royalties a publisher proposes to give you are generally a starting point for negotiations rather than a fixed offer. In a moment I’ll give you some pointers on how to handle these negotiations, but first let’s look at why it is important to negotiate.

Publishers often belong to parent companies that are very, very rich. For example, the company Informa plc has four operating divisions: business intelligence, academic publishing, knowledge, and events. Its academic publishing division covers the humanities, social sciences, and STEM subjects, and includes publishers such as Taylor & Francis, Psychology Press, Cogent OA, and Routledge. In 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, this division made an adjusted operating profit of £187.2million. Informa as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £416.1million.

Here’s another example. The RELX Group plc is ‘a global provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries’. This company includes the publisher Elsevier, which primarily publishes academic books in STEM subjects, as one of its four divisions. In 2017 Elsevier made an adjusted operating profit of £913million. The RELX Group as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £2,284million.

It is evident that academic publishing is very, very profitable for these companies, and their shareholders. Yet authors, who may work for years on a single book, are to be content with royalties of a few hundred pounds a year – or less?

One reason this power imbalance hasn’t been important before now is that most, if not all, academic authors used to be in permanent academic roles with more than adequate salaries and time to write books within their day jobs. Yet, as we know, these days more and more academics are in casual and precarious roles, and have to write books in their own time. Even those with permanent jobs are often so over-worked that they, too, have to write their books outside working hours. Also, some people writing scholarly books are not in any academic role, but are independent researchers, unemployed, retired and so on.

Authors are contractually prevented from discussing their own royalty rates. However, I can tell you that the Textbook and Academic Authors Association conducted an anonymous survey of academic authors in 2015. They found that average royalties for print books ranged from 9–14%, and the highest royalty reported was 30%. I can also tell you that, in the UK, academic writers earn the lowest annual averages from their books of any type of writer.

Clearly publishers do need to earn money from the books they publish, to pay for their staff, buildings, printing, marketing, and all the other costs associated with their business. They also need to make a profit (or, if they’re not-for-profit, a surplus) to reinvest in their business and, if a plc, pay dividends to their shareholders. However, do they really need profits of hundreds of millions of pounds, from the often unpaid work of academic authors?

I believe we should be negotiating harder for higher royalties on our scholarly books. I have done this myself, successfully, with different types of publisher. Here are some tips. First, forget about feelings such as gratitude or repulsion, and treat the deal as a business transaction. Position the conversation as a business deal by saying something like, ‘As we haven’t done business together before…’ Second, ask for more than you think they will agree to. There’s a chance they might say yes, and if not you are leaving space for them to make a counter-offer lower than your request but still considerably better than the original offer.

The publisher is likely to specify separate royalty rates for hardbacks, paperbacks, and e-books. You can negotiate really hard on e-book royalties. Publishers’ costs for e-book production and handling are much lower than for print books. They don’t have to pay for paper, printing, storage, shipping, or returns. Also, they don’t sell as many e-books as print books. This means they can give more here.

If you get stuck on a figure that doesn’t seem enough to you but the publisher won’t budge, you can ask for a ‘riser’. That means after, say, 1,000 copies have been sold in that format, your royalty will go up by a few percentage points. This is often easier for publishers to say yes to because if they sell 1,000 copies, they have already recouped most, all, or more of their investment in your work, so then they can afford to pay a higher royalty. It’s probably not worth asking for a riser for hardbacks, as they don’t sell many copies, but it is well worth giving it a go for paperbacks, especially if you’re writing a book that is likely to have a wide readership.

Occasionally an academic publisher will offer a small ‘advance’ of a few hundred pounds. This is not an extra advance payment, it is an advance on royalties which the publisher will claw back from your royalties until it has been fully repaid. If a few hundred pounds would make a real difference to your work for the book – enable you to buy other books, for example, or to travel for meetings or to interview people – then by all means accept. But do be aware that it’s not extra money, they’re simply rearranging the offer.

Bear in mind that the person you are negotiating with, usually your commissioning editor, will not have the power to make the final decision. Keep your relationship with them as cordial and professional as possible, and make your case as clearly and concisely as you can, because you need them to advocate for you within their organisation.

In many ways this is the simple part of the negotiations. Once you agree the royalty figures, the publisher will issue a draft contract. It is a really good idea to get independent professional advice on the contract, because it will be hard to understand its implications unless you have specific legal expertise. In the UK, you can join the Society of Authors as soon as you have a draft contract, and specialist vetting of that and any other contract you receive is included in your membership fee. They will tell you which points to negotiate on, and how.

Does all this negotiation sound icky to you? Get over it. You are going to work really hard on writing your books. It makes sense to do all you can to make your books work as hard as possible for you.