Like many MET members, I spend a portion of my working day helping authors get their writing accepted for publication. So, Oliver Shaw’s talk was an attractive option on the programme for Saturday afternoon at METM22. An excellent choice, as it turned out. Oliver’s candid talk was punctuated by many “hmm”s and “ahhh”s of sympathy from his audience as he told us what it is like to be on our clients’ side of things, working to get a paper accepted and dealing with peer-review processes – and rejection.
Cleverly referencing many aspects of academic writing itself, Oliver structured his chronological presentation around what he calls his “assumptions” about the process. He admits these were “misguided” – partly due to his past experience (in-house editing as a salaried employee), his personality, and the context of the pandemic and lockdown.
With several journal article ideas in mind, Oliver had decided to speak about his experiences as an early researcher at two conferences that would be attended by figures relevant to his research. At the second event, he was approached by both founding co-editors of a new journal and encouraged to submit a paper. He could see there would be problems. How would he take his work from conference abstract to submission in just a few months? How could “unripe” research and a “rushed” abstract be moved in the right direction? Yet, what a great opportunity!
Here Oliver pinpoints a key pitfall for submitting authors: the assumption that “editorial interest in receiving your manuscript signals interest in publishing [it]”. Uh-huh. And while Oliver knew about the peer-review process, as he wryly comments, his source of knowledge (experience in editorial support and his familiarity with journal articles as a reader) turned out to be not entirely relevant. (Cue empathetic murmurs from the MET attendees present.) Another problem stemmed from Oliver’s assumption that he had to toil away on his own when drafting and submitting his paper. His lack of experience of the submission process for peer-reviewed publications led him to draw mainly on his substantial experience of providing editorial support and his abilities as a reader (not a writer).
The peer reviewers suggested very different changes – some major –, giving Oliver a good dose of “revise and resubmit blues” and sending him down a road of further well-intentioned assumptions, including that a whole heap of close reading was required to review the literature and that if you do as you’re told, you’ll get what you want. Nevertheless, despite other commitments encroaching on his time, Oliver bravely plugged away at his mountain of further reading and revisions. But in the end one peer reviewer was unhappy that Oliver had not directly responded to criticisms, and both reviewers advised against publication.
Oliver felt robbed and demoralized. He had gone from what seemed to be some promise of publication to outright rejection; he had worked in earnest to engage with the peer-review process to no avail. And his feelings were exacerbated by a “pandemic-related anxiety” which he channelled into his experiences. Food for thought for attendees and something I can certainly relate to!
The audience was enthralled by Oliver’s story, willing him on and experiencing his frustrations with him, for ourselves and for our authors. Empathetic murmurs continued as Oliver gave his conclusions:
- Even if you’ve been fully exposed to academic writing and peer review as an editor, learning to write papers is a substantial challenge.
- “Knowledge of discourse communities is field-specific” and being separated from communities of practice is “a real handicap”.
- Importantly, “BE SURE WHERE YOU’RE GOING BEFORE YOU SET OFF” – a profound statement I felt I could most likely apply to many aspects of my everyday life.
I admire Oliver’s honesty: he bared all in this talk to bring us unique, useful insights into the submission process. I learned a lot about what my authors experience as well as the potentially derailing effects of external stressors – such as pandemics! – on writers, editors and translators alike.
In the Q&A, MET editing giant Mary Ellen Kerans commented that what Oliver had needed was “an author’s editor”, of course!
And now for the happy ending: our presenter did eventually publish a different paper in 2022. Bravo, Dr Shaw!
This METM22 presentation was chronicled by Kate Major.
Featured photo by METM22 photographer Jone Karres.