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.