Middlesex University writing boot-camp

Since July 2014 I have worked at Middlesex University, which ranked as the best modern university in London for research power in the 2014 REF. At the Middlesex University Business School, I have a dedicated role in research mentoring and improving the research profile of the entire School by stimulating research and research output. This is realised by one-on-one support and coaching, publishing seminars, research lunches, and informal paper development groups. In the wider London area, I have also set up Cygna, a support network for female academics. My mentoring activities are supported by active blogging on all things academia.

Writing boot-camp

Late 2017, we decided to take to take the School's research support activities to the next level by organising a writing boot-camp. This boot-camp was intended to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field to fine-tune and polish their papers. Thus in the third week of January eighteen academics spent a wonderful weekend at the amazing Cumberland Lodge. As one of the participants said in her informal feedback:

"A beautiful location like Cumberland Lodge, with papers and books at every corner, also delivers the key message that the Business School cares about people's research and development, and that it's part of our identity just like in other universities."

Reflecting the diversity of Middlesex University's research portfolio, we had academics working on topics as varied as digital marketing, nurses' occupational identity, technology transfer in Africa, return migration of highly skilled migrants, leadership and productivity, and corporate citizenship in South Africa.  Journals targeted included Strategic Management Journal, American Economic Review, American Historical Review, Human Resource Management, Public Administration, Sociology, Journal of Travel Research and Tourism Management, all top journals in their respective fields. The boot-camp involved hard work: after the welcome dinner on Friday we started with a 20.30 to 22.00 session to outline the programme and get familiar with each others' research interests (see picture).

Bootcamp essentials: outlet, title and abstract

Prior to the boot-camp, all participants had been matched with a senior mentor who will work with them during the whole process - from paper submission to the final stage of the revise and resubmit process. During the bootcamp, we worked according to an eight-step programme, supported by introductory presentations for each of the steps. The full presentation can be downloaded here. On Saturday morning, we covered the first three steps:

  • Pick the right outlet for your paper. Participants had picked a target journal and came prepared with three model articles from the journal, as well as the journal's author guidelines.
  • Craft a memorable and descriptive title. We worked collectively to improve our manuscript titles. It is amazing how much working with a group of bright and collegial academics from different backgrounds can help you to sharpen the focus of your title and make it more attractive to a broader audience.
  • Ensure the abstract is easy to read and guides the editor to the “right” reviewers. Here academics worked in pairs to look at each other's abstracts. Again, we were pleasantly suprised at how much we could help each other to improve our abstracts, despite working in very different disciplines.

"The boot-camp really helped me to reflect on the importance of preparing a manuscript for a top journal. I have published a few papers so far in very good journals, but sometimes one feels tempted to send a manuscript to a high ranked journal just because "it may fit there" or "they may be interested". The weekend really helped me to think about the importance of polishing the paper and prepare it for the specific journal. I think this makes the difference, especially when one has in mind the absolute top journal in their field, as it is my case."

Introduction and conclusion

The next two steps on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning involved working on the introduction and conclusion sections. As these sections are more paper-specific, most academics worked on their own papers, with seniors providing them with targeted feedback. Others liked the paired work so much that they continued in this fashion. You can see half of the academics engrossed in their work in the picture below. The others had found a space in the break-out room or decided to work in one of the many nice common areas of the lodge. Some of these areas even had roaring wood fires, a very nice touch for our rainy and even snowy January weekend. For detailed advice on working on your conclusion, see: Last impressions count too! The importance of conclusions

Odds and ends

On Sunday afternoon, the last part of the bootcamp dealt with issues such as using references strategically to signal you are part of the journal conversation, and ensuring you do a presubmission check to pick up recent work published in the journal that you might have missed in the process of frantically trying to finish the paper. We also discussed the importance of writing a good letter to the editor to help the editor see the paper’s contribution and pick the right reviewers, and getting the paper edited and/or proofread. Ideally, before final submission you should also have a "friendly reviewer" - a nice, but critical colleague - look at your paper and, as the screen in the picture says: "see [their] feedback as a gift". For the full text, see the four P's of publishing.

Other things that you can do to improve the chances of getting your paper through the desk-reject phase are getting your name known as someone who has something important to contribute to this field and someone who is likely to do a good job if given the chance to revise and resubmit the paper. The following two blogpost give you tips that might help you in this respect:

Do these boot-camps deliver?

Some Research Deans and Vice Chancelors reading this post might wonder whether to invest in these activities in their own universities. For them, an important question might be: do they "deliver the goods"? Of course it is too early to tell with absolute certainty, but the quotes below show that our participants certainly seem to think so. However, what is crucial for the success of these boot-camps is that your institution has a collegial culture. Our Middlesex academics enjoy each others' company and readily spent time on each others' papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university's culture encourages cut-throat competitions!

"In my three years in Middlesex I believe that this is one of the most inspiring events I have ever attended. Thank you very much for sharing all your knowledge with us. The detail which you went into everything was admirable and I believe will make such a great difference to our final manuscript. Thank you for organising this, assigning us exceptional mentors and creating such a positive atmosphere. I believe that all of us have found the will to work on 10 more articles."

"Having a deadline such as this one has helped me focus my mind and prioritise the writing. I received extremely valuable feedback on my paper from both Stephen and Anne-Will, and that alone has made the bootcamp valuable, as it will help me strip down my paper to a single core message and theoretical argument."

"Even after having published a dozen articles and having gone through the process of submission, review and publication several times, I find useful the discussion and the tips about how to hone our skills and eventually increase our chances to be published in our desired journal. This is useful both for our professional development, our career and eventually the reputation of the University."

"I believe this invaluable experience would improve the quality of my writing considerably. I have a better idea about the arts and science involved in writing good titles, abstracts, introduction and conclusion. The knowledge can also be described as a road map to successful publishing."

Informal interaction

There was also plenty of time for informal interaction during the shared breakfasts, lunches and dinners. On Saturday evening, whilst some participants went to their rooms to work on their papers (or catch up on their online teaching!), others had discussions till late at night or even early in the morning. They were sharing their experiences about the peer review process and other challenges in academic life. More generally, the boot-camp was an excellent opportunity for all of us to get to know our colleagues a bit better. I cannot put it better than three of the participants did:

"The experience allowed participants to connect and find out about colleagues’ work and really contribute to our school’s social capital."

"It was also a great experience sharing this boot-camp with senior staff, who were willing to devote their time to others. One feels really supported when coming across people that are willing to help others in their career development, even though this may not be their field of expertise. I recently applied to be Associate Professor so it is very good to see in you and Stephen a real example of what "working with peers" or "impact on others" means. I really appreciate what you have done during the boot-camp, and your willingness to help in future."

"Thank you for bringing all these amazing colleagues together most of whom I didn’t know well enough."

"In addition to that, as someone who is new to School, for me the retreat was an invaluable opportunity to network with new colleagues and get to know their diverse areas of expertise."

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