Middlesex University Summer 2018 writing boot-camp

Reports on the Summer 2018 writing boot-camp I organised at Cumberland Lodge near Windsor and links to the slides used

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 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 written up in a separate blogpost.

The event was so successful that we repeated it in July with another group of academics. This time I had the added support of three great mentors: Paul Gooderham, Richard Croucher and Stephen Syrett for the whole weekend, as well as a "resident photographer", bootcamp participant Lola-Peach Martins. The Cumberland Lodge  surrroundings were even more stunning in the Summer, but the interior of the Lodge is inspirational in all seasons (see picture below).

Reflecting the diversity of Middlesex University's research portfolio, we had academics working on topics as varied as citizen science, microfinance and women's empowerment, entrepreneurship and social progress, spirituality at work, industry policy and job quality, gender & ethnicity in accounting, and student work aspirations.  Journals targeted included Human Relations, Research Policy, Journal of World Business, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, Work Employment & Society and Accounting, Organisations and Society, 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.

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.

"Your presentation slides and sessions were so informative and helpful. The structure was clear and instructive and for me, the outcome of participating in all the sessions was productive and constructive. I really like the flexibility that we had in being able to working in small groups, in pairs, or individually after each presentation session."

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 in groups of 5 or 6 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 or with their mentors to look at their abstracts. Again, we were pleasantly surprised at how much we could help each other to improve our abstracts, despite working in very different disciplines.

"There were several things that I particularly liked about the boot-camp. Insight to the significance of having a short informative title that reflects the essence of the paper, was very important in addition to seeing journals as conversations that we should ensure that our papers are `fit` to join."

Introduction and conclusion

The next two steps on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning involved working on the introduction and conclusion sections. After a plenary session in the Mews (see picture under Odds and Ends), academics worked on their own papers, with seniors providing them with targeted feedback. Many had found a nice spot to work outside, enjoying the wonderful Summer weather. For detailed advice on working on your conclusion, see: Last impressions count too! The importance of conclusions

"I am very grateful to the University for this opportunity that allowed me the luxury of time and space to focus on my research. The boot camp was an absolute treasure trove with gems of expertise, support, inspiration, tranquillity and luxury. The buzzing environment and immediate access to the expert academics and colleagues created a truly wonderful collegiate atmosphere, that inspired me to contemplate on my research in the most amazing settings. Hopefully, this is the start of a wonderful new MDX tradition."

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 with Publish or Perish 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. 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. That said, our first boot-camp in January already resulted in one accepted paper, two R&Rs and eight further papers currently under review, all at top international journals, with three more to be submitted in the next two months.

The quotes below also show that our participants certainly seem to think the boot-camps are effective. However, what is crucial for the success of these boot-camps is that your institution has a collegial culture. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other's company and readily spent time on each other's papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university's culture encourages cut-throat competition!

“The best thing for me was the non-judgemental nature of the bootcamp. No one needed to get nervous of their own work. Everyone was so supportive, encouraging each other to reflect on and sharpen their arguments, and presenting the best work possible for their target journals. Everyone shared their work and their thoughts about their papers freely, knowing that they will get constructive feedback from peers and mentors.”

"I want to thank you for being such an inspiration, who in just a day has made me more determined than ever to write! Your research boot-camps are crucial for developing our ability to focus, fine tune and gain writing direction. Thank you once again for this gift and I cannot wait for the next research writer’s boot camp, which should be a six monthly initiative."

"It was so nice to be involved in an event which is so well-received by all those involved and full of positive energy – so huge thanks again to Anne-Wil for organising this. It is also great to have senior staff in the BS working with the rest of the staff of the School in this direct and positive manner – not only is this productive but it is great for morale too."

"Such a great and valuable weekend. The company and sense of mission which the bootcamp nurtured, the unity, the presence of such wonderful mentors, it was priceless. It really helped us that mentors were not arrogant or judgemental, we felt able to talk about our strengths and weaknesses and did not feel embarrassed asking for guidance. I will definitely want to come to another bootcamp."

"I know that everyone who participated felt that they leave the boot-camp being much better equipped and more motivated and determined to produce and submit high-quality manuscripts."

"Excellent opportunity that provided space away from the work environment to focus on our research, make better sense of the do's and don'ts and hear about other people's research while identifying opportunity to collaborate."

Informal interaction

There was also plenty of time for informal interaction during the shared breakfasts, lunches and dinners. On Saturday evening, whilst some participants continued to work on their papers, others had discussions till late at night or even early in the morning. Many went for a long evening walk to explore the beautiful Windsor Park surroundings. 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 the participants did:

"It was a great experience, which united us researchers and affirmed what we are aspiring toward. It also created for me, a sense that we are all supportive of each other on the path to good things."

"I also really appreciate the opportunity to interact with colleagues (junior and senior) during both formal working time and 'informal'/social time (at meals and in the evenings). Equally important, the boot-comp really strengthened my sense of belonging to a supportive research community at MUBS. Thank you so much for engendering this core aspect to help build my confidence professionally."

"I loved the weekend, the venue, being able to spend time with colleagues, and interacting with the mentors. It is great that the Business School supported this event and I hope they will continue to do so in the future."

"We got a chance to discuss the papers in hand but also to discuss new ideas, potential bids and other initiatives. It was also a good chance for colleagues to get together and to know what about each others' interests and potential means of research cooperation."

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