Middlesex University Summer 2019 writing boot-camp

Reports on the Summer 2019 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 and recently became the top-ranked UK university in the THE Young Universities ranking. 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 at Cumberland Lodge

Late 2017, we decided to take the School's research support activities to the next level by organising an off-site 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 2018 eighteen academics spent a wonderful weekend at the amazing Cumberland Lodge working on their papers, an experience which was repeated in July 2018 with another twenty-three academics and again in July 2019 with another group of academics and the support of three great mentors: Paul Gooderham, Phil James and Stephen Syrett. The Cumberland Lodge  and its surrroundings were even more stunning than last time (see picture above taken during lunch).

Cumberland Lodge is a magical place where people take care of the logistics to allow you to concentrate and be 'pure spirits' for a day or two. I liked the clock, the weary old books and the fact that there was no TV. I liked the fact that we could step back, reflect, write, talk, go away, go back, without thinking of anything else.

Reflecting the diversity of Middlesex University's research portfolio, we had academics working on topics as varied as welfare reform in Britain and the US, Brexit and correlations of equity return, corporate social responsibility, early stage internationalisation, the religious tourism experience, women migrant workers in Malaysia, social welfare associations in Pakistan, the performative nature of gender in travel and tourism, business eco-systems in e-commerce, R&D internationalization, the co-creation of luxury hotel brands online, and many more. Journals targeted included Human Relations, Research Policy, Journal of World Business, Annals of Tourism Research, Industrial Marketing Management, Regulation and Governance, Work Employment & Society and European Journal of Finance, 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. They also received the slides which covered an eight-step programme on how to avoid a desk-reject and each session started with a very brief recap of the slides. The full presentation can be downloaded here.

"Your presentation slides were so informative and helpful, a real goldmine! The imited presentation time was great for ensuring that there was lots of time to write. The balance of group activities and individual 'study' was perfect. The clear structure, with space for participants to 'find their own way' within it, worked particularly well; please retain it!"

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 3 or 4 facilitated by a mentor 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. The bootcamp slides that can be downloaded here contain lots of examples of title transformations.

  • Ensure the abstract is easy to read and guides the editor to the “right” reviewers. Here many 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.

"I received encouraging and helpful comments from my mentor Prof. James who helped to feel more confident about my work. I have learned so much on these two days about writing a good article and pitfalls to avoid. Thanks to all our mentors, the Middlesex Business School and of course Anne-Wil for organising and supporting us."

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, academics worked on their own papers, with seniors providing them with targeted feedback (see the three pictures below). 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

"Hearing that experienced academics have also been desk rejected not in the past but also recently, this has helped me to fear less a desk rejection and to see it as part of a developmental stage and to not take it personally."

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 not every participant manages to get their papers published within a reasonable time-frame. That said, our first boot-camps in January and July 2018 already resulted in nearly twenty papers that are either published or under revise & resubmit.

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!

“Enjoyed it very much - the chance to get to know many colleagues better was very helpful. Boot camp functions as a liminal space and the off-campus location, coupled with self-selection, is vital. Mandated attendance on campus would not work - please continue to provide this opportunity for colleagues.”

"Amazing weekend. Very productive and well-organised. Planning to attend the next one with my next paper."

"I found the whole event very stimulating and very collegial. You have created an absolutely  excellent developmental arena! It’s a great concept. I thought the atmosphere was great and attendees were really engaged with the process and getting a lot out of it."

"The other thing which I really appreciated is that mentors (including you) were so encouraging and you didn't treat us like kids - we did not have to "conform" to anything, just be ourselves - this is what I liked the most!"

"Being able to be in an uninterrupted environment to talk to my mentor of the paper in great detail and really focus on working on the paper. It provides a very valuable psychological and physical space for research."

"The most valuable aspect of the bootcamp was the opportunity to work on the paper away from the distractions of the home and office. The structure (and the meals!) was just enough to make sure I had the brain-space I need to do some work."

"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."

"Having the time and space for conversations to flow so new ideas are shared in a collaborative way, including about university strategy, teaching and not just research."

Informal interaction

There was also plenty of time for informal interaction during the shared breakfasts, lunches and dinners (see pictures below for Saturday evening dinner). 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. More generally, the boot-camp was an excellent opportunity for all of us to get to know our colleagues a bit better.

"A relaxed environment provided ample opportunity for socializing with Middlesex colleagues across the Business School. This has been very helpful both in terms of the value of feedback provided and its recreational value that adds to a new way of focussing on work."

"What did I like most? The community spirit, the feeling of being surrounded with friendly and supportive people who are in a similar situation with me and who will not judge me for my inexperience. "

'Thank you!'. I'm sure it is a lot of work to organise these events, and you make it seem effortless so we can enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. I really enjoyed the weekend and in particular I enjoyed how happy everyone was to be there."

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