Middlesex University 2020 virtual 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 and in 2019 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 mentoring, 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.

From Cumberland Lodge to virtual bootcamp

Late 2017, we decided to take the School's research support activities to the next level by organising an off-site writing boot-camp. The key aim of the boot-camp is to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field. Expert mentors assist them to fine-tune and polish their papers in order to reduce the chance that their paper is desk-rejected, i.e. rejected by their targetted journal without receiving reviews.

We had run this bootcamp three times before (January 2018, July 2018, and July 2019) at the stunning Cumberland Lodge (see picture above) and were devastated when the June 2020 bootcamp had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 lockdown. However, we were determined to ensure our colleagues would continue to benefit from research support.

So we moved the bootcamp online, running it over three separate days with two 1-day breaks in between. Fourteen academics participated and I had the support of three great bootcamp mentors: Richard Croucher, Charles Dennis, and Paul Gooderham, each of us working closely with three or four academics. Below is the picture of our introductory session.

Building an online community

It turned out to be surprisingly easy to replicate the strong MDX community feeling online, reinforce the existing connections, and get to know the staff members who had not participated before. The fourteen participants came from four different departments in the Business School: CEEDR, Economics, Management Leadership and Organisation, and Marketing, Branding and Tourism. Most participants were Lecturers and Senior Lecturers and relatively early in their publishing career. Although I had some trepidation about whether the format would work at all online, the response was generally very positive as can be seen from the feedback below. 

Although I look forward to being able to return to Cumberland Lodge this format had its advantages. It’s time efficient and time-keeping was generally very good; it allows colleagues with family commitments to participate rather than having to shoot off in the middle of the bootcamp; and I think spreading it over Wed-Sun with two 1-day breaks allows for reflection and development. But as I say, the physical trumps the digital!

Thanks so much for organising everything! It was certainly not the beautiful Cumberland Lodge, but you have made the most of it and made it a very pleasurable and useful experience.

Thanks very much for Anne-Wil's excellent organization and arrangement of the virtual bootcamp. Before I was a bit disappointed by not being able to go to Cumberland Lodge with a face-to-face bootcamp. But with the virtual bootcamp, I found I was 'forced' to focus more on papers when sitting behind the screen. Also, as the sessions were going, I discussed with and learned from others the same as that in a physical bootcamp.

I like the current format. Found it challenging working from home with children, so would prefer Cumberland lodge but overall really enjoyed the bootcamp. Thought the three days worked as well as possible virtually through Zoom. The start together as a large group, then smaller breakout rooms, and time to work, was very productive. Anne-Wil did a wonderful job of running the program online!

Day 1: Crafting a memorable, descriptive and easy-to-read 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 outlined a seven-step process on "how to avoid a desk-reject". This seven-step process has also been written up as a blogpost series: How to avoid a desk-reject in seven steps [1/8]. Each session started with a very brief recap of the slides. The full presentation can be downloaded here.

I learned a lot from Anne-Wil's presentation which was very informative, and educational. I would like to thank Anne-Wil for sharing the slides and her valuable experience. It's worth attending the bootcamp just to listen to her presentation.

Anne-Wil, your lectures where very useful and direct. It was nice to see that you also discussed some of the differences among disciplines... including Economics.

  • 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. For detailed advice on picking the right journal, see: Who do you want to talk to? Targeting journals [2/8].
I really enjoyed my time with the mentor and small group. Found the group setting and sharing of ideas very effective and productive time. The feedback was very valuable and strong because of the multi-perspective discipline, but generally other researchers in similar areas of study.

It is the second bootcamp I attended. From a practical point of view the bootcamp allows you to create space and time to think on your research critically which will lead to improving your work. Besides this, I really enjoy the conversations during the plenary sessions. Last, working on titles and abstracts in small teams makes the process fun.

  • 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 revise their abstracts. More detailed advice on writing a great abstract can be found here: Writing your abstract: not a last-minute activity [4/8].

Day 2: First and last impressions count: Polishing your introduction and conclusion

The next two steps 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 in the break-out rooms (see the two pictures above and below for two of the break-out rooms; I was just dropping in to take a picture). For detailed advice on working on your introduction, see: Your introduction: first impressions count! [5/8]. For the conclusion, see: Conclusions: last impressions count too! [6/8].

[What I like most was] having a friendly but critical opinion from peers. Just a big thank you once again. I thoroughly enjoyed it and think the organisation was excellent.

I very much appreciated the discussion with my bootcamp mentor and expert mentor, who did not only provide feedback and advice on further revising my paper but also offered suggestions on my concerns about good practice of co-authoring and so on.

The best for me was to deal with such professional people like you all and I really appreciated your constructive feedback and your professional approach to us as new researchers. I found it also a good opportunity to develop good research and professional networks. Thanks a lot.

Day 3: Referencing and the journal submission process

The last part of the bootcamp dealt with issues such as using references strategically to signal you are part of the journal conversation, (see also What do you cite? Using references strategically [7/8]). 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 (see also Why do I need to write a letter to the editor? [8/8]), and getting the paper edited and/or proofread. A picture of the plenary discussion can be found below with Ericka in full flow asking a question.

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:

What 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" in terms of research output? Of course not every participant manages to get their papers published within a reasonable time-frame. That said, our first three boot-camps already resulted in more than thirty 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 others' papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university's culture encourages cut-throat competition!

The virtual bootcamp was a great opportunity to connect with colleagues about our research. The bootcamp was the motivation I needed to re-visit an almost-finished paper that I had been pushing to the bottom of my to-do list. The feedback I received was very helpful in reminding me to consider my audience and an incredibly valuable opportunity to pre-empt problems which would otherwise be identified in the review (or reject) process.

Please keep organising this event in any form. Physical or online, you leave the bootcamp with having gained a really positive experience.

The bootcamp gives us a chance to focus on one paper for a couple of days and this can make a big difference. Discussing problems with mentors and mentees helps to develop new ideas to improve not only the parts of the paper we focus on during the bootcamp, but the overall structure. It is also a very good way to interact and exchange ideas with people outside our own department.

The bootcamp offered concentrated feedback and discussions which are not accessible otherwise. It is a great way to support a research environment and offer colleagues with support and shared experiences. This is a very unique opportunity offered in Middlesex.

Related video

Related readings

Seven steps to avoid a desk-reject