Middlesex University 2021 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, July 2019) at the stunning Cumberland Lodge and were devastated when the June 2020 and June 2021 bootcamps had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we were determined to ensure our colleagues would continue to benefit from research support.

So we moved the bootcamps online, running it over three separate days. In the second year, seventeen academics participated and I had the support of four great bootcamp mentors: Richard Croucher, Charles Dennis, Phil James, and Paul Gooderham, each of us working closely with three or four academics. Below is a picture of Richard's break-out room.

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 staff members who had not participated before. This year, we also had no less than seven of our new "pandemic staff members" participate. Even though we still haven't met them physically it was great to see them online. For the first time, we also had three participants from our Middlesex Mauritius campus.

The seventeen 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. 

It was my 2nd year to join the boot camp. Unlike the first time, I knew what was to come, and Anne-Wil’s YouTube video provided clear instruction in advance, so I felt the boot camp was very relaxing. I believe the boot camp really polished the paper. I have submitted the paper yesterday (a day after the boot camp). I will join a boot camp again next year.

I appreciate that the Writing Bootcamp was in a Virtual format as we could attend from Mauritius and elsewhere. Thank you to Prof. Anne-Wil for the systematic arrangements; my Bootcamp and Expert mentors for their support. Everything went very smoothly from the survey to check our preferred schedules; the pre-recorded videos for each session so that we prepare better and; the breakout room discussions.

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" as well as access to seven pre-recorded videos that are freely accessible on my YouTube Channel. 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.

Anne-Wil’s YouTube videos which instruct what to do with each section are very helpful. I have changed each section of the paper accordingly.
It was good that the videos were uploaded in advance instead of presentation during the camp.

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].

  • Craft a memorable and descriptive title. We worked in groups of 3 or 4 facilitated by a mentor to improve our manuscript titles. Denisha's lovely LinkedIn post above shows how effective this can be. More detailed advice is available here: Your title: the public face of your paper [3/8]. The bootcamp slides that can be downloaded here contain lots of examples of title transformations.

As we conduct research, we tend to over-complicate things. Through this bootcamp, I understood how important it was to communicate using a common and engaging tone. After the first breakout activity, I applied a simple marketing logic (with the guidance of Prof. Charles Dennis) and my title became more appealing.

  • 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].

I liked the opportunity of working with my mentors directly and receiving feedback on my work. I also liked the title and abstract session where we could go through them as a team.

Constructive discussion with colleagues was very useful.

The most important aspects were to have my paper read by other people, both from my field but also from other disciplines. The other important aspect was to connect with colleagues.

I received expert constructive feedback, which I really appreciate.

Discussions in the breakout rooms are really helpful. I had great conversation with my mentor Paul and he gave me very insightful and constructive suggestions on my paper. I think the discussions on titles and abstracts are extremely helpful.

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. The related video is embeded below.

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 four boot-camps already resulted in nearly fifty 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 bootcamp to me is one of the highlights of the academic year. This is the 3rd event that I am attending, and I will gladly attend many more. The bootcamp and its topic is extremely important to foster quality research culture, which I am very keen to support. It is a great opportunity to work on your research but also to learn new things by helping your early career colleagues. I find that I always get to learn something new out of this experience

As a mentor it was a great opportunity to meet new MDX colleagues and to discuss their research with them. The plenary sessions are also useful to get a feel for the broader research community at the business school.

For me the most important aspect was the chance to have in-depth academic and inter-personal interactions with colleagues, both new and old. Another aspect I very much appreciated was the way in which the break-out discussions involved such a strong element of mutual learning between those involved. And, of course, the plenaries and the insightful inputs into them from Anne-Wil were much appreciated and valued.

I wanted to say thank you for organising this event. I had amazing bootcamp and expert mentors. From applying simple marketing logic to refine a title; breaking down the abstract in simple chunks or even networking with other participants, the bootcamp has been an enriching experience. I appreciate the additional resources shared. I am looking forward to attend the future sessions.

Related videos

Related readings

Seven steps to avoid a desk-reject