Browsing the blog archives for June, 2012

Book, and other reviews by Raphael Susewind
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Image c/o Eric Lanke

is a political anthropologist at the Universities of Bielefeld and Oxford. He works on Muslim belonging, the ambivalence of the sacred and diplomatic culture in India – and blogs and tweets about these issues and academic life in general. Today’s post also gave him a good excuse to further delay his seventh book review

In her last post, Laura Pasquini suggested that publishing book reviews provides not only writing practice, but also improves one’s reading skills and habits. Today, I want to highlight one more synergy: book reviews prepare you for grading student papers (and probably also for other kinds of reviews) and vice versa. I learned this lesson when I recently had to write a stack of concise narrative evaluations of undergraduate disserations; the next book review flowed from my pen (well, keyboard) like a charm. Pleased about this, I discovered three similarities:

  • Firstly, as Laura emphasized, book reviews require analytical reading – and they are best if you are able to concentrate on one key point only (which should be the key argument, if present). The same holds for grading student papers: for speedy marking alone, you need to read analytically rather than sequentially – and students generally prefer one major and substantive suggestion for improvement over a heap of nitty-gritty details of what else could have been better, too. Though admittedly finding the key point in student papers can be harder than in a good monograph…
  • Secondly, and again going back to Laura, book reviewers should evaluate. There are good books, and there are not so good ones – your readers want to know your reasoned opinion. Likewise, lecturers have to decide in the end which mark to assign. If all book reviews and marking sheets screamed excellence, the whole point of the exercise were lost. Because they are rare, review editors in fact love differentiated evaluations (almost as much as submission on time); one even called me up to congratulate me for my balanced, but in the end negative review. My judgement balance now stands at two excellent, two good, one “ok” and one terrible book – which about reflects the state of publishing in my field.
  • Finally, book reviews and narrative evaluations of student papers (as well as other kinds of reviews) share the same basic structure: one introductory sentence, a weighted summary highlighing one particularly mentionable section or chapter, an evaluation of the key argument, a comment on style and presentation (only if particularly commendable or really dismal, in my opinion), and a final mark/recommendation. Practicing this structure in book reviews will make your grading more effective; and evaluating student work can improve your review style.

Importantly, the two formats have differences as well however. Above all, they are written with different audiences in mind: other readers in the case of book reviews, but authors in the case of student papers (or other kinds of reviews). This difference needs to show:

  • In book reviews, your suggestions on how to improve should preferably target the field at large, not the specific work under review. The book has been published and cannot be changed anymore: it is as good as it is. If it isn’t good, it is sufficient to point out why; you need not make the author suffer by demonstrating that you could do better within your 800 word review. But more can always be done by others, and lessons can be learned by the whole discipline. Focus on these. In contrast to books, however, student papers can be resubmitted – and it is only the student him- or herself who hopefully learns a lesson. This should render different kinds of suggestions.
  • And book reviews are of course public, so being nasty or sloppy is not an option (and will most likely backfire, too). Oh wait – shouldn’t “being nice and careful” be an integral part of teaching, grading (and journal refereeing) as well, precedent notwithstanding? How could I forget…

Finally, there is a last similarity between book reviews and teaching: neither count for much on the academic career ladder. Which is another good reason to be rather efficient about them (and efficiency stems from practice, and from synergies such as the one pointed out above). But going back to Laura’s earlier post, both teaching and reading (and by extension book reviews) are also seedbeds for ideas: they may not count directly, but practicing them will ultimately help you achieve what counts.

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Weekly Wisdom #93 by Paul Gray and David E.Drew
Posted by atarrant

DO SERVE AS A REVIEWER for journals, particularly top journals. Treat this job seriously. You will see much junk being submitted and appreciate why some journals reject 80% or more of their submissions. You will develop an aesthetic for what is good and what is not. You will correspond with some powerful people. When you do get a good paper to review, you will receive much earlier knowledge of an important new development. The information gained is worth more than the time you take reviewing.

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A Book Review is #AcWri Too! by Laura Pasquini
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Image c/o Eric Lanke

For graduate students and junior faculty, book reviews can be a way to dip your toes in the publishing realm of academic journals. Although peer-reviewed articles are the pinnacle for publishing and tenure, I do not think academic book reviews should be scoffed at. A book review is a great way to engage, comment, and contribute on a colleague’s work in the field. More importantly, a refereed journal publication review can be a fun piece to hone your writing, develop your analytical reading skills, and provide interesting insights for your fellow researchers to read.

The process of writing a book review encourages academic researchers to engage in the literature. Often, the practices of summarizing chapters and restating ideas provides the book reviewer how to read a book to understand the author’s key points. A great book review will weave the text into the current academic subject.

Here are some general guidelines for book reviews I have seen in academic journals and suggested practices from those who are writing #acwri book reviews:

  • Read – Check out book reviews in journals that you might be interested in publishing in 1st. See what books are being selected for review & check out the format/style.
  • Good Publications to Review – Find a book that highlights issues or resources relevant to the field and/or subject of the academic journal you are submitting to
  • Describe & evaluate - focus on the book’s purpose, contents, format,  and authority
  • Not Just a Summary - Positions and opinions should be supported with a logical argument and review the pertinent literature. Highlight strengths and weaknesses of the publication, and why this book is interesting and/or useful.
  • Be constructive with your criticism. Remember to be kind and respectful to the author(s). A great deal of effort on the author, editorial board, blind review, etc. has been put into this text. Choose to be constructive with your criticism.
  • Provide your thoughts on the book – use quotes sparingly. Readers will be interested in what YOU have to say.
  • Share key ideas. What is the main idea of the work? What does this publication contribute to the field?
  • Review Your Review - try to read from the vantage point of your audience. Is there too much/enough summary? Does your argument or key thoughts about the text make sense?

Typically academic journals will accept book reviews for publications that have been released within the year that highlights issues or resources relevant to that journal topic, genre, or field. If you are lucky, some journals might even purchase the book for you to review. It would be important to select a text that would offer solutions or directions to the field, and it would be helpful to verify with the editor if the publication would be appropriate to review.  Sometimes, journals will give preference in the review process to book review essays that comment on two or more related books

In thinking about the book review requirements for the Learning and Performance Quarterly journal, I took a gander at a number of scholarly sources that published book reviews. Here are some of the common technical requirements* for academic book reviews:

  • Reviews of publications within the recent year, i.e. 2011 or later would be acceptable now
  • Include the title, author(s), year, publisher, publisher location, ISBN, cost, book format, and page numbers of the book(s) under review.
  • Keep it simple. Typically book reviews are between 600 to 2000 words (unless you are reviewing a period or series of books).
  • An abstract of 150 words or less might be required to accompany the book review.
  • Draft a short biography and/or contact information to be included at the end of your book review.
  • *Follow ANY and ALL other book review requirements for your specific journal of choice.

Happy #acwri reading & reviewing!

Laura Pasquini is a doctoral student in the Department of Learning Technologies at the University of North Texas, and editor for the Learning and Performance Quarterly journal. She can be found tweeting as @laurapasquini and blogging here.

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Weekly Wisdom #92 by Paul Gray and David E.Drew
Posted by atarrant

COAUTHORING A PAPER WITH A SUPERSTAR increases your visibility and associates you with his or her reputation. However, becareful which papers you coauthor. If the idea is yours, the superstar will likely get most of the credit

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Tools for Academic Writing #acwri
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The latest #acwri live chat was held on Thursday 7th June 2012 at 6pm on Twitter, chaired by PhD2Published. This week the community voted for the topic ‘Tools for academic writing’. The chat was well attended and lively and has created a great resource for all academic writers (and indeed writers!). Included are some fantastic links to different websites and software that can be used to boost writing processes and productivity including Scrivener, Mendeley and 750 words.com. Dr Jeremy Segrott has now Storified the chat (below).

 

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Academic Writing; the foundation of academic publishing
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http://www.flickr.com/photos/smithsonian/2422570279/

You may have noticed that PhD2Published has been very busy recently chairing live chats on Twitter (#acwri) and collecting various blog posts, all concerned with the process of academic writing. Charlotte initially set up PhD2Published to find out more about academic publishing and to make use of it as a space built around peer-to-peer sharing. As Managing Editor I have tried to emulate this ethos and have found this to be incredibly useful so far. With this in mind, I am currently engaging in regular dialogues through both this site and other forms of social media to learn more about what is essentially the foundation of academic publishing; writing.

Spurred on to some extent by Charlottes AcBoWriMo initiative back in November 2011 and a chat initiated by Dr Jeremy Segrott on Twitter, it is clear that many academics have the desire to discuss and explore issues around their shared experiences of academic writing and how this may subsequently lead to different forms of written publication. In participating in this newly established online community and with the desire to share what I am learning, I have come across several useful resources that focus on just this topic and I wanted to share one in particular here today. Carol Smart’s discussion of academic writing is interesting because she explicitly confronts the particular challenges and problems faced by academic writers and offers potential shifts in thinking that may make dealing with these challenges more workable.

In The Emotional Challenges of Writing (available as a video and a written transcript) Carol draws on personal experiences to think about how difficulties in writing may be overcome. It is initially helpful that she acknowledges that writing can be challenging, even for those who are technically gifted or very experienced. I often feel frustrated that I can’t get words down on a page even though I know how to do it, so it is comforting to recognise that this is not just an issue with me.  Carol argues that the reasons for these challenges often stem from the kinds of emotional questions that inevitably arise when embarking on a new project or writing task; what will my peers think? Am I as good as my peers?, and so on. She also recognises that academic writing produces often contradictory feelings and insecurities in individuals and that it can be depressing and overwhelming at times. Her suggestion for overcoming this is to try to become more aware of your personal writing rhythms, no matter how peculiar they may be and lighten up a bit about what you want to say. As she rightly points out, writing is about being part of a conversation rather than setting something down in stone.

I particularly like what she has to say about getting stuck with writing. Quite often when I write I have little idea what it is I am trying to argue and I worry that this is wrong or means my thinking and writing lacks rigour. Carol suggests though that she also does this, particularly when deriving ideas from data.  While at times this may lead to dead ends, this can actually become part of the creativity of writing (and thinking) that also makes it very enjoyable.

Even though Carol’s full discussion is available online, I have briefly reviewed this resource as a way of opening up a dialogue on the PhD2Published site about academic writing. Not everyone is on Twitter or is able to join the live chats so this post is intended to be a catalyst for continuing a conversation about academic writing online and extending its reach. I genuinely believe, as do others, that academic writing is the foundation of academic publishing, yet it is also fraught with emotional and technical difficulties that are easier to acknowledge and hopefully overcome in a peer-to-peer sharing space.  Please do post any useful resources that focus on academic writing that you come across here and do raise questions and discussion. What are the main challenges you face as an academic writer? What kinds of writing do you find most challenging? What do you want to learn more about from more experienced writers?

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Weekly Wisdom #91 by Paul Gray and David E. Drew
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REWARDS FOR ACADEMIC PUBLISHING. The old saw “virtue is its own reward” applies to most of your academic publications. There are exceptions. If you write a scholarly monograph in the humanities or the social sciences you receive a small royalty. Journals invariably do not pay you. Your annual review to determine whether you should receive a raise, however, tends to reward you for publishing, particularly in high-repute journals. Of course, if you work abroad in a school such as one we know about in South Korea, you may be awarded a bonus every time you publish, with the size of the bonus depending on the journal.

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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 5. Features vs Benefits
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This post is the fifth in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

In the first post of this series, I took as my starting point the importance of recognising that publication is inevitably a commercial activity.  Pitching a book to potential publishers involves a degree of salesmanship, which doesn’t always come naturally.  In the publishing workshops I give for early career researchers, participants do an exercise in pairs, much like the well-known ‘elevator pitch’ in which entrepreneurs must make a concise and compelling case for the value of their enterprise to an investor.  The process of seeking a publisher for a book is, if you like, a kind of Dragon’s Den, in which presses will be looking for projects which will repay their investment.  Doing the exercise in pairs ensures not only that participants produce their own sales pitch, but also that they get to be a consumer of someone else’s, to encourage critical thinking about how the case for publication may look to an outsider.

This commercial turn is not about selling out on your academic values, but encouraging others to buy into the importance of your research.  It’s a difficult transition because most academics dislike the idea of having to market their work.  For some this spills over into disdain for anything so vulgar as promotion, and even a sense of hostility towards commercial values.  In an article in the TLS, addressing the recent controversies in the UK surrounding the introduction of impact as a criterion for funding research, Stefan Collini set out a dystopian future in which academics will have to become ‘accomplished marketing agents’ and ‘door-to-door salesmen for vulgarised versions of their increasingly market-oriented products’.  Collini’s desire to defend the independence of academic research and stand up for the cultural values of the humanities is of course commendable.  But it’s interesting that he sets this in such bitter opposition to a pejoratively framed notion of marketing and commercialisation.  I recognise in this a familiar, deep-rooted cultural cringe, most pervasive in the arts and humanities, based on the sense that scholarship and business are not just different worlds, but mutually hostile value systems.

Working in publishing has increased my respect for what marketing can do, in finding wider audiences – bringing greater recognition and impact – for academic research.  In retrospect, one of the most important lessons came surprisingly late in my publishing career, when as a publishing director I sat in on a copy-writing workshop run for my team of editors by the marketing department.  Our marketing manager spelled out a fundamental law of salesmanship – basic stuff in the shopping mall but a new way of thinking to most ivory-tower types.  This was the difference between features and benefits.   Features describe the characteristics of what you are trying to sell – for a book this might involve the content, coverage and approach, all of which is a good start but could still provoke the ‘so what?’ response in a jaded sales rep, bookseller or customer.  Benefits go further and make a more effective sales pitch, by making explicit how those elements will be useful and beneficial to the reader (whether in scholarly, pedagogical or even non-academic terms).   These might be methodological tools or analytical models with transferrable applications, new resources for further research, insight and guidance for policy-making, information and techniques for professionals and practitioners, and so on.

My experience is that most academics can elaborate for hours on the features of their work, but find it surprisingly difficult to articulate the benefits.   You would not sell a disposable coffee cup on the basis that it was made of cardboard (a mere feature), but rather by pointing out that it was heat-resistant and recyclable (two resulting benefits).  When you put together a book proposal you will likewise need to articulate not only the features but crucially the benefits of your research for your prospective readership.

Here are five tips to help you make this transition effectively:

i) Work out the features of your project – as many as you can think of!

ii) Convert each one into a benefit – explain why and how it will be of use to your readers

iii) Clarify who will benefit– e.g. researchers, teachers, professionals, practitioners, policy makers, or any other stakeholders you can identify.

iv) Concentrate on those benefits which are unique to your research

v) Be concise in communicating this as part of a publishing proposal – can you distill them into bullet points couched in terms that are accessible to non-specialists, rather than burying them in more elaborate, detailed or technical description of your research enterprise?  This will help to highlight your USPs more convincingly (see tips in Blogpost 1 in this series) and make clearer the reasons to publish your work.

Good luck!

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Weekly Wisdom #90 by Paul Gray and David E. Drew
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RECOGNIZE THE DELAYS IN PUBLISHING. You face long, long delays. In this hint we estimate the delays in journal publica­tion. For books, the total time is usually much longer. Let’s assume you’ve written your first article and printed out a copy that is ready to send off to the top journal in the field. If you expect that this brilliant piece will appear in the next issue or, at the latest, the one after that, we have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. Let’s assume that your paper is so good it is accepted without a request for even minor revisions. Even in this unusual case, the pace of publication is extremely slow.

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