Paul Ward is Professor of Modern British History and Head of the Department of History, English, Languages and Media at the University of Huddersfield. He is also the current Editor of Postgraduate Perspectives on the Past – our postgraduate research journal based in the History department. As part of #OAWeek we invited Paul to talk to us about his experiences of publishing a student-focused open access journal.
Postgraduate Perspectives on the Past is a journal run from the research-intensive history department at the University of Huddersfield. With about 10 staff, 20 PhD students and 20 MA by research students, we are quite a large research community. Staff publish their research in a number of journals and we wanted a way to introduce our research students to the world of academic publishing. Each year we have a postgraduate conference, including many speakers from other universities. To develop the academic employability of speakers we decided to encourage them to submit their revised conference papers to the journal, which is then normally published once a year.
Many people have horror stories about the academic peer process – anonymous comments from academics to whom the editor of the journal send a submitted article. Some peer reviews are simply unacceptable, but many others are emotionally bruising and undermine confidence – and worse, since mental health issues are increasingly common in academia ruled by league tables and precarious employment.
A supportive publishing process
We wanted our journal to be different. Essays in PPP are published after a supportive peer review process, in which an established academic and a PhD student each comment on the submissions, returning them to the authors for revisions as appropriate. They then go for a second round of peer review, to academics at universities across the UK, in order to guide the authors through the stages of the journal publication process. At each step, the editorial team encouraged positivity alongside rigour to ensure that the essays are of high quality and suggestions for change are made with the feelings of the authors in mind.
There seems to me to be nothing unusual about this way of working, yet it was picked up by Times Higher Education as a (brief) story, who thought keeping authors’ feelings in mind was newsworthy.
For a long time, academia believed in the invisibility of the author as corollary to the belief in ‘objectivity’. In fact, it often led to exclusivity and, in anonymous peer review, to a lack of sensitivity to the humanity of the author. A more supportive approach fits with the mood of the digital doctoral age. Social media and digital technologies connect PhD students in ways that were unimaginable to previous generations. It enables them to publish the results of their research easily and readily, but it also provides support networks so that what they publish is often well developed, well thought out, and results from collaborative effort.
Dealing with rejection
We have faced some problems, one of which is that the encouragement to publish has led to some authors submitting articles too early on in their learning and researching. The advantage of peer review is that it provides quality assurance against under-researched and under-analysed ideas and interpretations. Like all difficult tasks, writing for an academic journal is challenging. We have rejected a couple of articles, even after the peer review process. And some authors have not made the revisions that peer reviewers have suggested, possibly because the scale of the task has seemed to great alongside completing a Masters by research or PhD thesis.
Nonetheless, publishing PPP has been very valuable. We have had an enormous range of articles, covering medieval jousting, female combatants in contemporary Colombia, army reform in Edwardian Britain, terraced housing, psychiatry in imperial India and witchcraft in early modern England. It enables potential authors to dip their toes in the water of academic publishing and, hopefully, also encourages them to be supportive of other academics as they progress in their future careers.
Read all issues of Postgraduate Perspectives on the Past online, open access.