Behind the Curtain: An Interview with Thomas Spitzer-Hanks

Hafiz Issadeen, 'Pencil' 2010

Hafiz Issadeen, 'Pencil' 2010

 

This is the transcript of an interview conducted by Dr. Tom Lindsay, an active member of our editorial review board, with Praxis Managing Co-Editor Thomas Spitzer-Hanks. Dr. Lindsay is representing Praxis today at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Houston, Texas and we'd like to thank him for the opportunity to publish this interview.

 

Dr. Tom Lindsay: Praxis is open access. Why did you decided to be open access? 

Thomas Spitzer-Hanks: The original decision was taken in the infancy of the journal, and it had to do with the turn towards digital humanities, the belief in the ethics of open access, and the idea that as a grad-run journal we were always going to be slightly more oriented towards early-career researchers and shorter articles, and open-access has a lot of advantages in both cases. 

TL: What are the advantages and disadvantages? For instance, wouldn't the journal make money by charging for access like many other journals do? Is it a logistical hassle to charge or more of a hassle to be open access? 

TSH: It's a good question with a complicated answer, and I think this article does a good job of describing the stakes of the game in academic publishing. The biggest advantages of open access are accessibility and discoverability. Basically open-access makes the work authors have published in Praxis easier to find and thus more likely to be read and cited, which every author wants. Since there are no charges at all beyond the cost of the website and document embedding involved in running Praxis (and no possibility of profit) I can also use images more freely on blog posts; a lot of Creative Commons licenses require the image use to be divorced from profit and the blog posts would be very different without images, or with images that are licensed for use by for-profit publications. One aspect of open-access that is both an advantage and a disadvantage has to do with the absence of profit, though; while we have a very low operating cost to the institution and we are more attractive to early-career researchers and people from institutions without vast resources who want to get their name out, more established voices sometimes prefer submitting to subscription journals, since they tend to have more 'clout' and show up higher in the rankings. It's definitely less of a hassle to be open-access, and we strongly believe it is a superior ethical position to take on academic publication (see some of my blog posts here), but there is a trade-off that some journals aren't willing to make, or can’t make for logistical or institutional reasons .

TL: Sounds like Praxis values its status as an open access and discoverable source. I agree with you, but there is another side to the question: do you have data or proof of the journal's "accessibility/discoverability" quality? Does Praxis get cited more than closed-access journals?

TSH: I don't have direct proof of open-access being preferable for Praxis; for one thing, it's always been OA so we don't have data for an alternative publication strategy to compare with; for another, accessibility and discoverability are hard to measure. Our SEO (search engine optimization) isn't as good as I'd like it to be, but from having published for more than a decade in a tight-knit research community we've become well-known enough that accessibility has become more important to us than discoverability. My suspicion is that Praxis gets cited less than the other writing center journals I’m most familiar with (Writing Lab Newsletter, Writing Center Journal) but that we're read as much, maybe more, especially by people working in institutions without a lot of money for subscriptions. In terms of proof of the value of OA there’s a 2006 report by Oxford University Press on their experience with open access that I think is pretty illuminating.¹ They found in general that some form of open access publication (there are many) boosted citation for the articles that were OA and the articles in the same publication that weren’t. They were talking about three STEM journals, though, and I don’t know if that result is generalizable. I think it’s interesting to use Google Scholar to track how many times specific Praxis articles are cited, but I haven’t seen a clear pattern there.

TL: Will the journal's status as open access diminish the prestige of a publication in the journal? Or, as a junior scholar, are their advantages or disadvantages to publishing in an open access journal? 

TSH: Prestige is a complicated concept here. As you can tell from my answer above, being open-access can diminish clout, for various reasons. It's a comparatively new practice in academic publishing, it never quite made institutional sense until the advent of the internet made print publication outmoded, and the top journals in most humanities fields remain closed-access. STEM fields have shown us that open-access can be compatible with top-tier research, though, so I suspect it will change. Having your work be accessible and discoverable is very important, and the advantage Praxis has over self-publication via academia.edu or a personal website (both of which are also very accessible and discoverable) is that readers know the work has been reviewed by top members of the field. Some Praxis articles are featured in writing center guides like the St. Martin’s Sourcebook, so I think over the course of more than a decade of publication we've established ourselves as a mid/top-tier journal in part because of our OA status and in part despite that status. The editorial review board is also a big part of our success- without their efforts we'd be a very different journal, as you can see by comparing vintage Praxis, which was not peer-reviewed, with our peer-reviewed issues. That's not to say that the vintage articles weren't worthwhile - both of the St. Martin's articles are from Praxis' pre-peer review days - but having peer review was a huge change for Praxis and one that's been very beneficial.

TL: When you're reviewing articles, what makes you "toss out" an article right away, with no questions asked? 

TSH: We actually do this pretty infrequently. It's fairly rare to see something be submitted that has an obvious lack of authorial purpose or capacity. This may have to do with our submission practices (we accept article submissions, not abstracts, so someone had to write at least six-eight pages of prose to send in) or with the community of scholars we serve, but we don't do more than a handful of desk rejections in a year.

TL: In your notes on copyright access, you say, "Authors are able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the non-exclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the work." What is "non-exclusive distribution," and why allow it? Is it just more "open access"? 

TSH: Non-exclusive distribution as Praxis does it basically means that authors can republish the same thing they published with us. Praxis has the right of first publication once a manuscript is submitted and we accept it, but after we publish the article authors are free to republish anywhere they want, because they retain full rights over their intellectual property. Many, maybe most journals would require you to seek and be given permission (often accompanied by a fee, sometimes quite a large one) in order to republish an article in a collection of essays, for example, or a book-length project. If an author wants to put their Praxis article on their academia.edu page, or their own website, or distribute it to a class, they aren't breaking any rules. We allow this because it’s part of our commitment to open-access, but also it just makes sense: it attracts authors who like not having to pay fees, the practice has allowed us to feature great content and keeps our submission volume high, and since our operating costs are so low I think it would feel like gouging scholars to ask them to pay an open access fee or something like that.

TL: As a junior scholar, how concerned should I be with the prestige of the journals I submit to? Is quantity or quality more important? 

TSH: Yes. No. It depends. The conventional wisdom as it’s been passed to me is that you should publish in journals that will publish you, but you should try to publish in the best journals that will publish you. Really top-tier journals often take a very long time from submission to publication, and they do that in part to deter submissions, because they see a huge volume, much of which isn't right for the journal in one way or another. Special issues of top journals can be a good way into their pages, but if you're on the job market or in the first years of your career there should be a very careful balance between top-tier publications and mid-tier publications, because one proves tenacity and the other proves productivity and the ability to balance teaching and research. Tenure and job committees want to see both. I typically tell people that they should have one article they're shopping around to top-tier journals and at least one they're looking to publish in a mid-tier journal, and that tiers are very field-dependent. Sometimes they can become meaningless: I once read an excellent article on Bram Stokers' Dracula that was published by a journal that was literally a wikipedia page, and I cited it because it was really smart and found it in the first place because I was at an institution without good subscriptions in lit journals. That's another aspect of open-access that's important: if your article is really discoverable the identity of the journal that published it becomes less important in some ways. If someone wants to quote you they will, as long as there’s a citation.

TL: Tell me about the review process. How many people read/see a submission before it goes to the editorial board, then the managing editors? Do managing editors ever read pieces that reviewers or other editors reject? Do they ever reverse decisions from lower down in the review process? If so, why? 

TSH: When the managing editors receive a submission they vet it, anonymize it and then place it in a review cycle, during which two reviewers read the piece. Once we get the reviewers' decisions back we try to find the common ground between them, which can be easy or hard, but is usually easy. We've seen pieces where one reviewers gave a 'accept without revisions' and the other gave a 'decline,' or one gave a 'revise and resubmit' and the other gave an accept with revisions,' and in those cases we read the reviewer comments thoroughly, and the piece, and try to decide what the right decision is. As writing center consultants we know that writing can always be improved so the outcome is often a revise and resubmit, but we give authors a review report that shows both reviewers' decisions and notes to the author, and we also add a note from the editors to help the author understand the decision and especially any revision suggestions. If both reviewers were to decline something an editor felt was really good, they might choose to give the author a 'revise and resubmit' but it's doubtful. We wouldn't accept a submission for publication that two reviewers had declined or given a 'revise and resubmit.'

TL: For a new scholar looking to publish in your journal, what's the one most important piece of advice you could offer? 

TSH: Think about your presentation. Correct all grammatical and mechanical errors, make sure the citations are correct, and make legible, attractive figures that are truly necessary to the project. Write as courteously and with as much professionalism as possible when communicating with editors. Try to avoid writing in such a way that anonymizing the article makes it hard to read or understand – constantly referring to your center or institution is a good example of something to avoid in submissions whenever possible. A good general rule is that if you make extra work for editors and reviewers to do they will immediately suspect it was work the author couldn't do, or didn't respect them enough to do, and that forces us to fight against our own bias while reviewing the piece. Nobody wants that, even though we don't reject manuscripts for that kind of error unless it's egregious. Beyond that it’s the usual advice: say something new about an old topic everyone still cares about and you’ve got a good chance.

TL: What sets Praxis apart from other similar journals, especially in terms of its content? 

TSH: Praxis runs shorter pieces, and that gives the journal a specific feel. Especially since many of our authors are early-career researchers or scholars from small institutions, we see a lot of scholarship that is working out or proposing new ideas or offering an unusual perspective on a problematic, and often Praxis articles also feature more political content than some journals do. I’m always excited when an established researcher sends us something, too, because it’s usually a chance to see a new direction they’re taking work that will be published in longer form later on. In terms of content, we're happy to run an article full of crunchy statistics and data, but we're also open to more qualitative or theoretical work. I'd say that Praxis editors think a lot about making our author’s work seem as interesting and exciting as it is, and we try to telegraph that in the look of the website and the artwork on blog posts. As far as I know, Praxis is the only major open-access, online-only writing center journal, and our quick turnaround and accessibility/discoverability are important aspects of our identity as a journal.

TL: You say Praxis has a quick turnaround. How quick? How do you achieve that? And what does the typical timeline look like from submission to publication? With a "revise" caveat? Without? 

TSH: Our turnaround is approximately three to six months from receipt of a manuscript to a final editorial decision, and we achieve a lot of that through having a very generous editorial review board (many members review up to six/eight articles a year, which is a lot), three yearly review cycles, and a fairly steep decline rate. A typical timeline for a submission going to publication would be at least one review cycle, more often two with a revision phase between them, which takes up about six months. After a review cycle in which the sub is accepted for publication we would place the article in the upcoming issue and it would be published. It's very unusual for a submission to take more than a year to go from submission to publication, because if it gets an R&R too many times reviewers and editors tend to start declining instead.

TL: In general, what happens with "revise and resubmit" submissions? Do they generally come back better? Get published? If so, how quickly does that tend to happen? 

TSH: Revise & Resubmits usually come back, often fairly quickly, but I'd say it's closer to 50/50 whether an R&R eventually gets published. We've recently sent out an acceptance to an author that revised and resubmitted twice, and we've seen people get more R&Rs than that, too, but if we see that an author is revising and resubmitting and getting the same comments on a revised version, we start to be less forgiving as editors in cases of tie-breaking.

TL: Who submits to Praxis? What sort(s) of scholars/practitioners? What sorts of scholars/practitioners tend to "get in"? 

TSH: We see submissions from all over the country and occasionally from overseas. A lot of our authors are writing center directors, but we also see plenty of submissions from rhetoric/composition people and scholars working in English departments. As I've said above, we have a lot of early-career and small-institution researchers that submit, but we also see submissions from senior members of the profession, though not as many as we would if so many of them weren't on our editorial review board. Articles that get published typically say something new, advance a scholarly conversation or propose something unfamiliar, so in that sense it has less to do with who submits and more to do with what they've submitted. The reviewers want new ideas, carefully explicated. 

TL: You say, "we also see submissions from senior members of the profession, though not as many as we would if so many of them weren't on our editorial review board." Why have so many senior scholars on the board then? 

TSH: It's important to the editorial mission Praxis has chosen that we provide authors with the best possible experience, and we strongly believe that includes great feedback from a diverse group of reviewers, some of whom are the top people in the profession and all of whom are extremely smart and experienced. Especially since the journal is grad-run, the editorial review board also acts as a form of bona fides and shows authors and readers that we're legitimate. 

TL: You seem like you're very good at giving every submission its due, but the conventional wisdom out there is that reviewers are always looking for an excuse to stop reading and say "no!" Do you think this perception is accurate or just bad lore? Is Praxis and its board unique in this regard? 

TSH: Our reviewers are a diverse bunch, and we have reviewers that specialize in one branch of writing center research or another, but we don't have any reviewers I can think of that decline submissions without good reason. This is partly because Praxis articles are short enough that a reviewer can give the manuscript a fair shake in a reasonable amount of time, and partly because we strongly encourage reviewers to give authors the kind of experience and feedback they would like to have themselves. That said, it makes sense that reviewers would mostly give declines, and be very ready to do so, because the only way to ensure high quality in editorial matters is to be very critical. Most journals want a low acceptance rate (it's a sign of quality, mostly) and reviewers know that. As a reviewer myself for other journals I start at a 'no' and let the author convince me otherwise, because I assume that is what editors want me to do.

TL: What happens when you get a good article that doesn't fit with your journal? Will you recommend other places to send it? 

TSH: This is very unusual, for two reasons. The first is that within the world of writing center journals Praxis is one of the more expansive publications, so we're not just looking for data-driven work, or what have you. If it occurs at the intersection of writing center research and practice we'll consider it. The other reason this doesn't happen much is that Praxis is so accessible that nobody submits without being familiar with the journal and what we do. Sometimes we'll see something that feels too reportorial, or unfinished, but we don't get random submissions on wombats or particle physics.

TL: Relatedly, which journal in the field is most like Praxis? Which one is least like Praxis? How so/why? 

TSH: I think of the three writing center journals I’m most familiar with (I'm including us, WCJ and WLNPraxis is the one that is most concentrated on seeing the writing center from the perspective of consultants, and maybe the one that most consistently has new voices in it. We are also maybe more political in our calls for papers, and we see less data-driven work than the other top journals because of our length requirements, and we have the most flexibility because we are online-only. Some of the other journals have six or eight editors and co-editors managing things like print, online, blog, etc., while Praxis has two ten-hour-a-week employees, and other journals are run by tenured faculty while we have the two-year overlapping graduate-run editorship that keeps things fresh. In terms of output and subject matter I'd say we're not that dissimilar, but the logistics of running Praxis is very different from the logistics of running WCJ or WLN, and that affects the finished publication in a number of ways.

TSH: Thanks for these questions, Tom! I’ve enjoyed answering them and I think they’ll be useful for people who can’t attend the Editor’s Round Table at CCCC this year.
 

Notes

1. Assessing the Impact of Open Access. Oxford UP, 2006. Print. (download here)