As you read through the interview, think about the general implications for your writing, as a potential author of articles for publication in academic journals. Different journals may have different editorial and reviewing processes and different criteria for acceptance. But they all have such processes, and their reviewers are all asked to judge the quality of submissions according to some explicit or implicit criteria.
The interview begins with a personal question…
Int: How did you come to be one of the two Editors-in-Chief of the International Journal of Management Reviews - IJMR? Why did you accept the role and what do you hope to achieve during your time as editor?
Steve: It all started in mid 2004. An advert came out from the British Academy of Management - BAM - the learned society which runs IJMR - about the position of editor. I responded to the advert. I was already Chair of the Management Education and Development Division for the US Academy of Management - another learned society - and thought I had something to offer, especially through the network of contacts I had established in that role. Actually, the main reason was that I like a challenge! I went for an interview, was offered the position along with my Co-Editor-in-Chief Adrian Wilkinson, and we took up the post in November 2004. We had about six months to complete the handover, establish our own editorial board, and develop new systems and procedures for journal submission and reviewing before going solo.
There were various things that Adrian and I wanted to do during our time as editors. First and foremost, we wanted to increase the international reputation of the journal and also of BAM. I had done a lot of work in the United States with the Academy of Management and as my term of office there was beginning to draw to a close, I felt it was time to expend some of my energy here in the UK through BAM. We thought that the journal needed to be internationalised as it was very UK-centric. We wanted to raise the profile of the journal so that it was among the top twenty management journals worldwide. We also wanted to improve the copy flow – particularly the flow of good quality submitted papers - so that no journal editions were missed, and to improve the service to contributors so that, on average, there’s only a twelve week turnaround from submission to editors’ feedback.
Int: What do you see as the particular contribution of this exclusively review journal to scholarship in the management field?
Steve: It’s a unique journal: the only academic review journal for the management field in the world! The journal disseminates material that would otherwise be lost, information that is invaluable to academics who’re changing direction and moving into an adjacent area. It’s also very useful for PhD students’ literature reviews.
Int: Could you briefly identify the key academic ‘gatekeepers’ for IJMR who make decisions and advise on decisions about whether an article submitted to the journal is accepted or rejected? What is their role in the process of review?
Steve: as editors we look at all submissions first, both to maintain copy flow and to reduce the burden on our associate editors. We make the initial decision as to whether the paper fits the scope of the journal. I talk to Adrian Wilkinson (who is now in Australia) over the telephone or using emails every week to make sure we are of a similar mind on the submissions. Those that have a possibility of making the grade are then sent to one of our associate editors, who have a lot of autonomy. They will either send a paper out for review or reject it. They basically deal with the review and revision process and recommend for publication.
If an associate editor sends an article out for review, it is double blind reviewed by academic experts in the field. Sometimes there are three or four reviewers. Each reviewer sends a reference back to the associate editor, who decides whether to reject the article, invite revisions, or recommend acceptance. The reviewers don’t actually decide things. They make their recommendation to the associate editor, to inform the latter’s decision on the next stage of the process. The reviews also provide constructive feedback for the associate editor to pass on to the authors of the article, and sometimes some additional information for the associate editor’s eyes only. Where associate editors think a paper is ready for acceptance, they make that recommendation to us as chief editors. We then take a final look, to make sure we are happy with the scope and the quality of the piece. So I guess we have the final say on what gets published.
Int: What is the ultimate audience for published articles in this journal, on whose behalf the editors and reviewers are working?
Steve: It’s primarily an academic audience. But there is scope to spin-out into practice via the work of consultants who like to stay abreast of academic debates. The readership may be academics in the field who want to up-date their knowledge, those in adjacent sub-disciplines who want to keep up to date with research that is outside their immediate specialism, or those from outside management - for example engineers - who are looking at management issues. Of course with the increase of multi-disciplinary research my feeling is that this audience is getting more widespread. Doctoral students are of course another readership. The review articles help provide doctoral students with a sense of the past, present and future directions of their field.
Int: What’s the reasoning behind the five criteria for publication set out in the journal’s guidance for authors?
Steve: The basic aim of the journal is to outline the current state of research and theory in a particular field, and the criteria flow from this aim. We inherited these criteria, and we didn’t think there was a need to revise them extensively. The previous editor had done a good job in constructing them. Let’s look at the reasoning behind each criterion for publication in turn.
1. Is there sufficient literature to warrant a literature survey (is the area of concern mature enough)?
This is a searching question: is the field sufficiently mature to warrant a review? When we get a review that is short (about 4,000 words) it is often an indication that its topic is in an emerging area, but does not yet warrant a full survey of the literature. The successful reviews are typically nearer 10,000 words. There are of course no magic formulas but a good length is between 8,000 and 10,000 words. Any more than that, the scope is usually too big and examines too many sub-disciplines, or the writing style is less than concise.
2. Is the literature surveyed coherently bounded (in other words, are there justifiable reasons why certain literature is included and other literature excluded)?
This refers to the scope and focus on the paper. It is usual for a review to span sub-disciplinary boundaries. One, two or even three is OK, but more than that means there’s breadth of literature covered superficially at the expense of depth of analysis. A good example is the article by Boxall and colleagues [link to article – need permission from authors and Blackwell]. They define the review in terms of relevant areas, which are strategic human resource management, organizational economics, and human resource development.
3. Is the analysis of the literature surveyed complete, in terms of discussions of (any contrasting) methodologies used in the literature, the general conclusions to be drawn from the literature (for example, the current agreements and disagreements contained therein) - in short, a good description of where the literature is now, and why?
We want full comprehensive coverage of the topic and this should include different approaches or ‘takes’ on the subject. A paper should therefore present a balanced view that takes account of any contrasting views which might be critical of the area.
4. Does the survey draw reasoned and authoritative conclusions as to where the literature is or should be going - what are the important questions left to be asked?
This is really about the future direction of the area of enquiry: what are the important questions that have still to be addressed in the field, and where should research and theory building go next? These conclusions should come out of the discussions around the literature (criterion 3 above). The conclusions must be adequately warranted by the evidence contained in the preceding critical review of the area.
5. At whom is the survey aimed (the likely audience is mainly an academic one) and will it be sensibly understood by its intended audience?
The sense of audience is crucially important. I mentioned that it’s mainly an academic audience. So a literature review article should be scholarly and reasoned, not based on subjective assumptions or opinion. There needs to be clear evidence which is sufficient to inform the conclusions, and recommendations for the field must be derived directly from the review.
Int: I notice from your instructions to reviewers that you ask them to use two additional criteria, on top of the ones we’ve discussed, in making judgements about the acceptability of an article submitted for publication. What’s the reasoning behind these two extra criteria??
Steve: Again, let’s look at each in turn.
1. If the subject of the paper were to be a topic for a doctoral seminar, would the review provide an adequate basis for a discussion of the area?
This criterion is about setting minimum standards for the quality of the review article. It has to be of doctoral level or beyond, and also be thorough enough to form the basis of a doctoral symposium. In other words the review must make a meaningful and significant contribution, and pose major questions. We do not expect a straight lift from a literature review in a PhD thesis or dissertation.
2. If a reasonably educated colleague in a different but related area from the survey were considering entering into the research arena covered by the review, would the review provide a good indication of the key papers in the area and the main issues outstanding?
The key word here is accessible. The review article must be accessible to academics who don’t work in the precise sub-discipline, and also to those who are outside business and management. In essence we ask: does the literature review cover the key papers in the area and is the language accessible to those outside the field?
Int: When you first receive a submitted paper and assess whether it should be passed on to an associate editor for review or rejected, what do you look for in terms of good quality to help you make this decision?
Steve: First of all, papers obviously have to be literature reviews. Incredibly, about half of the 50 percent of papers that are rejected at the first stage get pulled out because they are empirical! If I see a methodology section, I immediately bounce them. We don’t really take theory-building papers either. But this is a grey area and there is a thin line between reviewing and theory-building. For example, the review article by Boxall and colleagues I mentioned earlier does develop theory. But it has also done a good review of existing research.
Second, articles should not only be comprehensive but also well written. This is vital if the authors’ argument and recommendations for future research and theory building are to make sense to the readership of IJMR. Really, any paper must satisfy the criteria of the journal that we’ve already discussed. If a paper is badly written but has valuable substance the authors might be invited to revise and resubmit the paper.
Third, I take a careful look at the length of an article. As I indicated just now, around the 8000 - 10,000 word mark is often a good norm.
Fourth, there need to be sufficient references. Again, there’s no magic formula. But if there are only 20 or 30 then I think twice. With 50 to 60 references I feel a review may be starting to tap into the area more fully.
Finally, the quality of references is also an issue. Book chapters aren’t always as relevant as journal articles and not all journals are equally weighted. I would expect good journals in the field to be cited.
Int: What are the hallmarks of high quality feedback from your rerviews and associate editors that helps you to make your editorial decisions? Such as what revisions you might ask for, and whether to accept?
Steve: I think it’s very important to give authors timely and constructive feedback. The hallmarks of good reviewers’ comments are that they are thorough, timely, and critical, but helpful too. It should be clear to authors from reviewers’ comments why they have decided to recommend the acceptance or rejection of a paper. We wouldn’t use reviewers again if they took a paper apart in an unconcerned way and did not provide constructive comments. The editorial team monitors the quality of reviewer feedback on behalf of our authors. We know that authors have typically worked hard to produce the best job they can and feel that they deserve constructive feedback. Luckily I have never seen any awful reviews in my time with IJMR.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that our reviewers are all experienced academics. They’ll probably have had many experiences of submitting their own papers to academic journals. I guess they’ll be only too aware from these experiences of the value to authors of getting some constructive feedback, whatever the recommendation about acceptance or rejection.
Int: What advice would you give to, say, postgraduate or doctoral students who are interested in the possibility of publishing a literature review article in IJMR which is based on the literature review they conducted for their dissertation or thesis?
Steve: Here’s what they shouldn’t do! On no account should they just send in their literature review chapter from their thesis. The article needs to be a stand-alone piece that reviews the state of the field and ends with future directions for research. The literature chapter for a thesis is often for a different purpose: for example to address or develop a series of specific research questions.
So here’s what I advise. First, I recommend that postgraduate or doctoral students work with their supervisors on a co-authored review article. Writing an article for academic publication is a different skill from writing a thesis. They need to go through the apprenticeship of working with an experienced academic to learn this skill. In my experience, articles that are co-authored with supervisors are generally of better quality than the ones that novices submit on their own.
Second, I would suggest that they have the paper reviewed by peers before submitting to the journal in order to make sure that it makes sense and is clear to their projected audience.
Third, they should also read the criteria for publication carefully and look at similar articles in IJMR for pitch or style, structure of the sections to build up the authors’ argument, overall length, and the types of references used. There’s so much that they can learn from looking at the variety of good practices to be found in published literature review articles.
Int: Last but not least, what additional advice would you give to authors who are interested in choosing a topic for review and working up a literature review article for submission to IJMR?
Steve: If English is not their first language I would suggest that they get themselves some editorial support. As editors, we don’t want to miss a good article just because the English is not fluent.
I would also highlight that the journal has an international audience so we aren’t really interested in articles that focus solely on particular regions or even particular countries. A paper on human resource management practices in the UK wouldn’t normally be of interest to us. But a paper comparing human resource practices across different national and local settings would be.
Int: Thanks for giving me such a full insider’s account of what it’s like to edit IJMR, what you’re trying to achieve with the journal, and what you’re looking for in submitted papers. I can see how you and your colleagues in the editorial team are working to maximise the quality and international appeal of the articles you publish. You’ve given would-be authors plenty of useful things to think about.
Steve: Thank you, in return, for the opportunity to talk about editing IJMR and what I think makes for a good submission. To finish up, I’d like to underscore how much we editors welcome the submission of any literature review articles on management topics - whether from academics or doctoral students - as long as they fully meet the criteria for publication and the characteristics of good quality that I identified earlier. Submissions that do so are a pleasure to work on, for reviewers and editors alike. And most important, through publication in IJMR they stand to make a really valuable contribution to international management research, theory and practice. So keep them coming, but make them good!