Reflections on Editing a Journal: Experiences with Nationalities Papers

Just a few days ago, I handed over the editorship of Nationalities Papers to Peter Rutland, who teaches at Weslyan University. It has been exciting and exhausting four years editing the journal of the Association for the Study of Nationalities. Shortly after taking on the editorship, I wrote a small piece for the Taylor and Francis Editor’s Bulletin about Nationalities Papers and now I wanted to share some thoughts on editing a journal that might be less obvious to somebody submitting articles (or at least they were to me).

Producing a journal is both a professional and a voluntary enterprise. Every journal is different, but Nationalities Papers, as most other journals, does not pay editors to run a journal. I had a budget that allowed to pay for an editorial assistant and to visit a few conference to represent the journal. Of course, much of the entire operation is not paid. The members of the editorial board who provide their advice and occasional reviews are not paid, neither are the reviewers (although we could offer them a 30% off voucher for books). They are professional in the way in which they are produced and sold and of course, all of us in a journal invest our professional energy and reputation into the process. I will certainly keep this in mind when I submit an article in the future when a review is late or something else is not going as smoothly as I hope for. In order to ensure that every two months a new issue is published with 6-8 interesting and diverse articles often means that ones own research gets put on the  back-burner.

I have had the pleasure to participate in a number of workshops over the years discussing how to get published for academics together with the editors of Ethnopolitics, Slavic Review, East European Politics, Europe-Asia Studies and other journals. Our experiences were strikingly similar, as were the questions by interested academics. One of the big obstacles in the entire enterprise is the peer-review process: it is daunting both for the author of the article and for the editor. The author is worried about harsh comments and maybe even some unfair criticisms. As editor, I worried about finding a reviewer and getting a good review in ample time (our average time between submission and the decision by the editor was just above two months). Again, reviewers are not paid and as all academics, they are often busy with teaching, grading, supervising, researching, drafting grant applications, and maybe even writing up their own research. It is thus no surprise that it is often hard to find scholars willing to commit for a review on a particular topic. I have seen articles where the first invited review took weeks to answer, the second said yes, but never managed to get in the review, the third said yes, but then couldn’t find the time and more than ten people were contacted just to review a single article. With around 100 submissions a year, it is easy to see the scale of the enterprise (luckily often also the reviewers first invited agree). However, many authors believe that a delay in the review process has something to do with the assessment of the article and answer is simply no. Of course, if the reviewers are divided in their opinions (and this happened surprisingly often with one review recommending minor revisions or accept and the other reject), a third review helps to decide. Often, the review process seems democracy in Churchill’s famous dictum: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” While it might be good think about tinkering with the process (like having at least some reviews be public), the overall nature of the process ensures that a graduate student at a small college and a senior university professor have the same fair chance (and I have seen the former accepted and the latter rejected by the reviewers).

A final point about open access: in recent months, the debate has been forced by what seems like a hasty effort in the UK to require the publication of government funded research (what this is exactly seems to be unclear) in open-accession publication for which commercial publishers can charge a (hefty) fee that might be covered by universities and/or grant givers. There is a risk that this might lead to all kinds of distortions in the publication process that might reinforce hierarchies of universities and within the profession. After having edited a journal with a commercial publisher and having been involved in an online journal earlier, I am convinced about the merits of both models. Open access journals, which are free for authors and readers, are a good model for future journals as printing journals is no longer necessary and thus production costs have come down. There is still an odd legacy-effect at place, where authors prefer publication with in-print journals while nobody (except the author maybe) seems to look at the printed version anymore. As a result, university- or grant-funded open access journals deserve greater space in academia, especially as an outlet for research that is generated through government grants. However, I do see space for commercial publications that are published with the support network of a commercial publisher. While I also think that subscription rates are currently too high (and open access publishing might bring them down), it is forgotten in debates that the publishers are not the only beneficiaries. In fact, the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) who owns the journal relies on the income from the journal to organize a wonderful convention annually in New York.

Finally a few key points for authors I used in the ‘how to get published’ workshop:

  • Revise a draft and have a friend read it
  • Never submit the article at the same time with two journals (it happened in one case and both Nationalities Papers and the other journal rejected it)
  • Don’t plagiarize (it can ruin your career and reputation)
  • Be patient with the reviewers
  • Never respond immediately if you get negative reviews (always sleep over it). It will not just make editors less unhappy, it will also help your chances of remaining on good terms with the journal.
  • Don’t blame the editor or send insulting emails (they don’t help, believe me)
  • Most articles require revisions (often major revisions, this is not the exception, but the rule)
  • Don’t be discouraged and revise (most articles that are submitted, but not published, are due to authors not revising their articles).
  • Don’t just think about getting published, but also on getting read and cited. Just getting published does not translate into much readership considering the large volume of academic publications.

Oxford also in Kosovo, Bossi in Albania

Thanks to a colleague, I just found out that not only the Paneuropean University Apeiron, Slobomir University, Euro College and Megatrend, as I  noted  in my previous post, have been honored with an award from Oxford, i.e. the European Business Assembly, but also the Iliria Royal University in Kosovo received a recognition in “a solemn ceremony organized in the European Summit of Leaders in the Oxford University, nominated by the European Club of Rectors, University Iliria won the European Prize for Quality.” This means that of the ten universities I commented on last year, four received this honor.

Another university of list, Crystal University, got some attention in Italy (and here) recently for granting the son of Umberto Bossi, former head of the Lega Nord,  Renzo Bossi a university degree in just one year.

A friendly letter from the International University of Struga

In June I wrote a post on private universities in the Balkans with strange names or websites. For some reason, the blog was picked up a few days ago and become quiet popular. In addition to a short article in Vijesti which noted that UDG (or as a reader calls is JuDiDži) is on number 3 of the top 10, I also received the letter below from the International University of Struga.

Dear Mr. Florian Bieber,

Well, Mr. Bieber let us teach You that when a researcher comes out with such accusations should make serious research because any other allegation without facts is cause for a criminal offense.

Even relying on data from our website, we responsibly claim that you have not handled it well because what you say African-American students, is information that we have a good academic collaboration with the University of California precisely with American Heritage University.

In the future when you undertake to write articles of this type be well informed and do not play with the dignity of institutions and employees. From where do you know the academic staff and their quality? You stay in your office, click on the web pages of universities and make decisions, well, Sir in order to come up with such facts at least you are supposed to stand up from the chair in which you are pinned and to visit these universities and explore, if one day you want to become a professor in the true sense of the word.

According to the above and according to the values that should possess a professor turns out that you are in the top list of most miserable professors who play and imagine they are scientists.

Obviously you need attention!

We inform you that for Your accusation the legal department of our university is preparing to submit criminal charge because it is a slander.

Sincerely,

International University of Struga

Now I should clarify a few things: the list of “bizzare” universities was based on the self-presentation of the universities and their name. Some might be trying hard to become respectable institutions, some are degree mills (I just heard that there is a university in the region housed in a former mill).

Now specifically for the International University of Struga. When I wrote that “According to the website, the uni boasts many African-American and Asian-American students, palm trees,” this was not based on field work, but on irony. If one visits the website of the university the pictures look like they were bought from the ACME university photo shop and do not seem to show much of IUST. Thus, if one were to rely on the photos, it would look like the student population of IUST looks more like that of a college in California than on lake Ohird.I am also curious to hear how claiming that a university is having African and Asian-American students and palm trees is slanderous (even if it is not true).

New Universities in the Balkans: European visions, UFOs and Megatrends

It’s a stale (and wrong) cliché that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume (quote from Churchill). More recently, it seems like the Balkans are producing more universities than anybody could (or should) consume. Throughout most countries of the region, there has been a boom of new private (and state-run) universities. In Serbia, there are some 17 universities, plus a number of independent “faculties”, i.e. departments. With only a quarter of the population, Macedonia has approximately the same number of universities. Bosnia beats both Serbia and Macedonia with the number of state (or rather entity and cantonal) universities: nine (including two in Sarajevo, Mostar) and around the same number of private universities. Kosovo is lagging behind with just two public universities (and the second one in Prizren is still pretty new) and less than ten private universities. The regional winner seems to be Albania with over 10 public and over 30 private universities.

There is no doubt that advancing higher education is  a good idea, esp. in a region where the ratio of university graduates is below the European average. It is also not bad in principle to have private universities. However, considering that there are approximately as many private universities in the region than in the entire European Union (minus Romania which also has dozens of private universities) together (around 100, mostly very small institutions: Austria 13, Germany 83, UK 1, Hungary 1, Netherlands 1, Portugal less than 10, most other countries none or single digits), there might be a bit of an oversupply. Thus, considering the limited resources, both in terms of funding for students to pay tuition and in terms of potential teachers, the number in the Balkans is striking.

Some of the institutions are certainly on their way to establish themselves as serious places of higher education. Many others have a distinctly dubious ring. Here is my list of my favorite ten private universities in the Western Balkans (this is not to suggest that these are not fine institutions, but presentation and names leave a bit to be desired):

Runners-Up

European Vision University (Prishtina, Kosovo). Basic website, but European vision.

International University of Travnik (Bosnia). Best picture of library

Top Ten:

10.  Pan-European University “APEIRON” (Banja Luka, BiH). Here the name is pretty good. Apeiron means infinite or limitless in Greek, so this is the infinite Pan European University. In addition to its name, it also wins a mention for its cryptic English text “How strong are you to win yourself?  During its development, human society has managed to overpower and strengthen its capabilities acting by the influence of its will, by the strength of its body and mind, achieving the best results in different life activities…”

9. Crystal University (Highway Tirana-Durres, Albania). Once more, the name makes this university worth a mention, as well as the address (Highway Tirana-Durres, kilometer 3) and the motto: Crystallize Your Future!

8. Synergy University (Bijelina, BiH). This university also deserve recognition for its name and the picture with the current president of the RS (and his predecessor below) on the main page, a prominent scholar and promoter of academia.

7. UFO University (Tirana, Albania). No, there is no department for extraterrestrial studies here. UFO stands for “Universitas Fabrefacta Optime”, which means as much a university to forge the good. So it’s the University to Forge the Good University. Their motto, 3000 students cannot be wrong (in the Albanian version of the website, it is 4000 students can’t be wrong). To quote the president: “Welcome to UFO University!  Many of you have just started the university studies, the others are deeply engaged to reach their best, as you are living some of the most intensive years of live. I say convincingly that you should feel lucky that this intensity of taking and treating of the knowledge you experiment in lecture rooms of UFO University. We give our belief, so that each element that must have “a good university” ….

6. International University of Struga (Macedonia).According to the website, the uni boasts many African-American and Asian-American students, palm trees. The university, in the words of the rector “is one of the most significant historical events for this city as well as for Republic of Macedonia and the region of Balkan.This University will accomplish the dreams of the citizens of Struga, Macedonia and the wider region and it will contribute to develop the city of Struga into “Balkan Strasbourg”.” According to the mission of the university “International University of Struga is a highly qualifiedUniversity which is fullydevotedtothe education and successfulness of its students” 

5. International University of Novi Pazar (Serbia). Another international university in the region. The president is “Da Mufty” Zukorlic. He notes in his message to the world that “we wait for long for the sun of university to shine from the piece of the sky above us…and now we will enjoy this sun.” (no translation can do justice to the Bosnian original)

4. Megatrend University (Belgrade, Serbia). This university earned its place in this ranking through its mega-creative name and of course, for making the leader of the people’s Jamahiriya a Doctor honoris causa (see here for the universities justification). To quote the university: “This once again proves the readiness of Megatrend University to follow the world trends of international business and educational cooperation.”

3. University of Donja Gorica (UDG) (Montenegro). This uni is a bit more modest about its name , even if it aims to be the Oxford of Montengro and in the process earn Milo Djukanovic, one of its owners (together with liberitarian economist Veselin Vukotic), a bit of extra cash. Oh yes, it is also very orange.

2. Iliria Royal University (Prishtina, Kosovo). A royal university, and Iliriya? What more can one ask for? This university is under the patronage of the King of Albania. Of course the academic (and for that matter royal) credentials of Leka, “King of Albanians” are well established. The university also seems to engage in a good amount of flag-waving, American that is.

1. Slobomir P University (Slobomir, Bosnia). This is a university for a (virtual) city. The project of a certain couple known as Slobodan and Mira, no, not what you think, Pavlovic (thus the P. in the name). It’s a part of a grandiose plan for a city of freedom in peace, a just down the road from Bijelina. A city of the future has all one needs from a city of peace, a university, a TV station and an aqua park (Palma, eat your heart out). And Dodik is also shaking some hands in the city of peace.

Dr. a.D. (or why a German minister of defense might help in the battle against plagiarism)

A few days ago, the story broke that Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, the German Minister of Defense, appears to have plagiarized parts of his PhD thesis (on the comparative constitutional development of the USA and the EU) at the University of Bayreuth . First identified by a reviewer, since a collective wiki has been trying to find different places where the minister copied from newspaper articles and academic sources.
After first denying any wrongdoing, Guttenberg, the dashing and über-media savy minister announced that he would not use his “Dr.” title. It remains unclear whether or not he will have to resign over this affair. While it arguably has little to do with his work as minister of defense (he is also under pressure for a number of incidents in the German army), it might turn out to that he will be untenable. In particular, he is investigated both for breach of copyright and for perjury. Even if the University of Bayreuth decides not to withdraw the title from Gutenberg, the damage to the reputation is done. Had he placed the copied passages in quotation marks, he most likely would have still gotten the title and at worst somebody might have considered a few quotations a bit awkward.
Whatever the outcome, his case helps academic integrity in continental Europe. Unlike in the US and to a lesser degree in the UK, plagiarism is still seen as an acceptable “cheat” (in German the term “Kavaliersdelikt” comes to mind). In the worst case, the student gets a fail and has to re-write the exam or paper and in many cases might not even get caught.
The Gutenberg case shows that even years after graduating (in G. case only some 4 years), you can be caught, even in a non-academic job. It might not increase care with papers during the studies, but raises the bar for thesis, be they for an M.A. or Ph.D. The lesson to be learnt from the case would be for universities to require all M.A. thesis and Ph.D. to be available electronically. This might not only make some otherwise forgotten good research accessible, it will also allow for a more easy identification of plagiarism than if the texts gather dust in library somewhere hidden away.

P.S. a.D. in German stands for ‘ausser Dienst’ or out of service, used for former ministers etc.

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