This is the first in a series of Debbie Schachter’s story. At the time of this interview, in August 2020, Debbie was the University Librarian at a small teaching university in North Vancouver, BC. Debbie has had a wide range of experience in libraries and beyond, including in the news media and social services. Her library background is in special libraries, public libraries, and academic libraries. Just recently she completed a Doctorate of Education degree from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, which required a thesis (what they call it there), and has been able to publish some of the research she completed as part of that pursuit.
In addition to her current job, Debbie is an adjunct at the UBC Information School where she teaches Management of Information Organizations. She also teaches for a well-respected library technician program at Langara College.
Position: Director, Library Services & Learning Commons, Langara College; Director, CAPER-BC
Fun Fact: Debbie recently took up violin again after an almost 40-year hiatus.
In this first part of the series, Debbie discusses two parallel experiences she had undergoing peer review, one in a Canadian journal, and one in an international journal. Because Debbie had attended some workshops and presentations preparing her for what to expect in peer review processes, she felt prepared. Let’s hear more from Debbie.
Emily: Can you tell me a little bit about why you wanted to participate in this interview?
I thought the peer review process was really interesting because while I have written and published, many years ago I used to write a regular management column, information management through the Special Library Association (SLA). It could have been ten years. Anyway, it was a long time ago. And then I contributed to a book chapter on supervision and management for an ALA publication. But I hadn’t been involved in the peer review process, not since university obviously, and then I returned to get the doctorate. Most recently I had two divergent experiences in two very different peer reviewed journals dealing with feedback. I’d already attended a couple of sessions on what your experience might be like when you go to publish. But it can be sobering and it can be challenging, depending on what the reviewers say. I thought it would be helpful just to reiterate what I had been told about; yes, if they’re interested just because you feel strongly about your work, you may feel surprised at the feedback. An outright rejection is one thing, but “you can make this better” is something that you may look at as simply constructive feedback. I thought it would be helpful for my most recent experience doing this.
I identified a couple of journals that would be appropriate for my research topic. It was on critical information literacy teaching within the British Columbia higher ed context. I did a survey and then interviewed a large number of individuals representing the public institutions in this province, and a couple of the journals that were interesting to me were the Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, because I was actually using a number of articles from that in my own literature review. And then the other because I’m a member of IFLA [International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions] and I presented on my research at an IFLA conference in Malaysia and also at the European Conference on Information Literacy in Europe, ECIL. So I had been invited through IFLA to submit to a special edition for the IFLA Journal. I knew that I was writing toward that and then for CJILS I was hoping to have a paper accepted. I submitted to the CJILS and there was quite a long period of time trying to get to the right person. There was a change in editors. While I was waiting I had submitted to the IFLA Journal. That one was a little bit more, should I say, it felt a little more rigorous. It might have been that the articles were different. The CJILS was a very positive and supportive type of process. I felt the feedback was gentle. It pointed out certain things that that would be areas of improvement. The interesting tone of the feedback was very much more supportive than what I did experience through the IFLA Journal, where there were two peer reviewers. There were many comments.
And for someone who doesn’t have experience writing for an international journal in particular—I’d heard this from someone else—there’s quite a bit of detail that is expected as far as the citation and referencing beyond what you might experience in a smaller journal. I was not entirely sure how to craft an appropriate article. Should it be like my thesis? Should it incorporate as much of the citation as I would in my thesis? Initially I hadn’t thought that it should, but clearly it should have because that was the response I received. They provide feedback because they want you to improve, but the experience can also give this sense of “oh, there’s all this work that needs to be done,” or “if I complete this work is it going to be accepted? Is it appropriate?” There wasn’t necessarily a good overall sense that if I completed all of this additional work that it would be accepted and that it was appropriate for the journal. I kind of got the sense that it would be because they were going through this effort, and they hadn’t rejected it outright, but to me it wasn’t entirely clear. So it was about the communication processes. The feedback was, I felt, I believe it was fair, but in some areas it was sort of—and perhaps it was just the tone of one of the reviewers—was “well, I don’t believe that this is true.” That kind of thing. And it was like, “okay, well maybe that’s just they want to see the other citations.”
Also, there can be a sense of what we’re writing about in North America might not be how they perceive certain topics in other countries or on other continents. So I took it with a grain of salt because I had already defended my thesis and to argue certain things, but I think it’s a strong reminder that we’re in a conversation and how people review is not necessarily going to be gentle. You might choose to receive it in a way that you feel is not the most constructive, but the reality is someone is putting effort into the review and asking these questions very honestly. Well, what is the evidence? Yes, I see that but maybe I don’t agree. Maybe you need to follow that up. That simply makes it a better final result. It is interesting that depending on the reviewer how you get such vastly different types of feedback, and that you cannot always predict what you might be anticipating when you submit an article. Again, having them accept it and then for review and edit, that is a very positive experience, but as I said if you’re not experienced it can feel like “oh, well I’m never going to be able to achieve what they’re looking for” or they simply don’t like it or whatever. I think for those who are new to this, they should take encouragement from it and not to feel bad if the first effort wasn’t perfect. And that’s exactly the feedback that I’d received – not personally, but when I went to some workshops at a conference recently, that was exactly what they were saying in those workshops for doctoral students. Don’t worry, you might not be accepted. No one is accepted initially. You’ll be fortunate if you’re accepted into the journal you wish to publish for. I felt for me it was an excellent learning experience. The CJILS was a positive experience, too. There were pieces that I needed to focus on. It was a very different article, so I think that’s why the feedback was quite different and it was more based specifically on my research. Again, I’m not surprised, but it is a comparison for two articles loosely associated how very different they can be perceived and the feedback provided.
Emily: Were both published? They were both ultimately accepted and published?
They both went through. This was that thing about really taking the feedback very literally and doing that; it’s just as when you do a doctoral thesis or master’s thesis. You’re getting feedback from your supervisor. I felt exactly the same way. This was stretching me and this was a learning experience; someone had taken the time to provide that feedback and if that’s what one reader thinks, what are other readers going to think? I was a little shocked by it frankly. You just have to set aside your ego or anything like that and again immerse yourself in the learning experience. I did a little more work in certain areas that they were looking for. For one of the journals I just added to the citations because I felt they wanted to see more and verified. I thought, “am I making this up?” I’m like no, I wasn’t. I verified some of those pieces cited as heavily as I did in my thesis. That kind of thing. Resubmitted and it was accepted with just some small grammatical editing and that kind of thing. And at the same with the other, which was a smaller article about my research, just a few changes, some additions. They were logical items and then it was published. So a very positive experience.
Emily: You mentioned that at CJILS that there was a changeover in the editor at the time. How much of a delay do you remember that introducing?
It could have been a couple of months because I think I probably emailed someone, didn’t get a response. Went back to the site, checked again. Because I’d relied on some Canadian studies in my paper, I thought, “I’m referencing them and I really should be publishing in that journal.” I received some information that there was a new format for the journal. They had a new submission process, so it was really a handoff between people at two different universities and so it wasn’t a huge amount of time, but it was just a coincidence of the timing when I was looking to submit. Other than that most journals have these systems that are really effective now, where you can actually see what’s happening with the process about your submission. I think that was the start of their new system so I really appreciated that. It was really helpful because even if you thought nothing’s happening you could go to the site and check. Oh, it’s under review. Great. Okay.
Emily: Did you notice a difference in the way the editors of the two journals handled your submission and feedback?
I think that they were similar. They were both very neutral, supportive. Clear about process. I think that’s the most important thing—and expectations. Perhaps if I’d been rejected I could have compared different information but they were both accepted so pretty much their processes were similar and they were encouraging me to both submit and then also to be monitoring the article’s the progression through the process in their system. And then the way they responded to the feedback—they provided the full feedback, but they also provided an encapsulation and then the specifics of it, which is really important.
Emily: So there was guidance given to you such as, “pay more attention to reviewer one about this and reviewer two about this” or, “I agree with this,” or that kind of thing?
I think both of them were basically saying that they concurred with the review. They were supportive of what they saw in the reviews and there was an overall message. Overall it looks like this is a valuable submission, blah, blah, blah. That kind of thing. However, there are a number of items so please review the specifics from the review comments. They were both consistent that way. I do recall with both of them that they talked about timelines and process, so they were very clearly managing the process and so I was appreciative of that. My experience was quite different.
For the IFLA Journal they decided to create a special issue on the topic and so that has happened and that’s the only other thing is don’t despair in the length of time. It seems like some of these things take forever and then you don’t know when it’s coming out even when it’s accepted. So that was part of “will we ever find out? What’s the deadline?” And the deadline is so much in advance of the actual publication. I’m part of the IFLA Library Theory and Research section and I did actually present at a conference at the beginning of March. That was my last holiday ever out of the country, due to COVID. And that was also the book chapter, so they’re going to do a peer-review process for that. I already submitted it (and I’m curious to know the result and unfortunately it didn’t happen in time for this conversation). I’m curious to know what that experience would be like. That’s very different. It’s through the Autonomous University in Mexico City, the information school there, and so that might have been interesting to be able to share, but I don’t know anything yet about that.