academic journals, academic writing, proofreading, publishing

Proofreading or translation discount on ASMI Essay Prize

Proofreading or translation discount on your submission to the ASMI 2020 Postgraduate Essay Prize

Being a former winner and special issue guest editor of Modern Italy (the journal of ASMI, the Association for the Study of Modern Italy), I can help bring your submission into excellent shape.

Proofreading includes corrections of grammar, syntax and punctuation (following the journal’s style guidelines), content check and, if necessary, rewriting of author voice and style (at an extra cost).

10% discount on proofreading – 15% discount on translation

For inquiries contact me via the module below.

About the competition:

Every year, the ASMI Postgraduate Essay Prize is awarded to an outstanding piece of unpublished work by a postgraduate student, dealing with modern Italian history, society or politics from c. 1780 to the present.

Articles should not exceed 8,500 words (incl. notes and references).

The award money is £300.

Stairway at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, academic writing, dissemination, Higher Education, peer review, publishing

Tackling the peer review system

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination.

Episode 3 (dissemination): Tackling the peer review system

A few years ago, the renowned scholar Mieke Bal made a provocative call to abolish the peer review system. Don’t hold your breath: it’s not likely to happen. As pressure to produce 4* publications increases, the peer review system will continue to be adopted widely.

This is why it is essential that you take the time to prepare yourself, and your manuscript, for publication, regardless of the fact that the peer review system is problematic, or perhaps precisely because it is!

In this blog post I want to offer a short, practical guide on submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals, based on both my experience as a published author and as a journal editor.

Lesson 1: Know your reviewer

Nowadays most academic journals draw on the expertise of peer reviewers in their selection of manuscripts deemed worthy of publication. They will assess the quality of your article, as well as its suitability for publication in the selected journal. Their feedback will eventually form the basis of the editor’s decision.

So how to get off to a good start?

  1. Get some background information about the journal, especially its editorial board: peer reviewers are often selected from there.
  2. Always check that you’ve correctly referenced other scholars’ works before you hit the ‘send’ button; they might end up reviewing your article, and people won’t appreciate seeing their name misspelt or their works cited wrongly (I once reviewed a paper where the author incorrectly referenced my work, from which I gathered they had probably never read it – I was not happy).
  3. Some journals let you suggest peer reviewers. Given the difficulty to find reviewers nowadays, journal editors will appreciate you providing them with a list of potential. DON’T name colleagues or supervisors, though, as this may compromise your anonymity (in case of double-blind peer review procedure, i.e., author and reviewer identity remains hidden throughout the peer review process).

Lesson 2: Patience is the magic word

The peer review can take a really long time, so don’t expect quick answers or decisions. Here are a few factors that determine the length of the process:

  • Peer reviewers are generally unpaid, and the number of people willing to cut out time and energy to review a paper has – understandingly – diminished over the years. So it may take some time for a journal simply to find a sufficient number of reviewers.
  • When the reports contradict each other (for example, you get an “accept” and a “reject” recommendation), editors will have to find a third or even fourth reviewer in order to get a clearer picture. This will obviously prolong the process.
  • Your article may also go through multiple review “rounds”. In fact, it is not uncommon for journals to send a revised paper back to one or more – original or new – reviewers, who will check to see if and how you’ve addressed their feedback.

If the process is delayed for any of these reasons, there’s not much you can do, except one thing: when resubmitting a manuscript, always provide a detailed list of changes you’ve made. This will save both editors and peer reviewers time when reassessing the quality of your manuscript in further rounds.

It’s also fine to contact the editor to ask for an update, but please don’t harass them!

Lesson 3: Dealing with negative criticism

Peer review reports can be painful and even devastating, and Professor Bal is right to point out the problem of “grudge-bearing scholars” destroying articles just to get back at someone, although I wonder how common this really is.

In my experience reports are generally quite helpful, also because most journals will gather multiple reports, so even if you get one very short piece of feedback, the other reviewers will usually make up for this lack.

Still, if you get negative criticism, don’t take it to heart. Put aside your pride and try to learn from it. This doesn’t mean that you have to accept anything the reviewer says; if you can motivate your choices or defend your position, you don’t necessarily have to apply the suggested changes. 

Do, however, carefully read and reflect upon the comments, and most of all, never dismiss the reviewer’s opinion. It won’t get you anywhere and you will not make a good impression on the journal editors.

Last but not least: show gratitude, even if you’re boiling with rage! Peer reviewers take out valuable time to read your work, usually with tight deadlines, and most of the time they will help you improve it, so acknowledge that.

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For more advice, tips and encouragement, check out these online resources:

Dear anonymous peer-reviewer, your criticism made me a better researcher (Guardian, Academics Anonymous)

I’m writing a journal article – what literatures do I choose? (by Pat Thomson)

15 stepts to revising journal articles (LSE blog)

Stairway at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Stairway at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)

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Previous post about dissemination:

What’s the point of Powerpoint?

Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, academic writing, Higher Education, PhD, research

Breaking out of the cocoon that is called a PhD

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination.

Episode 2 (research): Breaking out of the cocoon that is called a PhD

The topic of mental health in higher education is usually debated in relation to the rising number of mental health incidents among students, or the growing stress levels experienced by staff.

The Guardian, for example, recently revealed how “British universities are experiencing a surge in student anxiety, mental breakdowns and depression”. The topic gained media attention after a series of suicides affected one university in particular, between 2016 and 2018, although it appears to be a more widespread phenomenon.

Similarly, workloads have become unmanageable for many academics, having to juggle their time between teaching, marking, course development, board meetings, examining theses, producing 4* publications, grant income, and so on. In fact, staff increasingly falls back on counselling and occupational health in universities, as a recent HEPI report by Dr Liz Morrish, entitled Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, has shown.

Who tends to be overseen in this context is the PhD student. Embarking on a PhD project is exciting: you’re at the start of a – hopefully great – career, maybe you’ve won a PhD studentship, or your university is highly ranked. BUT, it can also be really daunting: you need to produce something good now, become an expert in your field, and you have to do it all by yourself.

In sum, doing a PhD can be empowering, but it can also shred your self-confidence. Competing fellow students. Insensitive dinosaur-professors slagging you off at conferences. Pressure being put on you to finish your thesis on time. Feeling cut out when you can’t join your peers because you’re having to work on the side.

Sure, you have a supervisor, but they won’t be holding your hands, or chasing you up. You have to learn how to manage your time, develop research skills, and write academically.

Now it’s OK to make mistakes. Like I replied to one of my proofreading clients, when she apologised for her “crappy” writing: it’s a PhD student’s prerogative to write in a crappy way. For the record, she got the highest score in quality of written English, and she didn’t only have my proofreading skills to thank for it.

Nevertheless, a PhD puts a lot of pressure on people. It can be daunting.

Doing research – be it in a public archive or at home – and writing a thesis is generally a solitary routine, which can be thoroughly demotivating, especially if you don’t have an office to go to.

I used to migrate between home, library, and computer rooms (regularly leaving behind my pen drive), and I remember how it made me feel lost. I was the only new PhD student in my year, and those who had started their PhDs in previous years were all teaching, or doing it part time. I hardly ever saw them, and we never organised anything as a group.

This is another issue: PhD isolation also prevents you from confronting your research with other people, and as a result, it’s harder to grow as a scholar. Talking about your project, what it’s about and why it’s so interesting, can help you clarify your ideas, maybe even open your eyes to things taken for granted, or that skipped your attention.

So if you risk being isolated during your PhD, here’s five practical tips on how to break out of that cocoon:

  1. Groups. See if there’s a postgraduate community in your department or school, and if there isn’t, why not start one? It can be as simple as having lunch together or a coffee break in the common room. And if you’re a “PhD orphan”, have a look outside your department as well.
  2. Seminars. Your department or school is bound to be running postgraduate seminars, which are nice and informal. Also try to attend some postgraduate conferences in your discipline (some of which award travel grants for unfunded students). Avoid major conferences, though, at least in the first two years of your PhD, unless you have a smashing conference paper that you know will make you a superstar overnight.
  3. Training. Most universities offer a postgraduate training programme, which are free to attend, and usually come with coffee and biscuits. Great way to meet new people and also take a break from your research/writing routine.
  4. Study areas. Another good way to break out of your cocoon is to do your research in a space where you’re bound to meet your peers. This is particularly relevant if you work from home, where it’s easy to get demotivated or distracted. Instead, identify a public space where you work well but can also talk to people. It gives your day structure, and it will get you out of your pyjama!
  5. Social media, I didn’t start using Twitter until fairly recently, but I see a lot of PhD students and ECRs talking to each other there, sharing feelings of anxiety and frustration, but also supporting each other (for example at #PhDchat). I guess it’s not as nice as chatting with people over tea and biscuits, but it’s a fair alternative. And it’s always good to get a rant out of your system.

Now all this might not be your thing. Maybe you’re perfectly happy working from home, and your weekly yoga class is all you need to satisfy your socialising needs. Maybe your PhD community includes someone like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, and you rather have a quiet lunch on a bench outside, taking advantage of a beautiful autumn day.

That’s fine. As long as you develop a routine that you’re comfortable with.

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Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)

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Previous post about doing academic research:

It’s that time of REF again!

Dusty bookshelves at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, academic writing, proofreading, publishing, style guide

Commas save lives

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination.

Episode 1 (writing): Commas save lives 

I recently discovered that 24 September is National Punctuation Day. Well, in the States it is. Yes, people actually celebrate punctuation! A certain Jeff Rubin launched it, and even designed a website, which is all about punctuation: rules, gadgets, games.

I guess fetishes come in all shapes and sizes.

Right, I’m taking the mickey out of poor Jeff. Actually, punctuation is quite important. If you look up #PunctuationDay on Twitter, you get a string of Tweets featuring tons of examples of punctuation gone wrong.

The most popular seem to be in the line of “Let’s eat grandpa” or “Let’s eat grandma”. Not sure why grandparents are such popular objects in these examples, but it does prove a point: commas save lives.

In my job as a proofreader, some of the errors I most regularly encounter regard punctuation. In this blog post I want to have a closer look at commas. As easy as they may seem, they are the most common sources of punctuation errors.

So here are my top 3 tips on how to use commas correctly:

  1. Commas are mainly used when two independent clauses are joined by words such as “and”, “or”, and “but”:

I did the exam, and I went down to the pub.

Only leave out the comma when the subject is omitted before the second verb (“went”):

I did the exam and went down to the pub.

What’s important to remember is that commas can’t join clauses by themselves, as in this sentence: I did the exam, I went down to the pub. Here it’s best to just use a conjunction word (“and”). In other cases you might need to do more, like splitting the sentence up using a period or a semicolon.

  1. Commas are also used a lot to separate words, in a series of three or more items:

I had wine, cheese, and crackers.

Note that I’ve added a comma before “and”. This is called an Oxford (or serial) comma, and it’s used a lot in the US – less in Britain. It serves to avoid ambiguity, especially if the list already contains conjunction words. For example, in this sentence “and” is used twice: I had wine, cheese and crackers and strawberries.

As a result, it’s not clear whether cheese, crackers, and strawberries represented one dish, or were eaten separately. You wouldn’t eat a cracker with cheese and a strawberry on top, would you? If we add a comma after “crackers”, though, the situation is clearer:

I had wine, cheese and crackers, and strawberries.

Awe, brings back so many good memories of conference drinks…

  1. A third error I often come across is when a nonessential clause is NOT set off from the main sentence. A nonessential clause contains information that you can leave out of the sentence without changing its overall meaning:

Libraries, which are full of dusty bookshelves, aren’t my cup of tea.

If we were to remove “which are full of dusty bookshelves”, the meaning of the sentence as a whole – namely that you don’t like libraries – doesn’t change. It’s not essential information, so you would use a comma to set it off from the rest of the sentence.

Things change when you’re dealing with an essential clause, also called a restrictive clause (because it restricts the noun):

I don’t like libraries that look like coffee lounges.

The restrictive clause “that look like coffee lounges” says you don’t like a certain type of library, not that you don’t like all libraries. You do, just not this kind of library! In other words, the restrictive cause gives relevant information, and without it the meaning of the overall sentence changes. It’s integral to the sentence, so it can’t be set off by commas.

So you see, commas should never be underestimated, and must be used wisely and responsibly. Not just for the sake of poor old grandma.

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For more detailed explanations, examples and tests, check out these online resources:

Blue Book of Grammar

University of Bristol grammar tutorial (followed by quiz)

Punctuation slide show (by William E. Sledzik)

Dusty bookshelves at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Dusty bookshelves at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)

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Previous post about academic writing:

The truth about notes

academia, academic writing, proofreading, publishing, style guide

The truth about notes (episode 1 of the Fabulous Four)

First in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order).

Episode 1 (writing)

The truth about notes 

I recently got into a discussion about punctuation rules on Twitter. Yes, people do actually debate these things, including on social media, even if many don’t have an open mind on the matter, so I found.

In retrospect, I think the question (accompanied by a short survey) that meant to spark the debate wasn’t a very useful one: “do the footnote numbers go before or after the period?” One could also tick a third box, “it depends”, and since we’re talking about punctuation a fourth box was added, about using the Oxford comma—completely irrelevant, really, to the question of where notes should be placed in the text.

In my job as a proofreader, I work almost exclusively with Italian native speakers, and one of the most common errors I come across when proofreading their works is the placement of notes before punctuation marks. I know this is common in Italian academia, but I’ve honestly never seen it in any English-language publications in my discipline.

And I have some good piece of literature to back me up: New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2014), endorsed by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (and highly recommended when I took my first proofreading course). It is described as the essential desk guide for all writers and editors. So what does it say on the positioning of notes, I’m sure you are dying to know?

Here it is:

The reader is referred to a footnote or endnote by a cue in the text. This normally takes the form of a superior Arabic number. The cue is placed after any punctuation (normally after the closing point of a sentence). If, however, it relates only to text within parentheses it is placed before the closing parenthesis (pp. 332-333)

Granted, my initial comment to this thread – where I replied to an Italian academic talking about different approaches being used in different languages (something I agreed upon) – must have come across in a wrong, and possibly strong, way, judging from the defensive tone she subsequently took on. In reality I only meant to vent my frustration at having to fix footnotes all too often, when proofreading English texts written by Italian academics—trust me, moving misplaced notes is absurdly boring, and a real drag when using track changes, as these will upset the numbering of the whole note system.

Apparently, though, different practices – and mindsets – exist. So, in spite of the survey resulting in a majority (45%) voting for footnotes after the period (against 32% voting before), I read several confused or opinionated replies to the thread, including a few likes and comments aimed at proving me wrong. I even got mansplained of sorts by a couple of dudes who apparently couldn’t bother to produce any constructive, or even vaguely intelligent, criticism. Instead, they cast my reference to the poor Oxford Style Guide off as “booooooring” (wrong spelling, I replicated), and pointed to a typo introduced by my phone’s autocorrect (being set to Italian rather than English). Wow, really put me on the spot there, big man!

Clearly, there is no golden rule, even when you’re writing in the same language. Whatever “God” or the Polish football manager wish to believe. UK spelling differs from US spelling, and punctuation, too, follows its own rules depending on geography and disciplinary differences. And the style guides used in those disciplines. Which is why a proofreader can be of great help.

Period.