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The Minor Revisions podcast is demystifying academic publishing

A conversation with SFU’s Eugene McCann, Minor Revisions host and managing editor of Politics and Space

May 11, 2021
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By Alyha Bardi and Melissa Roach

For emerging researchers, the process of publishing in an academic journal is “a bit of black box,” says SFU Geography professor Eugene McCann. 

In partnership with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, McCann created and hosts the Minor Revisions podcast, with the aim of drawing back the curtain and humanizing the process of publishing your research.

McCann is the managing editor of the SAGE journal, Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space. He sees firsthand what barriers and complexities authors come up against in the writing and publishing process.

On Minor Revisions, he invites authors to break down their articles and to reflect upon the journey of writing, co-authorship, reviews, rejections, successes — all the interesting stories hidden behind the text.

SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement got a chance to speak with McCann about his experience hosting Minor Revisions, the intentions driving the podcast, and how he hopes these conversations will make the publishing process more approachable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What makes the process of publishing in journals seem opaque or daunting? Why is demystifying the process important? 

It's interesting that you also said daunting there. Academic publishing is a bit of a black box, a bit mysterious — especially when you're new to getting something published. Like anything else, you feel like you're not sure if you're doing it right and that makes it daunting. 

As much as you've been told about the process, you've never really been able to see behind the curtain. And that's the mystery of it in some ways. If you don't have somebody — a friend or advisor or someone who can walk you through one of their own processes of getting something published — it's hard to know what to expect.

The idea of the Minor Revisions podcast was to provide a whole set of expertise and experiences to people who need it.

What made you want to tell the stories behind research and writing?

It's one thing to read a list of dos and don'ts for how to navigate this process. But that's very different from hearing the meaningful stories about rejection or about happiness with success — the emotions and the way that other aspects of life can intervene and slow down the processes. Even with a rejection, you need to shake it off and try again. And realize that it's not universal, it's just that this paper isn't right for this journal right now. 

The thing about the story told in episode two was that, for their paper, they had started doing the research for it in 2014 and it was published in 2019. And one of the two authors is very well known around the world —and he was saying, “that happens from time to time.” It’s easy to assume that the more renowned scholars just have quite an easy process of getting their stuff published, or even writing their stuff up. And it's not always the case. So that kind of demystification is something that I thought would be useful to share. It’s not the end of the world if your work gets rejected.

Why did you choose podcasting as a medium for these stories?

I think if more junior people or people less experienced with publishing hear from somebody who is experienced and successful, that really helps. And to be honest, I just like podcasts. I was listening to a podcast called Song Exploder, where musicians come in and basically break apart one of their songs, and tell the story of how they created it. And I suddenly thought, “What if we did this for academic journal articles?”

But then I started to think, why a podcast for this? And it really did come back to the humanizing element, and the storytelling. Because storytelling is about meaning, and meaning is often better conveyed through someone talking, rather than just bullet points on a sheet of paper. It gets you to more easily talk about feelings, emotions, struggles, and successes.

A lot of the more revealing stories are behind the text. They're covered over by the text, and we don't really see them unless we have some sort of venue like this. So in a way, hopefully, Minor Revisions gives access to conversations with people that you may not otherwise have access to.

Listeners may have already encountered some of the authors on the show in written form, or maybe they've even heard them speak before while giving a presentation at a conference. But this is a much more informal style of conversation. It humanizes the person, and hopefully, creates more of a connection with the listener, who might think, “even though this person is well-published and very advanced in their career, they still have some of the same issues that I have.” And hopefully, that again sort of demystifies the process.

What are some of the most common questions or challenges experienced by people who are coming up as researchers and are new(er) to publishing their work?

I think there are two elements we, as editors, see people struggle with.

When you’re working on some research, writing it up, the first thing that comes up for a lot of folks is, “what is the right journal to send it to?” And your guess is not always right. At Politics and Space, it’s not unusual for us to reject over half the papers that come in, either based on it not being a good fit or not being high enough quality. So making sure you’re a good fit for a journal is going to help you write the paper for that journal. And often, you’ll need somebody to advise you on that if you're new to the process.

Another big thing is how to respond to reviews when they come back in and how to do it in a way where you show respect to the reviewers. What do you do with those comments? How do you address them? How upset should you get by them? You have to think about how you’re going to engage with these comments — it’s not necessarily just doing everything that's been suggested by the reviewers. It’s important to find a strategy where you can say ‘yes’ to some things and ‘no’ others. And all of that takes experience. 

What are some common mistakes you see as editors?

One is that we see a lot of papers come in, and it's not clear to us that the author has really understood what the aims and scope of our journal is. Sometimes we don't see a fit in any way between what their research talks about and what we do. All journals have a statement about aims and scope, but it doesn't always get picked up in the right way. And some people send things that just don’t really fit.

The second thing is that we get a lot of papers that seem only half-written. They're not fully conceptualized. They're not fully worked out, and there's almost a feeling that the author is hoping that reviewers will help them write the paper. And that's not the job of the reviewers. So it’s important to send in well-crafted work, as best you can.

The third thing I would say is that the editors and the staff of the journal are humans. And sometimes when we’re communicating through online systems, you forget that it's humans behind that. A positive of that is that it is possible to ask an editor for a bit more advice on some tricky thing you're having a problem with. You can even ask an editor in advance whether they think that the paper is right for the journal, if you'd maybe sent them the abstract.

But, the reviewers are also human, for better or worse, which means sometimes that they are slow getting responses back. It also can mean that they are human in the sense that they may not be kind enough in the reviews, or are distracted. 

So, it's a human process, even though it has all these barriers between the two sides of it because of confidentiality and rigor. And one of the things that hopefully we can do through this podcast is to humanize that a little bit as well. 

What kind of response have you had to the podcast?

We've already had some stories of interesting uses of it. I always thought that it may be something that could be assigned to graduate courses, right? Maybe for PhD students, because they're heading in that direction anyway. But one of our SFU colleagues, Tara Holland, assigned it to her lower-division undergraduate course, GEOG 266W, Geography in Practice. It’s a writing-intensive course, and that means of course they're getting comments back on stuff they've written. They were not liking the fact that they were getting critiqued on their writing, and they were kind of bristling at it. 

And then she eventually assigned episode one with Luiza and Sabrina as an assignment, they had to listen to. And once they listened to it, they were like, “oh, everybody has these problems. And everybody gets comments. And these are professors, and they're getting these comments.” It seemed to help them a little bit, just by realizing that getting comments on work is part of the process.

From GEOG 266W students, in response to episode one of Minor Revisions:

"I appreciated their descriptions of the feedback process of getting an article published. Personally, I think that stage sounds terrifying. However, Bialasiewicz and Stallone somewhat allay those fears by explaining that no one ever receives no feedback – there will always be criticism, but it is not meant to be mean or tear you down, but allow you to build a better article. This was an important lesson for me."

"I gained my first-ever window into the world of publishing and about the work that takes place behind-the-scenes for the entire research and publishing process. Specifically, I was astounded that they wrote nearly 30 drafts which illustrated to me how it is an extremely non-linear process for a social scientist to have their work published in a journal."

"The biggest thing I learned from listening to this podcast and these authors’ experiences is how one should not expect to write a perfect article the first time through. While I knew about this from my time writing academic papers, seeing this play out when writing an article with at least one well-established academic scholar was reassuring in a way."

How has your experience been hosting Minor Revisions?

My experience has been really good. I think that I got really lucky in finding all the resources that you guys (VOCE) have and being able to partner up. I've learned a lot about how podcast production happens from the inside. I’ve learned how to use audio editing software a little bit. That side of it is another example of another black box or another curtain, I suppose, that I've been able to get behind. You're always learning something new. 

And then at the same time, doing the interviews — I did one this morning and I really enjoyed it. It was really kind of fun to talk about that process, which maybe says something about me. The things I find fun. But you know, it is nice to have a conversation with colleagues about something that we do, and that we even don't always necessarily talk that much about. And that was fun. And I learn something every time from other folks, about how they deal with things or their experiences over the years. You have to make space for that reflection.

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As of this post, there are two episodes of Minor Revisions available for listening wherever you find podcasts. 

Episode one features a conversation between Luiza Bialasiewicz and Sabrina Stallone on their paper “Focalizing new-Fascism: Right politics and integralisms in contemporary Italy,” situating fascist movements within contemporary Europe.

Episode two covers the researching, writing, and publishing of Lisa Freeman and Nick Blomley’s work “Enacting property: Making space for the public in the municipal library.” They explore the framing of the library as a public space and the tensions arising from library sites also being property of the state.

All of the articles discussed on Minor Revisions are open access, available through Politics and Space.

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