Interview with Jeff Jenson Editor-in-Chief JSSWR

Jeff Jenson, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Society of Social Work Research, sat down with Sara Terrana and Kyle Ganson of the SSWR doctoral task force at the 2018 SSWR Conference to talk about being an editor of a major social work journal and provide tips to doctoral students looking to publish their work. 

L-R: Kyle Ganson, Jeff Jenson, Sara Terrana

L-R: Kyle Ganson, Jeff Jenson, Sara Terrana

Sara: When it comes to doctoral students submitting their first journal article, what is the best piece of advice you can give?

Jeff: It's important to have that article probably coauthored with someone that you've been working with, as a mentor. That is a logical path for example. The paper should have gone through several reviews already before you submit it to any journal. And then it's… well there are several things to think about, right? What journal is the best fit for my manuscript? If it's an empirical article, it should go to journals that tend to publish empirical papers. Or if it is a quantitative or a qualitative article, different journals will tend to emphasize one or the other. Even if they don't say it in their guidelines, they say it through their actions and what they're accepting and what's in the table of contents, so reviewing some table of contents over the past few years is an important part of that. Get to know the journals landscape and what they typically publish.

Sara: And any ideas on the best way to carve up a dissertation into journal articles?

Jeff: There's a lot of schools doing three paper dissertations these days. So, that can sometimes lend itself more directly to publication. The historical, long dissertation, maybe that's what you're referring to? Yeah, so, that becomes a little more challenging to some degree. Usually it would come down to publishing the part of the dissertation that has the findings. It's hard these days to publish what is typically like the first and second chapter of a standard dissertation where there is a review of the literature leading to research questions. Journals have kind of gone beyond that and in most cases, to publish those kinds of reviews you almost have to have a systematic review of the literature to have it published. And, unfortunately, in some ways too, conceptual papers are harder to publish than they used to be.

So, that's not to be pessimistic, but you know the main paper that comes from the dissertation is probably your methodology. You're cutting down the length of the dissertation to an empirical paper or an outcome paper. Does that make sense, all that work for one publication? Well, yeah maybe. Sometimes students have obviously more data that would warrant two papers. That's fine. Yet, I think you want to… You have to be a little cautionary though about slicing things so thin that you have nothing to say almost in each paper. I don't like that. I think most editors don’t like that. It's kind of a… “Well this is really kind of inconsequential.” “What about the other outcomes?” You know what I’m saying there? So, you have to be a little careful of that.

Kyle: Would you recommend doing the three papers option?

Jeff: Yeah, we don’t use that at Denver right now. But I think it's… we're talking about it and I know a lot of schools have done it. I think it's a good model actually. Generally, I’d be supportive of that. I don't know if you generally see three papers coming from the 3-paper model or not. It might be a little hard, depending on what you decide because if you do a systematic review I suppose, as part of the long dissertation, which I think they do at Wash U, if I’m not mistaken, then that could be one publishable paper in addition to the findings. But it depends on the structure.

Kyle: What are your thoughts on the cover letter when submitting an article?

Jeff: I don't really look at them. In fact, I think, we don't even have a vehicle to do that at JSSWR. I think that’s gone. And I think that's a growing trend, actually. So, I would not put a lot of energy into that even if you think it's asked for or required. I would simply just outline, “the study addresses this, it's significant because, it's innovative because,” you know? I think three or four sentences. There’s already a lot to read.

Sara: Should doctoral students mention that they are doctoral students in a cover letter if it is required?

Jeff: Generally that wouldn't be in the letter. You know, your credentials will show up in the submission steps. When you have a Ph.D. it will show up there.

Sara: What about suggesting possible scholars to review one’s article?

Jeff: That's a good idea. JSSWR, and I think most journals have an option for that upon submission: “Would you like to suggest reviewers that would be good for this manuscript?” Suggest scholars who you haven't written with and who aren't on the team, if you’re working with a group obviously. Usually, it should be someone from outside the institution. The school that you’re at, you know? But, yeah, it's sometimes very helpful depending on how narrow the specialized area is. We're doing a special section on social work and neuroscience this year and I had to ask all the authors to send me reviewers.

Sara: And it’s ok if you don't do it, right?

Jeff: Yeah, it’s totally up to you. I think most editors will take, you know, if you send us three, we might take one of your suggestions. It’s probably unlikely to take all three. There's also a place in many submissions where you can send an opposed reviewer option. If you think there's someone that shouldn't review your paper, for whatever reason, you can then state their name.

Sara: All right, that's interesting. The politics of academia [laughter].

Kyle: So, this kind of goes back to what you talked about in the Journal Editors presentation, but what is the evaluation process like for a JSSWR submission? What is the backlog like and estimated time for article submissions receiving feedback? What is the time of revisions to be completed?

Jeff: Yeah, I should send you our annual report! That's all in there. I could do that. But we pride ourselves, in being quick. So far, we've been able to maintain that. So, we give reviewers three weeks. They usually hit the mark on that pretty close, once they’ve accepted the assignment. And then, so, some of your other questions were around…

Kyle: The backlog, when will you receive feedback after the three weeks? How fast will you have to respond to revisions?

Jeff: We give people, what is it, 60 days. That's kind of flexible, though. If someone just emails me and tells me they need more time, then I’ll just give it to them. There isn't really a magic 60 days, though you don't want to lose them entirely. You want to keep people moving forward, but I would give more time. We have not had a big backlog, but for the first time, we're struggling with that a little bit. We have a special issue planned in 2018 on healthy youth development. Kind of mirrors that grand challenge and that will take away 8 or 10 articles that were in the queue. So, for the first time we're probably looking at 9 months or so of a wait for some papers who have been accepted and maybe up to a year. We're trying to do something about that. I met with our University Chicago Press person who’s here presenting to the SSWR board with me the other day. And, you know, I began the conversation about increasing the page numbers for the journal. So, we’re hoping for that but that is a contract though.

Sara: This kind of a side question. So, let's say someone gets through the revision process, it's accepted and published online, but the print version hasn’t come out. Say it’s accepted online in 2017 but the print doesn't come out till 2018. What do you put on your CV?

Jeff: You could say, um that's a good question. You'd probably say “in press” until it hit that issue. That's probably what I would do. You usually don't put a date next to it. You just say, “in press” and it implies that that's exactly where it is. You could put after the title of the journal, you could put “ahead of print” or “AOP” with the DOI and a link to the website. But look that up. Because technically, it would be published in the year that hits the issue even though it's ahead of print.

Sara: How important is it to specifically cite JSSWR articles when submitting to JSSWR?

Jeff: Oh, not that important. You want to cite articles that are the ones to cite. I wouldn’t play around with that. I mean it sure it's great… [laughter].

Sara: Yeah it seems like some journals are pretty specific and state that you should cite… from our journal.

Jeff: I know. I wouldn't take that step. The science says to draw and drive who and what you're citing. So, if there in our journal, great or not.

Kyle: Any advice to first time authors in interpreting feedback from reviewers and then best ways to respond to a revise and resubmit (R&R)?

Jeff: Yeah, yeah interpreting the reviews sometimes they're pretty straightforward. I try to provide, and our associated editors some of them do this too, I will sometimes interpret sticky areas or I will point the authors to pay attention to these two points that were embedded in the reviews. So that's one thing. I think otherwise it's just you know pass it to someone. Have a mentor look at it. “What do you think of these reviews?” Get some different opinions. The standard these days for revise and resubmit are to construct a table that on the left-hand column are the reviewer comments and on the right-hand column is your response. So those can get pretty long. But it helps tremendously when the paper is resubmitted and goes back to those reviewers. It helps tremendously for them to see that you’ve addressed each of their points. So, I'd probably encourage you to do that. Not to be a little anal but sometimes the more thorough you are, the better. if you just send the revision back with a memo at the end of the revision that says you’ve addressed the concerns in this way but you've done it kind of… if it's too general then it's not going to fare well. It's worth it to spend the extra time. Ask someone to see an example of one and then that speeds up your process.

Kyle: I have second question on that one and this is only because I’ve submitted articles and I haven't heard back yet. What are some of the things that you reject articles for or ask for revisions around? What are some of the common themes that you end up seeing?

Jeff: Well, there are several, I guess. The methodology is weak. So, the basic plan of, the research plan is weak. That's probably the most common. Another is that there's limitations that kind of kill the article or that it needs more work. And that might mean revise or reject. So, when reviewers are kind of quick to point those things ou and if there's a lot of deficiencies that can be even just the way people are describing their measures… They're not being complete, you know how they do that. So, if you think of the standard empirical scholarly article with a method that includes all subjects and measures and announces a measurement and analysis plan, if there's weaknesses anywhere in there, that’s kind of a first flag. The other things have to do with, you know, is this an important question? Is it worth publishing? And then of course there's writing quality. If the writing quality is bad, it really detracts from the study and it can really get under some reviewer’s skin. You know it taints even the science. So, you need the whole package, I guess. But I mean those are some of the things that would jump out at me but mainly, if it's in an empirical paper, it's something around the way the study was conducted and, or it could be the way the study was described. You know, they just didn't do a great job because they didn't write it up very well.

Sara: And do you know how many, like say after the paper gets a R&R from JSSWR, and the person goes through and does the revisions and it comes back that it gets rejected. Does that ever happen?  

Jeff: Yeah it happens. Not as often though. Usually there is some desire to publish that paper by then. We had one though last week that came back twice and they rejected it. And the rejects at that stage are generally the authors did not address the reviewers’ concerns. And most of our associate editors will then say “you know, that's enough, twice and they didn't address the concerns. Let's reject it and they can always start over.” I don't have a number for it. But yeah, it's more common that things will, that authors will address all those original comments and they’ll be pretty serious about it with that table I mentioned. So, they stand a pretty good chance to get published. And then sometimes there's a second revision that has to be undertaken after that one.

Sara: Should it be acknowledged that the submitted article has been presented at x, y, and z conferences? And does this affect journal submission?

Jeff: No, we don't worry too much about that, frankly. Some journals may have some requirements about that. In the agreement you sign with the journal, there's something about “this article has not been published anywhere else.” We don't usually, we don't usually say you know this paper was originally presented at the SSWR conference in 2016 or something. But you may come across a journal that asks you to tell more about prior conference presentations or submissions than we do.

Kyle: What types of articles is JSSWR we're most interested? Macro, micro, clinical, etc.?

Jeff: Well we publish mostly research reports that are quantitative in nature. They can be of a macro or micro perspective, so to speak. I think we publish more that are studies of group designs. You know we don't publish a lot of highly clinical papers. So, more studies in the intervention sphere. We’d want good quasi-experimental or controlled trials that would be more of what you'd think of as standard research reports with outcomes. We publish what I call, I guess, a lot of modeling type papers. Some people are looking at relationships between variables in complex ways using things like SEM and things like that. Journals have their own niches and ours is a little more in that direction. We'll publish qualitative papers, though. In fact, the recipient of the Excellence in Research from this SSWR conference I noticed was one of our papers that I believe was qualitative. We get we get some measurement type papers. You heard Bruce Thyer say too in the session he wasn't accepting those anymore. There's kind of been a lot of those submitted to social work journals. So, we're being a little more selective about those and sometimes what do they really mean or are they contributing that much to the profession? We have to look at that. Systematic reviews we’d like to get. There's kind of a problem out there with systematic reviews, I think, right now and we've seen it in our journal and that is that people are submitting what they call systematic reviews but they're not systematic because they're not following the standard guidelines. We’ve just rewritten our guidelines and we’ll have new ones up in about a month and being tighter about that, for example. So, that's a matter to pay attention to the journal’s guidelines. Those are the main ones, I think.

Sara: Is there any optimal time to submit an article? At the session it was talked about, “hey the semester ends, we have the summer” and also as graduate students we often feel our work is never ready…?

Jeff: I don't know. Time of the year, probably doesn't matter that much, to be honest. You know there's, there's always a few more submissions at the end of the summer because people have been writing. A good journal editor has to deal with that. I don’t know if it matters too much. When is a paper ready? Well, have it read by people. For sure. You know it's like writing grant proposals, it's not a thing you can do in isolation. It's really good to get feedback from other people before you send it in. Be willing to put that time into it because it’ll pay off on the decision.

Kyle: If one submits an article while on the job market and receives a R&R can the students switch affiliations if they get a job?

Jeff: Yes, definitely, easy to do. Just notify the managing editor or the editor. There should be a mechanism there. You'd usually do that because you want it, well even though the work was done while you're at UCLA, but you get a job at USC, you’d switch it. Yeah, journals don't care about that.

Sara: Can you talk a little bit about the idea of creating this manuscript review mentorship program for senior scholars in the field to be matched with junior scholars?

Jeff: Well, I have thought for a while that it would be good to do, whether it's JSSWR or another journal, could mount it. It would be good to have a process or a kind of system in place that would match folks like yourself who are just starting to write reviews and write articles or for assistant professors, even more so, probably, that are taking responsibility for writing reviews. So probably more assistant professors in some ways as junior scholars, with people who have written a lot of reviews, senior scholars. I do a lot of work in prevention sciences. I've been on the board of the Society for Prevention Research on and off. They have a journal called Prevention Science that does this really well. It matches, and they have a process by which people apply to be a mentee. So, you’d simply state you were interested and you'd be selected and you'd be matched to work with the senior scholar who has done a lot of reviews. There's some processes in place to do that. That's the kind of thing that I mentioned in that e-mail. We haven't found the resources to do that, frankly. I mean that's more time, I guess, and commitment from people. So, I think with doctoral students some things we talked about in the panel would be just, I think, I know I mentioned I think this idea of getting some practice writing reviews as a doctoral student, maybe mock reviews. I guess theoretically you could take that model I just talked about with assistant professors and do it with doctoral students and the senior faculty member would be responsible for the submission of the review, but the doctoral student could be part of that review. I've had that happen informally at JSSWR, actually. We had a paper and there was a doc student that was kind of real narrow topic area and a faculty member who I asked to review it wrote me back and said, “I have a doctoral student who I think could do this better. Let me do that with the doctoral student.” And that worked quite well. So, maybe, I think we could do that. It's not rocket science. We could figure out how to do it. You know, this whole enterprise it's really important and I think you heard everybody, and Mark was saying it, how reviewers turn you down. They say, “I can’t do it now.” And so you go the next reviewer or so forth. But I think that we do, there is a service piece there that people have to be willing to contribute towards or the field doesn't change.

Kyle: Do you ever finds any bias in the peer reviewers in that they are likely researching in the same area?

Jeff: They select or are over-critical or something?

Kyle: Yeah, or just thinking, you know, they wish they did that idea or things like that.

Jeff: I don't see it that blatantly. Reviewers are working in the same area because that's what you want. That is the case, almost always. I’ve not seen a lot of that I can say. Whether it's sometimes hidden a little bit, I don't know. Most reviewers are pretty straightforward, pretty honest, and we get the occasional one where, as was mentioned at the panel, I have to edit out some comments that were not very helpful. They are being a little harsh or something. Mostly it doesn't happen though. So, I don't see a lot of that.

Sara: One final question. Can you tell me a little bit about this band you play?

Jeff: Ah, the band. That's the fun stuff. So, yeah, it's The Friendly Visitors you're alluding to. Right? Yeah, it comes from the name of the first social workers in Chicago in the late 1800s where they were called, Jane Adamms and the pioneers, were called “friendly visitors”. The older folks they get it right away. Oh yeah, it’s kind of fun [laughter]. Anyway, I put this together, I don't know, 6 or 7 years ago. We played at the SSWR conference. Sometimes the opening reception and this time it's the presidential one on Saturday night. It's a rotating cast but the core comes from Denver where I am. Right now I have a doc student who is a tremendous fiddler. So, you know, I capture people. Now we play in Denver under a different style but it's kind of an Americana sound. It’s a little folky. And so that's, yeah that's fun [laughter]. Let's see, who else is in it. Dan Hermann from Hunter is in the band has been with us since we started, myself, and two from Denver. And we pull up people too to play with us.

Sara: Thank you so much. The Doctoral Student Task Force thanks you too!

Kyle: Yeah, thank you. Thank you so much for your time.

Jeff: Yeah, it was fun talking with you!