Understanding the landscape within which Dialectic exists
This piece has been written to help university-level design educators and practitioners teaching and working in a wide variety of situations who wish to publish their writing or visual narratives in the AIGA DEC’s new journal Dialectic, or other types of publications like it. This is the type of piece that will eventually—beginning in a couple of months—be published in Dialectic’s online companion piece titled Dialogue, which will be accessible though this web site.
Dialectic is a scholarly journal published on behalf of the AIGA DEC by Michigan Publishing, a well-established and respected university press. It is largely focused on publishing rigorously vetted scholarship, research, criticism and critical inquiries that thoughtfully address issues pertinent to design education and its intersections with the professional practice of design. Operating within this context mandates that Dialectic’s processes for seeking, critically assessing, editing and publishing its written and visual content be informed and guided in much the same manner of other well-respected, scholarly journals in and around design, and, particularly, visual communication design.
To understand why, and perhaps how, Dialectic operates the analysis and evaluation processes of material submitted to it for possible publication, it may be helpful to understand what Dialectic is NOT. Specifically, Dialectic is not, like the venue you’re reading this within right now, a blog, nor is it a “popular press” magazine, or a corporate capabilities publication, or a newsletter, or an informational-cum-persuasive website created on behalf of either a for-profit or not-for-profit organization. Not being any of these types of entities means that the standards for and types of writing and visual material that Dialectic accepts for publication are different, sometimes markedly, from what can be published and is publishable elsewhere.
Understanding these differences, combined with understanding how the stepped, critical review methods that Dialectic and other scholarly journals operate to develop content for their publications, will hopefully help enlighten both our diverse readership and a broad spectrum of potential contributors about the structure and criteria of our assessment processes. More specifically, this relatively short piece will articulate how work submitted for possible publication to Dialectic’s Editorial Board and Production Team is analyzed and evaluated as it is ‘pushed through Dialectic’s review mechanisms.’ For those of you who wish even more information-cum-understanding about these topics and issues, be on the lookout for a piece that addresses them by University of Minnesota design educator Steven McCarthy in Dialectic’s inaugural issue, which will be published between November 15 and December 31 of this year (2016).
>> This is an example of the type of comment from an editor or external reviewer that most authors seek to avoid.
A brief, step-by-step overview of how Dialectic’s editorial review process works
01 | Desk reviews. All submissions to Dialectic must undergo a desk review by two members of some combination of its Editorial Board, me (as its Producer), and its Advisory Board. Sometimes members of the AIGA DEC National Steering Committee are called upon to help with the desk review process as well, as has been the case with Dialectic’s inaugural issue. A desk review involves a thorough read-through of each submission we receive that meets Dialectic’s submission parameters (https://dialectic.submittable.com/submit), UNLESS it is so poorly written—grammatically and stylistically—that it doesn’t warrant more of the reviewer’s time after he/she has read the first 500 words (we’ve received a few of these in answer to the call-for-papers for our first issue). Unfortunately, most journals get a few of these almost every time they issue a call-for-papers; speculating about why this occurs is a probably a topic for further scholarly inquiry… The culmination of the desk review involves the people operating it having to decide whether the piece should be advanced for a much more in-depth and critically rigorous peer review by two to four so-called “external reviewers,” whose identities are NOT revealed to the authors, and who the authors in turn do NOT know. A desk review can but does not have to offer the submitter much in-depth criticism, although we sent almost all of the submitters to Dialectic’s inaugural issue at least a few sentences of critical commentary if the desk reviewers deemed their first 500 words to be “passable.”
02 | External, “blind” reviews. The pieces sent to Dialectic’s external reviewers after they advance beyond the desk review are accompanied by an external review form that calls for these external reviewers to provide a much more thorough and broadly informed critical review of the submission. A sample of one of these review forms can be obtained by AIGA DEC members by e-mailing me—email@example.com—and asking me for one (no, you can’t simply download one of these…).
A journal like Dialectic cannot afford to send “weak submissions” out for external review: external reviewers DO NOT TAKE KINDLY to having to review poorly written, or poorly framed or weakly founded work, and we cannot afford to allow Dialectic to gain a reputation as a journal that wastes the precious time of external reviewers by asking them to 1) slog through weak work and THEN 2) invest the time and effort necessary to offer critical feedback about it. Dialectic’s external review process is “double blind:” this means that none of the external reviewers know the identity, and, if possible, the institutional affiliation of the author(s) of a given submission, and the author(s) of that piece do not the identity of the individual(s) who have been chosen to assess what they’ve written.
We also try to ensure that external reviewers do what we call upon them to do re: providing well-articulated, actionable and viable feedback to authors whose work is advanced beyond the desk review process. If you choose external reviewers wisely (and we try to), you can help ensure that your submitters/potential authors receive pretty good to excellent critical feedback most of the time. This requires us to choose people to fill these roles who have accrued meaningful experience with publishing well-crafted scholarship, research and/or criticism, and have been “on both sides” (i.e., receiving and giving critical commentary) of the review process with well-respected, scholarly journals. Some of Dialectic’s external reviewers have experiential knowledge derived from publishing and reviewing scholarly work in journals and other scholarly publications from outside the design disciplines. We also try to “match” the bases of knowledge of individual, external reviewers with the content of the pieces we send to them to assess: for example, if we decide to advance a piece written about how select applications of Actor Network Theory has been used support the learning processes of students challenged to design a particular type of user interface/user experience design, we try to assign this piece to external reviewers who have expertise in these areas.
>> Here’s another example of the type of comment from an editor or external reviewer that most authors seek to avoid.
With all of that stated: please know that it is NOT uncommon for external reviewers to offer contradictory remarks about a given piece they’ve been asked to asses. Additionally, they often choose to constructively criticize vastly different issues within a given piece, or that they feel somehow attach, or should attach, to that piece. Submitters to Dialectic and most other scholarly journals have to decide how they’ll respond to the criticism provided by external reviewers as they engage in revisions to their piece(s). At this point in the process, not responding to the criticisms of external reviewers usually causes a submission to be omitted from consideration for publication.
03 | Final editing. This occurs after the external reviewers have completed their assessments of the manuscripts or visual narratives they were assigned. Upon completion of these, they are returned to Dialectic’s Production Team and Editorial Board. Each author, or set of authors, whose piece was externally reviewed receives all of the external reviewers’ assessment forms completed in response to their piece, or some form of these. Each author, or set of authors, then has (usually) five to eight weeks to revise their manuscripts based on the critical commentary they will have received.
Once the author(s) of a submitted piece has re-written/revised it based on the external reviewers’ critical feedback, it must then “pass final muster” with Dialectic’s Editorial Board and Producer (in this case, Keith Owens, Anne Burdick, Kenneth Fitzgerald, Heather Corcoran, Stacie Rohrbach, Deb Littlejohn and myself) before it can be sent forward for actual page design/layout and placement in the journal itself. This final “passing muster phase” can and often does involve some re-writing on the part of the author(s), as well as some editing and re-writing on the part of the Producer and the Editorial Board. On occasion at this point in the process, a piece may be sent to another external editor who has expertise in English grammar and syntax, or who has scholarly expertise with the subject matter on offer, for final editing and revisions.
04 | A few “tips & good things to know” for potential authors. What follows is an amalgam of critically constructive suggestions and general, framing knowledge about the academic publishing process provided by some members of Dialectic’s Editorial and Advisory Boards. Please be forewarned: some of the readers of this blog may be taken aback or offended by some of what follows. If this occurs, please know this is not intentional.
It’s been the experience of more than a few of Dialectic’s Editorial and Advisory Board members (and that of Dialectic’s Producer) that designers, much more so than authors from other academic and professional disciplines, are often very much taken aback/insulted/otherwise put off by the rigor inherent in this type of editorial process. Many of them can’t believe that ANYONE would want to edit what THEY FEEL is very well-crafted, well-articulated prose. It has been our collective experience, and for some of us, this extends to two or more decades, that many designers and design educators tend not to have been taught how to write well-crafted scholarly prose, or prose of many other types as well, and many of them (us…) also haven’t read much scholarly prose, and so aren’t familiar with it, much less the processes—structural, argumentative, tonal—involved in writing and editing it. This can sometimes cause designers and design educators to be “blown away” by what, in many other academic and professional disciplines, constitutes pretty ‘normal’ feedback during the editorial process of the type that must occur for a piece to be published in a credible journal.
>> It’s hard to estimate the amount of times this comment has been offered to potential authors by editors and external reviewers of scholarly journals over the course of human history, but we think the chances are good that it’s a fairly high number.
Additionally, it’s been our collective experience that many designers and design educators tend to be put off by writing that must “go deep and spread widely,” as well-structured and crafted scholarly writing often does. We think this is due to the fact that, all too often, designers and design educators simply aren’t challenged to do this during their undergraduate experiences, as professionals, or—most alarmingly—during their graduate experiences.
I learned the following from Jack Williamson when I was in grad school at Michigan many years ago: when assessing an article for scholarly publication, ask yourself, “Would other scholars, researchers, academics or reporters from The New York Times, The Atlantic, or The Guardian be comfortable with/be disposed to citing this piece in their own writing? If you don’t think they would be, the piece may not be strong enough to warrant publishing it in an academic journal.”
05 | Some of the most common “mistakes, miscues and ‘toe-stubbers’ ” that editors and external reviewers often see in submissions to scholarly journals that cause them to be rejected for publication. What appears in the bulleted list below are descriptions of problematic issues that, if prevalent enough in a given submission, will likely stop its progress toward publication. All of the submissions that have been rejected for publication in Dialectic’s inaugural issue have been “afflicted” with one or more of the following (offered in no particular order of importance):
- Author(s) fail to situate how what they’re offering/writing about “fits into” the larger context of scholarship that’s already been created around the examination of the topic(s) of their piece;
- The essential argumentative structure of the piece is poorly constructed/organized;
- The “sentence-to-sentence” configurations of the piece are flawed grammatically/inhibit readability in a variety of ways;
- The author(s) don’t articulate meaningful or viable conclusions, or effectively crafted summations, at the culminations of their submissions;
- The author(s) don’t clearly state a thesis or essential argument/raison d’etre at the outset of their piece;
- The author(s) delve into details in one or more areas of their narrative in ways that obfuscate their central theme;
- The piece has been written in a manner that assumes the author(s)’ readership has some form of “magical foreknowledge” in/around a variety of key issues that he/she/they has/have chosen to write about, so much so that the author(s) do NOT feel the need to explain or contextualize these issues as their manuscript progresses;
- The author(s) make key claims in the piece that are unsupported by evidence or well-argued rationales.
In closing: a brief assortment of general questions we think almost all potential authors to Dialectic should ask themselves prior to submitting their work for assessment and possible publication
What did you learn from engaging in or facilitating or thinking about whatever you’ve chosen to write about/recount in your piece?
Why is what you’ve chosen to write about relevant/of significant interest to the design education and professional design communities?
What did you set out to understand when you identified, framed and undertook whatever you’ve chosen to write about/recount in your piece?
Where does your work “fit” within the broader context(s) of other scholarship, research and/or criticism that exists in the world that has already been undertaken and described/recounted in other scholarly publications?
How did you design the process of “learning what you learned,” and why did you design this process as you did?
What broader impacts will what you’ve written about have or potentially have (on particular population groups, specific built or natural environments, technological products, systems and communities, micro- and macro-economies, public policies and/or political infrastructures, etc.)?
Why should anyone other than yourself and close colleagues (and perhaps one or more of your parents) care about what you’ve chosen to write about?