August 24 2020

Hosting a successful writing boot-camp online

Professor Anne-Wil Harzing is dedicated to research mentoring in the Business School at MDX. Here, she discusses how her annual writing boot-camp was taken online during COVID-19 and how a community was still maintained.

From Cumberland Lodge to virtual boot-camp

In 2017, we decided to take the School’s research support activities to the next level by organising an off-site writing boot-camp. The key aim of the boot-camp is to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field. Expert mentors assist them to fine-tune and polish their papers in order to reduce the chance that their paper is desk-rejected, i.e. rejected by their targeted journal without receiving reviews.

The following years saw great success as we ran the bootcamp three times in January 2018July 2018, and July 2019 at the stunning Cumberland Lodge. We were therefore devastated when the June 2020 bootcamp had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

However, we were determined to ensure our colleagues would continue to benefit from research support. So we moved the bootcamp online, running it over three separate days with two 1-day breaks in between.

Fourteen academics participated and I had the support of three great bootcamp mentors: Richard CroucherCharles Dennis, and Paul Gooderham, each of us working closely with three or four academics.

Building an online community

It turned out to be surprisingly easy to replicate the strong MDX community feeling online, reinforce the existing connections, and get to know the staff members who had not participated before.

The fourteen participants came from four different departments in the Business School, CEEDR, Economics, Management Leadership and Organisation, & Marketing, Branding and Tourism.

Most participants were Lecturers and Senior Lecturers and relatively early in their publishing career. Although I had some trepidation about whether the format would work at all online, the response was generally very positive: 

Although I look forward to being able to return to Cumberland Lodge this format had its advantages. It’s time efficient and time-keeping was generally very good; it allows colleagues with family commitments to participate rather than having to shoot off in the middle of the boot-camp; and I think spreading it over Wed-Sun with two 1-day breaks allows for reflection and development.

Thanks very much for Anne-Wil’s excellent organsation and arrangement of the virtual boot-camp. Before I was a bit disappointed by not being able to go to Cumberland Lodge with a face-to-face boot-camp but with the virtual boot-camp, I found I was ‘forced’ to focus more on papers when sitting behind the screen. Also, as the sessions were going, I discussed with and learned from others the same as that in a physical boot-camp.

I like the current format. I found it challenging working from home with children, so would prefer Cumberland lodge but overall, I really enjoyed the boot-camp. I thought the three days worked as well as possible virtually through Zoom. The start together as a large group, then smaller breakout rooms, and time to work, was very productive. Anne-Wil did a wonderful job of running the programme online!

The set up

Prior to the boot-camp, all participants had been matched with a senior mentor who works with them during the whole process – from paper submission to the final stage of the revise and resubmit process. They also received the slides which outlined a seven-step process on “how to avoid a desk-reject“.

I learned a lot from Anne-Wil’s presentation which was very informative, and educational. I would like to thank Anne-Wil for sharing the slides and her valuable experience. It’s worth attending the boot-camp just to listen to her presentation.

Day 1: Crafting a memorable, descriptive and easy-to-read title and abstract

We worked in groups of 2, 3 or 4, facilitated by a mentor to improve manuscript titles and write an abstract that is easy to read and guides the editor to the “right” reviewers.

This is the second boot-camp I’ve attended. From a practical point of view the bootc-amp allows you to create space and time to think on your research critically which will lead to improving your work. Besides this, I really enjoy the conversations during the plenary sessions. Last, working on titles and abstracts in small teams makes the process fun

Day 2: First and last impressions count: Polishing the introduction and conclusion

The next steps involved working on the introduction and conclusion sections. After a plenary session, academics worked on their own papers, with seniors providing them with targeted feedback in the break-out rooms.

The best for me was to deal with such professional people like you all and I really appreciated your constructive feedback and your professional approach to us as new researchers. I found it also a good opportunity to develop good research and professional networks. Thanks a lot.

Day 3: Referencing and the journal submission process

The last part of the boot-camp dealt with issues such as using references strategically to signal you are part of the journal conversation. We also discussed the importance of writing a good letter to the editor to help them see the paper’s contribution and pick the right reviewers and getting the paper edited and/or proofread.

What do these boot-camps deliver?

Some Research Deans and Vice-Chancellors reading this post might wonder whether to invest in these activities in their own universities. For them, an important question might be: do they “deliver the goods” in terms of research output? Of course not every participant manages to get their papers published within a reasonable time-frame. That said, our first three boot-camps have resulted in more than thirty papers that are either published or under revise & resubmit.

The feedback we receive from participants demonstrate that they think the boot-camps are effective. However, what is crucial for the success of these boot-camps is that your institution has a collegial culture. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other’s company and readily spent time on each others’ papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university’s culture encourages cut-throat competition!

The virtual boot-camp was a great opportunity to connect with colleagues about our research. The boot-camp was the motivation I needed to re-visit an almost-finished paper that I had been pushing to the bottom of my to-do list. The feedback I received was very helpful in reminding me to consider my audience and an incredibly valuable opportunity to preempt problems which would otherwise be identified in the review (or reject) process.

Please keep organising this event in any form. Physical or online, you leave the boot-camp with having gained a really positive experience.

The boot-camp gives us a chance to focus on one paper for a couple of days and this can make a big difference. Discussing problems with mentors and mentees helps to develop new ideas to improve not only the parts of the paper we focus on during the boot-camp, but the overall structure. It is also a very good way to interact and exchange ideas with people outside our own department.

The boot-camp offered concentrated feedback and discussions which are not accessible otherwise. It is a great way to support a research environment and offer colleagues with support and shared experiences. This is a very unique opportunity offered in Middlesex.

This is a shortened version of a post on Anne-Wil’s own academic blog.

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