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Making knowledge in business communication: collaboration between editorial teams and authors.

The Publications Board of the Association for Business Communication (ABC) sponsored a panel discussion, with the same title as this commentary, for the 2004 annual meeting of the ABC. The goal was to bring together editors and authors to share insights about the process of publishing one's work in the field of business communication.

The participants included the editors of four business communication journals (Debby Andrews [now former editor], Business Communication Quarterly [BCQ]; Steve Ralston, the Journal of Business Communication [JBC]; Charie Thralls and Mark Zachry, Technical Communication Quarterly [TCQ]; and Dorothy Winsor, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication [JBTC]), three authors who have published in those journals (Jackie Hartman, Colorado State University; Pris Rogers, University of Michigan; and Christine Uber Grosse, Thunderbird University), and one panelist who represented both groups (Lamar Reinsch, former editor of JBC, Georgetown University).The panelists were eager to share their advice, and it became apparent from the audience's response that many others could benefit from an inside look at the publishing process in our field.

This commentary is a distillation of the panelists' remarks. Whether you are an author, reviewer, associate editor, or editor--or someone planning to take on one of these roles--we hope that the collective wisdom represented below will make the work of creating knowledge in business communication smoother, more inspiring, and more successful for you.

Making knowledge in business communication is indeed a collaborative enterprise. For all four journals represented on this panel, and for most peer-reviewed academic journals, there are essentially four sources of influence on a work under consideration: the author, the editor, manuscript reviewers (which may include associate editors), and the copyediting and production staff. By definition, this makes the act of publishing one's work a highly collaborative venture.

How much the editorial staff and reviewers can influence a study can vary greatly from case to case and from journal to journal. For example, depending on the manuscript, Debby Andrews of BCQ would assume a "wide range of positions, from the almost hands off to a highly invasive strategy" that made her, "to a very real extent, a coauthor." Dorothy Winsor of JBTC gives "more or less feedback, depending on the clarity of the reviews and the experience of the author," highlighting, in any case, "what's probably most important" for the author to do. Charie Thralls and Mark Zachry of TCQ "are committed to playing a very active role in helping authors produce the highest quality research for the field," which typically takes the form of helping authors interpret reviewers' comments and cultivate the most promising elements of their manuscripts.

Steve Ralston of JBC challenged the appropriateness of the word collaboration as a label for the editor-author relationship. He preferred the term coproduction, not wanting in any way to be perceived as a coauthor. And yet, as both he and Jackie Hartman brought out, in at least one case Ralston played a major role in helping an author make one kind of contribution to the field instead of another. Hartman had conducted a study of internal communication in two organizations, using locus groups as her primary research method. The reviewers selected for her manuscript had trouble accepting Hartman's research approach. Through phone calls and emails, Ralston advised Hartman to turn her article into a commentary piece about the usefulness of focus groups as a research methodology. Hartman regarded this process as "collaborative" and much appreciated Ralston's willingness to help her see in her paper what JBC readers would find most valuable.

An important point made by the panelists, in fact, is that editors have, as a rule, the most reliable sense of what their readers will find interesting, significant, and convincing. Much of editors' influence takes the form of helping authors create studies that will draw the best response from the scholarly community in business communication--a community that, because it is so varied, can be hard to accommodate. Editors can also help the author make sense of "mixed reviews," explaining what might have caused the contradictory responses (sometimes it is because the paper itself is unfocused) and pointing the way to a workable solution (Thralls and Zachry).

Although editors, and sometimes associate editors, do the most one-on-one work with authors, the reviewers recruited for a given manuscript can have a profound impact as well on an author's ultimate contribution to the field. Beyond advising whether a manuscript should be accepted, accepted with revisions, revised and resubmitted, or rejected, reviewers indicate how a manuscript is likely to be received by the given readership, or by subsets of that readership, and can often provide an enormous amount of help to an author. Winsor noted that JBTC reviewers "consistently send back two, three, or more single-spaced pages of comments and suggestions," and the other editors reported similar efforts from their reviewers. This generosity is particularly striking given the fact that in academic publishing, reviewers are not remunerated in any way (in fact, as Andrews noted, the editors themselves are volunteers whose only compensation is coverage of expenses and some release time from teaching).

It is a fact, however, that reviews can sometimes be discouraging and/or mistaken. Perhaps a particular reviewer had an ax to grind; perhaps he or she was simply short on time. Editors appoint editorial review boards in hopes of recruiting reliable, conscientious reviewers, but some reviewers--even those who have become well-known researchers in the field--are not cut out to be supportive collaborators with authors. In these cases, editors "can quietly cycle [such reviewers] off [review] boards at the end of appointed terms" (Thralls and Zachry), while, in the meantime, providing a more balanced viewpoint in their own cover letters to authors. In general, though, the editors on the panel sincerely applauded the work of their reviewers, calling them "the unsung heroes of our field" (Thralls and Zachry) who serve the profession "simply out of the goodness of their hearts" (Winsor). Thralls and Zachry even proposed creating some kind of award for those "who go the extra mile in writing reviews."

The editors on the panel were also careful to note the contributions made by their editorial assistants, such as Lori Peterson at JBTC or Phil Parisi at TCQ. Although these support staff rarely make major substantive recommendations, they play an invaluable role in making the published work coherent, faithful to the authors' intent, and clear of mechanical problems. They also smooth the collaboration between editorial and production personnel, attending to final format, copyright forms, permissions, and the like. Staff members of the journal's publisher, such as Sage and Lawrence Erlbaum, also ensure a polished, professional look for published manuscripts. Wise authors will notice, appreciate, and politely receive the assistance provided by these participants in the publication process.

There are both interpersonal and intellectual dimensions to the collaborative work between authors and editorial teams. A common theme in all participants' remarks was that better harmony and better published work can result when authors and editors take advantage of less formalized means of communication than official letters or e-mails and reviews. As Pris Rogers pointed out, the genres that are built into the publication process--the author's submission cover letter or e-mail, the editor's or editorial assistant's acknowledgment of receipt, the reviews, the editor's decision on the manuscript, and the author's response--are "lean media" that involve "rather standardized moves and formats" and asynchronous interaction. Even though many of these may be sent as e-mails, they can nevertheless seem unilateral and dehumanizing; they tend to foreground the editor's "gatekeeping" role (Andrews, Ralston, Rogers) and the author's supplicant role.

By contrast, an occasional phone call can enable these colleagues to discuss more informally and help them find their way to the best version of the paper. First on Rogers's list of ways to enhance the editor-author collaboration was "Pick up the phone." Doing so in one instance resolved a major point of dispute between Rogers and an editor, whereas not doing so in another instance led to a couple of major revisions that Rogers felt could have been expedited had she simply called the editor.

Christine Uber Grosse, caught in the awkward situation of having lost the editor's and reviewers' responses to a manuscript she had submitted to BCQ, finally emailed Andrews a personal note requesting another copy of the response--but not before agonizing over what Andrews's reaction might be: "We didn't have a personal relationship," Grosse explained, and she worried, "What would Debby think of me?" Would such a query "affect her opinion of me and my work?" Andrews gladly resent the materials, and Grosse's piece was ultimately published. Grosse "learned a lot about [her] editor--her editorial skills, her organizational talents, and the depth of her humanity." She also "learned much about how to write and encourage writers."

Jackie Hartman had a similar reaction when working with Steve Ralston on her focus-groups commentary. Before talking with Ralston by phone and e-mail about her manuscript, Hartman had "considered it 'cheating'" to contact an editor outside the formal process of communication. She learned that there is much to be gained from interpersonal dialog with one's editor beyond the formal means dictated by the review process.

Charie Thralls and Mark Zachry added that "it can be equally important for editors to make special efforts to reach out to authors." Sometimes reviewers' reports "can be so upsetting to authors that they want to withdraw their manuscripts." In one such case, when "an encouraging cover letter" for the reviews wasn't enough to motivate the author to revise and resubmit, Thralls and Zachry "telephoned and helped this author sort through her concerns." The call "made a difference--practically and emotionally," leading to a successful revision and acceptance of the manuscript for publication in TCQ.

"Both authors and journal editors," Thralls and Zachry advised, "can take more initiative to improve communication in the publication process." And both parties, as Rogers commented, can "ask more questions," "use more politeness strategies" (e.g., "Might you ...?" rather than "You should"), and, overall, "adopt a collaborative view of authorship" that entails mutual help and respect.

Editors have the ultimate say over what gets published in their journals (but they would rather say yes than no). There is no denying that a journal editor, assisted by his or her editorial team, wields enormous influence over not only the development of knowledge in the field but also individual careers. Although many participate in the review process, the editor has the final word regarding the fate of a manuscript. Editors on the panel felt keenly the seriousness of using this power conscientiously.

They clearly shared the same primary goal: to publish work "of the highest quality" (Thralls and Zachry) in order "to provide readers with the best thinking in the field" (Andrews). The intellectual and institutional health of a discipline depends upon the quality of its published scholarship, and all editorial panelists emphasized their commitment to disseminating high-quality work.

They also realize, though, that careers can be made or hindered depending on their editorial decisions. "Editors feel an incredible responsibility for people's careers," Lamar Reinsch noted. They try to deliver a prompt and helpful response to each manuscript, though sometimes that is difficult, given the fact that reviewers, as volunteers, sometimes deliver less than their best efforts. A good editor will work to foster a "culture of review" (Thralls and Zachry) among reviewers that helps them to see themselves as collaborators with and mentors for the authors, not simply as judges and critics. The editor will also try to choose reviewers who can provide the most fair and supportive advice to a given author (Andrews, Thralls and Zachry, Winsor). Once the reviews are in, the editor can, with a well-considered cover letter, help the author make sense of varied advice and steer him or her in the most promising direction.

But "balancing the roles of gatekeeper and mentor is tricky," Andrews noted. It can be difficult or even impossible to encourage an author whose work falls quite short of a journal's standards. In these cases, a busy editor cannot afford to take on the project of overseeing the author's professional development. As Andrews said, "an editor needs to be diplomatic, but as gatekeeper, the editor needs to conserve time for the good manuscripts that can become excellent, rather than for the poor ones."

It is well for authors to keep in mind, however, that all journals do need worthy manuscripts. Although editors strive to achieve "a low acceptance rate" in order to maintain the journal's "professional credibility" (Andrews), they also delight in a healthy flow of interesting, well-crafted submissions. Editors, as well as reviewers, want to be able to accept work rather than reject it. Embracing the editorial team as collaborators in the knowledge-making process can help authors bring that process to a happy conclusion for everyone involved.

Authors should welcome feedback while also maintaining primary ownership of the article. Who does "own" a manuscript once it has entered the review process? Should the author capitulate on every point raised by the editor and reviewers? The panelists agreed with Rogers that authors "must balance compliance with resistance to criticism." Most manuscripts are not accepted, or even conditionally accepted, on first submission. The field of business communication is notoriously multidisciplinary, and gauging what various kinds of readers will want or need to see in a study is difficult to judge on one's own. Here is where a panel of reviewers and a helpful editor can be of enormous assistance. If, in response to their feedback, authors will replace the feeling of "prostituting" themselves with the goal of "perfecting the study" (Rogers), they can continue to feel proud ownership of their work while they labor with the editorial team to bring the best version of the manuscript into print.

A key point raised by several editors along these lines was that successful revisers will, in fact, maintain intellectual ownership of the manuscript rather than just mechanically making changes that the editorial team suggests. Among Reinsch's three biggest complaints as a former editor was "superficial compliance from authors" (with the other two being slow reviewers and reviews that evaluate without explaining). Andrews described authors with this view of collaboration as "ground-game authors--those who send in revision after revision, often just barely meeting the minimum requirements of reviewer comments, like students who do letter-of-the-law changes in their papers and reports." The best approach is to "relish criticism" (Rogers)--even though that can be understandably difficult--and to allow it to take one's work to a higher level than one could ever have reached by oneself. But "neither reviewers nor editors can prescribe all that an author might need to do to transform the manuscript into publishable form," as Thralls and Zachry observed. The continued input and judgment of the author, therefore, is crucial to successful revision.

An important word of advice to authors from the editors is to stay abreast of conversations in the field and in particular journals. Speaking for all editors present, Thralls and Zachry highlighted two characteristics of a publishable work: it states, early on, "the key issue at stake and how the author's treatment of that issue advances people's understanding of it"; and it "situates the issue and the author's contribution in dialog with prior research," in large part through a thoughtful literature review. Thralls and Zachry also added, with agreement from the other panelists, that "some editors and reviewers place a premium on references to their particular journals"--so familiarity with the journal in which one hopes to publish one's work is a must.

Authors should persist and notprocrastinate. As these remarks have shown, getting one's scholarly work published is likely to be a rather drawn-out process involving many people's viewpoints and suggestions. If authors understand this fact, they will not expect to land an acceptance letter with the first round of reviews and be tempted to give up if it is not forthcoming. It is imperative, as Grosse commented, that authors "persist" and "not procrastinate." Sticking with a paper and realizing that revision is usually necessary will help authors achieve their goal of making their work available to others.

The editors agreed that both "early-career and established authors" can benefit from "the multiple cycling of manuscripts" that is the norm in academic publishing. As a rule, editors "try to create the most supportive environment [they] can for authors, helping them work through reviewer comments to arrive at a publishable manuscript that pleases both authors and reviewers and that satisfies the intellectual demands of the community" (Thralls and Zachry). Entering into the publishing process in a collaborative spirit, whatever your role, can bring out the best, interpersonally and intellectually, in all parties concerned.

Kathryn Rentz is an associate professor and coordinator of professional writing in the English Department at the University of Cincinnati. She chaired the Association for Business Communication (ABC) Publications Board in 2003-2004 and currently serves as cochair with James Suchan, Naval Postgraduate School. Other members of the publications board for 2003-2004, the sponsors of this panel, were Mirjaliisa Charles, Helsinki School of Economics; Pris Rogers, University of Michigan; Joo-Seng Tan, Nanyang Technological University; Charie Thralls, Western Michigan University; and ABC executive director Robert Myers (ex-officio), Baruch College. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Kathryn Rentz, English Department, ML 0069, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH 45221-0069; e-mail: kathryn.rentz@uc.edu
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Rentz, Kathryn
Publication:The Journal of Business Communication
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Words:2891
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