by Richard Davies
Dr Richard Davies, co-convenor of SRHE’s Academic Practice network, ran a network event on 26 January 2022 ‘What makes a good SRHE Conference abstract?’. A regular reviewer for the SRHE Conference, Richard also asked colleagues what they look for in a good paper for the conference and shared the findings in a well-attended event.
Writing a submission for a conference is a skill – distinct from writing for journals or public engagement. It is perhaps most like an erudite blog. In the case of the SRHE conference, you have 750 words to show the reviewer that your proposed presentation is (a) worth conference delegates’ attention, and (b) a better fit for this conference than others (we get more submissions than the conference programme can accommodate so it is a bit competitive!).
Think of it as a short paper, not an abstract
It is difficult to summarise a 5-6000 word paper in 750 words and cover literature, methodology, data and findings. As a reviewer, I often find myself unsatisfied with the result. It is better to think of this as a short paper, that you can present in 15 minutes at the conference. This means focussing on a specific element of your study which can be communicated in 750 words and following the argument of that focus through precise methodology, a portion of your data, and final conclusions. Sure, tell the reviewers this is part of a large study, but you are focusing on a specific element of it. The short paper will then, if well written, be clear and internally coherent. If I find a submission is neither clear nor coherent, then I would usually suggest rejecting because if I cannot make sense of it then I will assume delegates will not be able to as well.
Practical point: get a friend or colleague to read the short paper – do they understand what you are saying? They don’t have to be an expert in higher education or even research. As reviewers, most of us regularly read non-UK English texts, as an international society we are not expecting standard English – just clarity to understand the points the author is making. Whether UK-based or international, we are not experts in different countries’ higher education systems and so do not assume the reviewer’s prior knowledge of the higher education system you are discussing
Although we work to a set of criteria, as with most academic work, there is an element of judgement, and reviewers take a view of your submission as a whole. We want to know: will this be of interest to SRHE conference delegates? Will it raise questions and stimulate discussion? In my own area of philosophy of education, a submission might be philosophically important but not explicitly about higher education; as a result I would tend to suggest it be rejected. It might be suitable for a conference but not this conference.
Practical point: check you are explicitly talking about higher education and how your paper addresses an interesting area of research or practice. Make sure the link is clear – don’t just assume the reviewers will make the connection. Even if we can, we will be wary of suggesting acceptance.
Checking against the criteria
The ‘Call for Papers’ sets out the assessment criteria against which we review submissions. As a reviewer, I read the paper and form a broad opinion, I then review with a focus on each specific criterion. Each submission is different and will meet each criterion (or not) in a different way and to varying degrees. As a reviewer, I interpret the criterion in the light of the purpose and methodology of the submission. As well as clarity and suitability for the conference, I also think about the rigour with which it has been written. This includes engagement with relevant literature, the methodology/methods and the quality of the way the data (if any) are used. I want to know that this paper builds on previous work but adds some original perspective and contribution. I want to know that the study has been conducted methodically and that the author has deliberated about it. Where there are no data, either because it is not an empirical study or the paper reports the initial phases of what will be an empirical study, I want to know that the author’s argument is reasonable and illuminates significant issues in higher education.
Practical point: reviewers use the criteria to assess and ‘score’ submissions. It is worth going through the criteria and making sure that you are sure that it is clear how you have addressed each one. If you haven’t got data yet, then say so and say why you think the work is worth presenting at this early stage.
SRHE welcomes submissions from all areas of research and evaluation in higher education, not just those with lots of data! Each submission is reviewed by two people and then moderated, and further reviewed, if necessary, by network convenors – so you are not dependent on one reviewer’s assessment. Reviewers aim to be constructive in their feedback and to uphold the high standard of presentations we see at the conference, highlighting areas of potential improvement for both accepted and rejected submissions.
Finally, the SRHE conference does receive more submissions than can be accepted, and so some good papers don’t make it. Getting rejected is not a rejection of your study (or you); sometimes it is about clarity of the submission, and sometimes it is just lack of space at the conference.
Dr Richard Davies is an academic, educationalist and informal educator. He is primarily concerned with helping other academics develop their research on teaching and learning in higher education. His own research is primarily in philosophical approaches to higher educational policy and practice. He co-convenes SRHE’s AP (Academic Practice) Network – you can find out more about the network by clicking here.