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Specialist council publications aim higher

October 20, 2015 Sandra Bit, ATA News Staff Writer

Adopting peer review daunting but worth it for volunteer editors

Several specialist councils affiliated with the Alberta Teachers’ Association are taking their publications to a higher level by making them peer reviewed.

The Association has 21 specialist councils that are run by volunteer teachers. The newsletters and journals that these councils produce keep teachers informed of upcoming events related to their specialties, practical teaching ideas for classroom use and recent pedagogical research. Content is usually written by teachers.

Moving to a peer-review model involves establishing an editorial board to evaluate the quality of submissions to ensure they meet specific scholarly standards.

While not an entirely new concept for some councils — journals such as the Mathematics Council’s delta-K and the Early Childhood Education Council’s ECEC Journal have been peer-reviewed for years — it is a new direction for others. That’s the case for the Social Studies Council’s One World in Dialogue, the Council for Inclusive Education’s The Inclusive Educator, the Guidance Council’s newly-minted Canadian School Counselling Review and the Health and Physical Education Council’s Runner.

Proponents say the move towards peer review is based partly on a desire to give a voice to scholarship where there wasn’t one before and give teachers access to educational research that they previously didn’t have. Because content is based on active research and reviewed by experts, readers get a deeper, richer exploration of the subject matter.

When redesigning the look of Runner last year, editor Dwayne Sheehan saw the opportunity to move the journal in a new editorial direction, providing teachers with the latest academic research in physical education, as well as practical, classroom-based teaching strategies.

The journal is now “something of a bridge between academics and teachers and vice versa,” said the Mount Royal University professor.

“It also helps to exploit the desire on the part of researchers to share their knowledge and have it more widely distributed.”

Social Studies Council editor Craig Harding says the peer review process raises the overall quality of a specialist council publication and gets it noticed, which helps promote the journal and the council itself by getting the articles included in the Educational Resources Information Centre. Using meta tags allows the articles to be found on Google Scholar as well, he said.

However, Sheehan stresses, it’s also important to avoid becoming too “ivory tower” and to keep content relevant to a classroom setting. With this in mind, most of the journals will offer scholarly pieces side by side with articles written by classroom teachers.

The process of creating a peer review journal from scratch can be very rewarding but also a lot of work, say Jeff Chang of the Guidance Council and Kelly Huck of the Council for Inclusive Education.

As associate professor of psychology at Athabasca University, Chang enjoys ready access to a network of contacts for both submissions and editorial expertise, but the Canadian School Counselling Review is new and publishing its first issue in early 2016, so he’s spending a lot of time just establishing the basic processes by which the journal will operate.

“We’re still in the throes of developing a pool of peer reviewers and processes. It’s not difficult to conceptualize, but it’s a lot of work,” he said.

For Kelly Huck, the challenge was more a lack of familiarity with academia and the nature of peer-reviewed publications. Her publication has been transformed from a simple newsletter into a refereed journal in just a few months, spurred in part by a recent change in the council’s name from the Special Education Council to the Council for Inclusive Education.

Initially, she relied on the assistance of ATA executive staff officer Joni Turville to help brainstorm ideas. She has since taken on a university-based co-editor, professor Nancy Grigg, who has helped shape the submission process and determine such aspects as the number of articles needed per issue.

“I believe it’s better to have someone to share the [editorial] position who is also a professor, who lives in the academic world all the time and can be a great resource in getting the word out to universities to have articles submitted,” Huck said.

Connecting with other organizations and publications outside of Alberta that want to be associated with a higher-profile, research-oriented journal is also key to getting good submissions.

“Having the opportunity to network outside the province is essential,” Harding said.

Peer-reviewed journals can also be a great outlet for graduate students, whose contributions are vital, Sheehan said.

“It’s a win-win situation because the journal gets content and the students get published and start to acquire a record of publication that will help them later in their academic careers,” he said. “They also get a chance to have their research read by a broader audience.”

It gives [council] members who are doing graduate work “a place to publish articles of high quality and to read about subject-specific research,” Harding adds.

Although the peer review process, which involves much back and forth between editors, contributors and reviewers, can be daunting for volunteer editors, everyone seems to agree that improving the quality of the journals is worth the extra effort. ❚

 What are specialist councils?
The ATA’s 21 specialist councils offer teachers an avenue for professional development through collaboration and collegial support. Councils focus on specific curriculum and specialty areas and promote best practices in leadership and teaching through conferences, seminars, websites and publications. All councils are run by volunteer teachers.

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