Bridging the Gap: Emerging Scholars Carve a Space for Transdisciplinary Work

Erin Barton
Release Date: 

MJS Vol 5 Cover
It is a strange reality of human life that what people believe and how they behave do not necessarily align. This contradiction is what volume 5, issue 1, of the Michigan Sustainability Journal (MJS) revolves around. It explores the intersection of human behavior and sustainability, posing questions like: ‘Are there differences between those who are willing to behave sustainably and those who are not?’

Challenging questions like these are typical of MJS, an open-access journal run by doctoral students participating in the University of Michigan’s Dow Sustainability Fellows program. Written for a broad audience, MJS features a variety of transdisciplinary work focused on issues of sustainability (e.g., ecosystems, livable communities, climate variability and change).

“[MJS] is an interdisciplinary journal that bridges research and practice around sustainability issues,” says Erin Hamilton, outgoing co-editor-in-chief. “[We] take research and make sure it’s applicable for solving problems in sustainability.”

To date, there have been five editorial boards, each of which has published one to two issues during their term. The next board will officially start in the Fall 2017 semester, with some editors continuing from last year and others new to the program.

Working on the MJS editorial board was incredibly beneficial for seeing the ‘other side’ of the publishing process. As an author, the publication process seems mysterious, and I've often wondered why editorial decisions happened the way they did. Having had the opportunity to sit in the editor's chair at MJS gave me a window into the process, which I suspect will be tremendously beneficial for my career.

— Neil Lewis, Jr., 2016-17 MJS co-editor in chief, assistant professor of Communication and Social Behavior at Cornell University

Word Shepherds 

Hamilton, a PhD student dually enrolled in the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Neil Lewis, Jr., now an assistant professor of Communication and Social Behavior at Cornell University, served as co-editors-in-chief for the 2016-17 publishing year, overseeing the development of vol. 5.1. During the second semester of their tenure as editors-in-chief, Lewis and Hamilton were shadowed by the junior co-editor-in-chiefs Katerina Stylianou, of the School of Public Health, and Jessica Worl, of SEAS. 

Editors hail from all disciplines, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the journal and the research it showcases. The number of disciplines represented on the editorial board is advantageous when it comes to working with authors from across the university; editors can draw on their unique experiences, expertise, and professional contacts as they shepherd papers through the peer review and publishing process. 

Editors’ duties include setting a theme for an issue, and developing a call for abstracts, selecting content consistent with the mission of MJS and finding expert reviewers to provide authors with feedback. Editors are assigned to be in charge of a single submitted piece of content, working closely with the author to guide their work through the publishing process. We call them “shepherds,” says Hamilton. 

Two editors-in-chief are selected from the Dow Doctoral Fellows on a volunteer basis and their editorial team comprises the remaining Fellows. Editors-in-chief set the publication schedule, run the editorial meetings, oversee the peer review and editing process and interface with publishing professionals from the Graham Institute and Michigan Publishing to copy edit, layout and publish each issue online and to promote readership and author engagement. 

From Abstracts to Issues–How Publication Happens

There are two sides of publishing at MJS: gathering and editing the content, and publishing and promoting the content. The first hurdle is establishing a theme for the issue. The next issue, Vol. 6.1, will focus on public health and sustainability. Authors respond to a call for abstracts, which will be released this coming fall and will submit content for review under one of the five content categories (see: Types of Content). For instance, authors can submit photo essays if their projects might benefit from a visual platform, like landscape architecture. There’s also a section focusing on sustainability in the classroom. “[When choosing content], we focus on the accessibility of the language, practicality of solutions, and different types of articles,” says Hamilton.

After selecting content for publication, the next step is peer-review. Authors invited to submit their work also submit recommended reviewers, and the author’s MJS editorial shepherd finds expert reviewers to evaluate the content and provide feedback. “Chasing down reviewers” is one of the hardest parts of being an editor, Stylianou says. Editors also support authors through iterative rounds of comment-and-revision (see: Step-by-Step MJS Publication Process). In addition to ensuring quality work, the process prepares the editorial team to understand how to navigate the world of peer-review in their future careers. “Editing gives me skills I will definitely use in the future,” says Stylianou.

The position is also a great way to learn about a new research. “It helps you stay current,” says Hamilton. Stylianou agrees, saying working as an editor gives you, “first eyes on the research. Because it’s interdisciplinary, you can learn a lot from each content submission.” Being able to learn from the comments of accomplished researchers is another perk. “You start to anticipate what feedback might be,” says Hamilton, “[and] this helps strengthen your own work.” Both Hamilton and Stylianou are interested in continuing to work as journal editors in the future.

Promoting readership is another skill the journal imparts its editors. Hamilton says, during her overlapping tenure with the new co-editors-in-chief, they were trying to learn about and focus more on social media and publicity. Authors, reviewers, M-Publishing and the U-M Library, U-M faculty advocates of MJS, the Graham Institute, and others all contribute promoting awareness of the journal.

Publishing Partnership

An essential part of getting MJS to press is its partnership with Michigan Publishing. A part of the U-M Library, Michigan Publishing publishes scholarly and educational materials. An advocate of open source information, which is a key aspect of MJS that allows scholars, practitioners, and laypersons access to research, Michigan Publishing provides support to conduct the peer review and publish online. U-M Libraries plays a role in promoting the journal and supporting science writing.

Join the Conversation        

“What I find particularly valuable about the journal is the space it provides for both researchers and practitioners to speak about common issues,” says Lewis. “I think there needs to be more connections between research and practice, and MJS provides a vehicle to make those connections.” Hamilton also sees MJS as a way to facilitate connections. The journal can bring people together to talk about sustainability, she says, and “create dialogue” between researchers and others. If you’re not an editor, submitting content is a great way to participate in this dialogue. It doesn’t have to be a “master’s thesis or dissertation,” says Hamilton; perfection isn’t necessary to start or add to valuable discussion. “We publish different types of articles at different scales...[MJS] is a great resource for getting your research out there.


Types of Content

  • Articles (5,000 words or less)
  • Lab and Field Notes (1,000 words or less)
  • Photo essays, maps, videos, or drawings that explore a sustainability theme (1000 words or less)
  • Teaching and Learning (1,000 words or less)
  • Reviews: Reviews of books, articles, tools, resources, or other compilations from leaders in the field (1,000 words or less)

Step-by-Step MJS Publication Process

  • The Editorial Board sets theme and sends out a “Call for Abstracts” distributed to a list of practitioners, scientists/former authors and others interested in MJS
  • Abstracts/proposals submitted online
  • Abstracts/proposals reviewed by editorial board for academic and practical merit
  • Accepted authors invited to submit full pieces & suggested reviewers
  • “Shepherd” (MJS editor) assigned to each submitted piece
  • Reviewers found with similar background/expertise/research as suggested reviewers
  • Publications reviewed and accepted, accepted with revisions, or rejected by authors or MSJ editors
  • Publications accepted with revisions returned to authors to be revised
  • Revised content sent to copy editors, then returned to authors for final check
  • Editors write introduction to issue and determine the content order
  • All final content sent to Michigan Publishing for layout
  • Editors review final layout
  • New journal issue is announced and promoted among the editors, authors and reviewers, M-Publishing, U-M Planet Blue, the Graham Institute and others