Guest-Editing a Journal Special Issue – What, Why and How? (Or “ Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway!”)


By Gillian Loomes, Guest Editor, Volume Three

Read Volume Three – “The Mental Capacity Act: What does it mean for Social Policy?” – Online Now

Early in 2016, the York Policy Review issued its first call for proposals for a special issue of the journal. I saw it, and began thinking about the possibilities in relation to my own research interests, which centre on the socio-legal study of mental capacity, and the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

Now that the resulting Special Issue on Mental Capacity is complete, I’ve decided to reflect on the process – and to offer some thoughts based on my experiences, particularly for anyone else who is considering a similar project.

So, I’m going to try to answer three questions:

  • Why did I want to take on the project? (And why might you want to?)
  • What did we do?
  • What does a project like this teach/demonstrate?

Why did I want to take on the project? (And why might you want to do something similar?)

You might possibly be wondering why I was so keen to take on extra work that would potentially divert time and attention away from my PhD. Didn’t I have enough to do?

Well, yes, on one level it would be quite easy to characterize this project as “extra work” – but here are a few of the reasons why I wanted to do the project, and why I think things like this are important:

  • The first (and for me, the most important) reason for doing a project like this is that it gives the opportunity to connect with others (both inside academia but also, crucially, professionals, practitioners and other stakeholders) who are also involved in, and working with a subject of significant real-life impact – in my case, the Mental Capacity Act. I came to my PhD from a professional background in advocacy that was informed, shaped and challenged on a daily basis by the Mental Capacity Act 2005, and a project like this presented the ideal opportunity to make the links between academic research and practice that can work to make a real difference in the world. I can’t imagine a situation though, where doing such a project, and engaging with others who share a passion for your research topic – both inside and outside of formal academic settings – wouldn’t enhance your research experience and give you insights into your topic that you might not otherwise have come across – this has all certainly been the case for me!
  • The second important aspect of doing a project like this (that is related to one’s own research interests) is that it gives a structured space to think through the rationale behind the research topic, and to communicate this to others. In drafting the project proposal, and the call for papers, and in discussing the project with potential contributors, I had to keep a focus on, and be able to articulate clearly the “big” questions – about why the topic of mental capacity matters, about why people should care about it, summarizing what it involves, in a way that I think it can be quite easy to lose among the narrow-focused, detailed thinking that can be inevitable, and to an extent necessary, as a PhD progresses. In this sense, I think the project helped to keep me “grounded”, which I consider to be a good thing.
  • And of course, there are the career-related reasons – doing something like this looks good on your C.V., is good experience of “impact” etc …

What did we do?

It is of course the case that any project will take on its own life, follow its own path and grow organically in response to emerging demands. But, I think it might be helpful for me to outline the broad stages of the process of producing the Special Issue as these might provide a starting point, or a springboard for other project ideas. So, to start with:

  1. The Project Proposal

From my perspective, the first stage in the process of putting together the Special Issue was drafting my proposal. For me, this was a really useful part of the project as it enabled me to consider and reflect on the rationale for the journal, including questions like –

  • Why does the subject matter?
  • Who might want to contribute to such a Special Issue ?
  • Which academic disciplines, practitioners and other stakeholders could we/should we engage with?
  • Who might want to read a Special Issue on this subject?

And, as I’ve suggested, this was a valuable process for my own research too!

  1. The Call for Papers

The next stage was to draft and publicize the Call for Papers. This drew on the standard format of the York Policy Review, inviting three different types of contribution:

  • Articles reporting empirical research
  • Methods in Practice
  • (Undergraduate) policy analysis articles

I personally loved being able to invite this broad range of submissions – I was eager to read about what types of empirical research others who care about the subject of mental capacity are working on, I was delighted to be able to encourage people to write about their experience of actually researching using the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (I think this can seem quite daunting, and hearing what others have done can be really encouraging!). And the prospect of encouraging undergraduates to analyze some of the many fascinating challenging issues associated with this hugely significant piece of legislation, and to write for publication, was something I was incredibly excited about!

One thing that was even more powerful than I’d imagined it might be was using social media to share the Call for Papers. In sharing it on Twitter, the project was able to engage with not only academics and students across disciplines, and at a wide range of institutions, but also the Call for Papers caught the attention of practitioners who work with the Mental Capacity Act in their everyday lives. This meant that the submissions we received reflected a much, much wider range of interests, concerns and experiences than would have been the case without the use of social media to amplify the project information. Twitter is your friend!

  1. Working with Contributors

As you might imagine, probably the most personally risky (terrifying?!) part of the project was the time, after the Call for Papers had been shared (and shared, and tweeted, and re-shared and re-tweeted), waiting for the first submissions. Of course it’s easy to worry that no one will submit anything – that you’ve personally “gone out on a limb” and taken others with you, on a project in which no one else has any interest.

Happily, this was not the case!

One of the particularly significant things about the York Policy Review is that it is a peer-reviewed journal that is run “by students, for students”. It aims to provide an opportunity for students (and, especially in the case of this Special Issue, practitioners and other stakeholders) who may otherwise struggle to gain experience of publication. This means that while the process of selection and peer-review was rigorous, I took quite a “hands-on” approach to editing. This included things like: –

  • Contacting students directly to suggest that they might like to consider submitting a contribution (this felt especially important in order to encourage those who might otherwise lack the confidence to consider submitting, but it was important to be clear about the processes of selection/peer-review while offering this encouragement.)
  • Meeting with contributors to discuss initial ideas/plans/thoughts – this was also a great opportunity to talk to others about mental capacity – the topic of my own research! (Another win-win situation!)
  • I was also able to offer support through the peer-reviewing process, in giving encouragement and sometimes in helping with the interpreting of reviewers’ comments. While these were constructive and generally really helpful, receiving and engaging with feedback in peer-review is one of the aspects of writing for publication that many people describe as particularly stressful, so it felt positive, in my role as editor, to be able to be supportive and encouraging through this process.

Working with the contributing authors on this Special Issue has been a particularly enjoyable aspect of the project, and it has been a privilege to see the work develop for publication. Apart from anything else, I am indebted to them for enabling me to avoid the nightmare scenario of being a guest-editor with nothing to publish! For that, I am truly grateful!

What does a project like this demonstrate/teach?

There are lots of things that have come out of guest-editing the Special Issue:

  • Social media (Twitter) is your friend!
  • Things always take longer than you think!
  • There may well be “hiccups” and things that are beyond your control – it’s how you respond that matters!
  • Working with an editorial committee that cares about inclusive, high-quality publishing is huge fun!

Mostly though, it’s given me the confidence to have an idea and to go for it!

It can be daunting to see something like a Call for Papers or for Proposals and to respond. Not everything you try will “come off” (other things I’ve tried before and since certainly haven’t!), and then there’s the huge worry that no one will be interested if you do go ahead. But if you don’t try you’ll never get anywhere, and the “buzz” of making something like this happen is really tremendous, and definitely worth going for!

So, go for it and make stuff happen!

Read Volume Three – “The Mental Capacity Act: What does it mean for Social Policy?” – Online Now