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A new approach to conference reviewing

February 11th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

Preparations for the 4th International PLE Conference 2013 being held in Berlin, Germany together with a parallel event in Melbourne, Australia are well underway. the conference will take place on July 11 and 12 and the deadline for the call for submission of abstracts is March 4.

The PLE Conference intends to create a space for researchers and practitioners to exchange ideas, experiences and research around the development and implementation of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) – including the design of environments and the sociological and educational issues that they raise.

More than that the PLe conference has always prided itself on innovatory approaches to design in terms of involving participants. This year will see the continuation of the unkeynotes, which Cristina Costa and myself discuss in the video above.

And this year sees another experiment in moving away from the traditional reviewing process to an approach based on ‘shepherding’ or mentoring.

The PLEconf web site explains the process.

1. The overall review process

The PLE 2013 review process is organised into three steps:

  • Step 1 (review before the conference): Submitted abstracts for full and short papers are peer-reviewed (double-blind peer-review) by screening their overall fit with the conference scope as well as the degree of innovation, technical quality, significance and clarity of contributions. As a guide, the extended abstract for a full paper should include the background of the study, the approach and methods employed in the work, the results and the conclusion, which should reflect on the successes and limitations of the work and future development.
  • Step 3 (shepherding) To enhance the participatory character of the PLE Conference the review process is based on the shepherding concept. This means that the authors of accepted abstracts are invited to submit full versions of their papers for the conference and are offered support by shepherds (mentors) in the process of writing final full versions. Upon author’s consent, depending on the overall paper maturity, a mentor may be assigned to a paper to guide the process of preparing the manuscript. Shepherds are experienced authors who, non-anonymously, help the submitters by making suggestions for improvement. The submitters incorporate these improvements into their work over a few iterations, usually three, though this may vary from case to case. The aim of shepherding is to enhance the quality of the submissions and help authors qualify for publication in the International Journal of Literacy and Technology (JLT).
  • Step 2 (review after the conference): After the conference, the final manuscripts of short and full papers are submitted and peer-reviewed (double-blind peer-review) again to assess their quality for publication in a special issue of the scientific journal. All submissions will be published in electronic conference proceedings under a Creative Commons Licence. However, only best-quality papers will be considered for the Special Issue of the International Journal of Literacy and Technology (JLT).

2. The shepherding concept


Where does shepherding come from? What is it about?
Shepherding for scientific reviewing started at Conferences on Pattern Languages of Programs (PLoP’s), a process aimed to help authors to improve their work using a non-anonymous reviewer (shepherd), guiding the author (sheep) on their way (report). The shepherds focus on the organization of the content and the format of articles. Shepherds therefore must be experts in their field and willing to help to improve the work of others. The focus of shepherding feedback is the text itself, there is no discussion of the projects or theories. The goal is to improve the papers for the second review after the shepherding process.

What is the value of shepherding?
Shepherding is now being used by several conference committees to help leverage the potential value of authors’ work by improving them considerably and thus better serving the community. This approach helps to develop more well-rounded articles. It is also an excellent opportunity for newer authors to improve their articles and to get in contact with the community.

What are the principles of shepherding?
Shepherds are experts in their field. The work is of the author. Shepherds advise authors during the process of writing. The person ultimately responsible for the article is the author (sheep). The underlying culture is a gift culture, so it is crucial that shepherds are willing to help authors to improve. The cycles of interaction between authors and shepherds based on Kelly (2008) are:

  • Author sends the first version of the manuscript to the shepherd and introduces the manuscript briefly in his/her own words;
  • Shepherds reply to authors, i.e. ask questions (e.g. What is the motivation for the paper? What do you want to achieve? Where can I help?) and provide initial feedback. Constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement are crucial for shepherding!
  • Authors improve the manuscript by answering the questions and incorporating the shepherd’s feedback.
  • Authors send improved manuscripts to shepherds and another cycle starts with the introduction of the new version (iterative cycle).

Testimonials from shepherds

“As a shepherd, I get great satisfaction helping authors communicate their ideas. A shepherd is not an editor. Shepherds don’t edit. Instead, through conversations, questions , and dialog a shepherd helps authors find their own voice and write compelling papers. I find shepherding to be a wonderful experience. That’s why I do it: to learn, to help grow communities, and to help people share their good ideas more clearly. It’s so rewarding!” Rebecca Wirfs-Brock (PLoP community)

“In my experience, when it is done well, shepherding results in an increased focus and clarity to the work. A good shepherd can help the sheep really bring out the important message of the work and make it much clearer to the reader. On occasion, the sheep gains additional insights into his own work. Note however, that I have seen some superficial shepherding, which resulted in only cosmetic improvements to the work. So it isn’t an automatic great improvement. It takes discipline to do a good job.” Neil Harrison (PLoP)

“Shepherds are individuals, with experience in writing, assigned to an author’s paper with the expressed interest in helping the author improve their paper or writing of any kind. The shepherding process is essentially a review process where the author gets to get feedback on how well the paper communicates the author’s ideas. The shepherd is able to then make suggestions on making the paper better or to assist with ways on helping the author clarify their ideas. Shepherding is about improving the paper itself, while the Shepherd maintains that the author is the one doing the writing. The shepherd can guide an author into a more mature understanding of his or her paper. The best shepherds are those that usually have a good understanding of the subject matter they are reviewing. The main goal of a shepherd is to help the author(s) to make the paper the best that it can be given the amount of “shepherding” time they have for the given venue the paper is to be presented at.” Joseph W. Yoder (PLoP community)

3. Shepherding at PLE 2013

Shepherding is an instrument to improve the quality of submissions, help authors connect with the scientific community and strengthen connections within the PLE community. Shepherds are mentors drawn from the Review Committee. Beside the intrinsic value and the insight into interesting papers, mentors will receive special recognition – shepherds will be featured on the special page and receive special badges rewarding their work. Also authors will vote for the best shepherd. The winners will be awarded at the PLE Conference 2013.


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