Destination: the Wasteland of Academic Overproduction (Part 1)

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We, international lawyers, publish too much, way too much. We know it too well and yet continue to produce scholarship by the truckload. We carry on with writing even if it comes at the expense of the breadth of our reading or the quality of our teaching. We persist to write, quite sadly I must say, even if it ruins our days, our nights, our family, our health as well as the environment. We even feel depressed and complain to our dean when the many other duties of 21st century academic life obstruct our writing. What is even more remarkable is that we remain committed to the frenetic production of scholarship although we are well aware that most of our works end up dying unnoticed in the wasteland of academic overproduction.

Anyone in the field is familiar with this dismal state of affairs. It would be of no avail to dwell upon the foregoing and lament one more time academic overproduction and its externalities – of which I am complicit like so many of us. Instead, in this essay, I would like to think it is possible to make the wasteland of academic overproduction in international law a bit less of a scandal. More specifically, I would like to believe that, in the wasteland of academic overproduction, there are more than just truckloads of academic works that should never have been produced. I would also like to suggest concrete ways to make our works more innovative and imaginative with a view to reducing the amount of academic waste produced by international lawyers. 

In the first part of this essay (Part 1), I will show how the format of our research output determines the space available for innovative and imaginative thinking. On this occasion, I will make the – possibly polemical – argument that edited collections are more likely to nest innovative and imaginative pieces of work than refereed journals. In the second part of this essay (Part 2), I will suggest some concrete actions to maximize innovative and imaginative scholarship, thereby possibly reducing the amount our works that end up in the wasteland of academic overproduction.

Feeling disinhibited

My hopeful belief that we can limit academic waste originates in a very modest phenomenological finding. I have come think that my scholarship is most creative and imaginative when it comes in the form of a book chapter. To give but a few examples, it is in book chapters that I have experienced the space to argue that general principles of law ought not to be thought as a source of international law, that the law of statehood originates in a post-1960 invention to control entry in the post-colonial society, that the law of responsibility of international organizations has maximized the power of international organizations to an extent never witnessed before, that the principle of legality in international criminal law has unleashed a remarkable expansionism in the field, that the common image of the ‘parties to the treaty’ provides a magic descendance to treaties in a way that shields those invoking them from any responsibility for anything done in the name of treaties, that methodology is the art of camouflaging the tragedy and cynicism of international lawyers’ routine, that critique of law can be very usefully nourished by the critic’s earlier belief in law’s necessities, etc. I sincerely trust that I would never have been able to articulate such claims in the form of a refereed journal articles. In other words, it is on the occasion of writing book chapters for edited collections that I have felt most disinhibited. In contrast, I feel that my articles in refereed journals have proved more predictable and conventional.  

Before pondering this phenomenological finding further, two important clarifications are in order. First, I do not mean here that any of my abovementioned claims would have been censored had they been submitted to a peer-review process. Despite all its problems, peer-review continues to deliver decently well on its promises and helps us make our articles better (it is free feedback after all!). My point here is more fundamental. Had the abovementioned claims been destined to a refereed journal article, I would not have come to these ideas in the first place! The very argument I wish to develop here is that it is the very destination of a piece of scholarship for a refereed journal that carries censorship and not the review process per se. Second, I usually do not start writing pieces destined for edited collections with inspiration, passion, trepidation and a ready-made imaginative or inventive argument in mind. Often I find myself dragging my feet for weeks, wondering what I could write that has not been written, deploring my acceptation of yet another invitation to contribute a piece that would most likely die unnoticed in the wasteland of academic overproduction. And yet, when actually writing such ill-fated pieces, I usually feel disinhibited and liberated from all the invisible constraints that come with the destination of a piece to a refereed journal article.

I appreciate that the foregoing is a very counter-intuitive thing to say in a field like international law where publications in refereed journals are revered and weight way more than book chapters in terms of career-advancement, prestige, and fame. In this regard, it is a truism that chapters in edited collections are often derided as second order publications. I must acknowledge that I am sympathetic to the common charges made against edited collections – which is why I always ensure that the collections I edit do not outnumber the research monographs I write. Although some edited collections are gems – I think for instance of the stunning recent collections on Bandung, the Feminist judgments, or the Cold War – most edited collections, let’s be honest, are pretty unspectacular. I am even surprised that publishers continue to publish so many of them. And yet, although I am convinced that edited collections actually suffer from most of the ailments commonly attributed to them, I have come to think that the chapters hosted in these volumes offer more space for innovative and imaginative scholarship. This is why I suspect that tons of innovative and imaginative pieces of scholarship are lying out there, buried in all those edited collections that were dumped in the wasteland of academic overproduction.

The virtual peer-reviewer

I would refrain from universalizing the personal finding that I have just recounted. Yet, when looking at the publications list of many of my colleagues and friends in the field, I gather that some of their best works are nested, not in refereed journals, but in edited collections. I therefore take the liberty to venture an explanation for what seems to be more than a marginal phenomenon. In particular, I want to phrase (and frame) the debate in the following terms: How does the anticipated or contemplated destination of a piece of work repress the thought-forming process going therein and, why is it that destining a piece for an edited collection possibly disinhibit the author?

To describe my understanding of the disinhibition that comes with the destination of a piece of work for an edited book, I need to shed light on how I construe the censorship that comes with a piece being destined to a refereed journal. To verbalize my understanding of the censorship associated with the destination of a piece to a refereed journal, I would like to use the metaphor of the virtual peer-reviewer. The virtual peer-reviewer is the voice that speaks to us or resonates when we write a piece destined for a referred journal. This is the figure we let hover around our cerebral activities and thought-forming efforts when writing an article which is likely to undergo peer-review. We write with the virtual peer-reviewer in mind. It is important to emphasize that the virtual peer-reviewer is a projection by the author herself or himself, either based on past experience or on what she or he imagines the disciplining by academic journals to be. The virtual peer-reviewer is thus a creation of the author and the censorship I am speaking about here is self-imposed. In that sense, it is the anticipation of peer-review that censors, not the peer review process itself. This also means that the censorship at stake here is a censorship that constrains our writing and thought-forming prior to submission. In my view, the censorship of the virtual peer-reviewer is much more repressive than that conducted by the actual peer-reviewers to whom our pieces are sent by refereed journals. I have actually come to think that the virtual peer-reviewer haunting our writing of pieces destined for refereed journals is a very powerful innovation- and imagination-annihilating machine.

Let me elaborate on my understanding of the modes of repression by this virtual peer-reviewer. In my view, the virtual peer-review speaks to the author through a wide number of recurring questions: Isn’t your claim just an intuition? Isn’t all what you are claiming just deductive and the extrapolation of a contestable presupposition? Is there something like a claim in your piece? Isn’t your paper too discursive and short of a proper claim? Hasn’t your claim been made before? Do you really add anything meaningful and novel to existing legal debates and practice? Do you cite all the authorities on the matter? Is the central concept of your claim sufficiently theorized? Do you miss some important practice? Shouldn’t you go and read all the dissenting and separate opinions? Isn’t it a problem you refer only to the practice of the International Court of Justice? Aren’t you too exclusive in the scholarship and practice you draw on? Isn’t the style too unconventional or colloquial? Do you sufficiently cite existing scholarship or practice? Do you have sufficient footnotes in your piece? Isn’t your claim the reflection of a broader phenomenon that has been extensively studied in other areas of law or in other disciplines? Aren’t you going to upset your colleagues? Shouldn’t you be less critical of existing authors? What if judges or legal advisers read your piece? What if the colleagues you cite are elected as peer-reviewers of your piece? What if you are rejected? Could you take a rejection? What will you tell your dean (and your mom at Christmas) if you are rejected? 

These are just a few of the questions which the virtual peer-reviewer repeats to the author as the latter writes a piece destined for a refereed journal. Interestingly, the author justifies the power she or he confers on the virtual peer-review by assuming that the questions raised by the virtual peer-reviewer usefully pertains to concerns the actual peer-reviewers may subsequently raise. The repression by the virtual peer-reviewer is thus legitimized by what the author anticipates the focus and contents of the subsequent peer-review process will be. By virtue of such anticipation, the author lets the virtual peer-reviewer operate as a huge thought-repressive apparatus, dramatically reducing the author’s space for innovative and imaginative thinking, and dragging the author into a predictable routine.

I do not mean to belittle the care with which editors of edited collection review those works submitted to them. Nor do I deny that a virtual peer-reviewer is also hovering over our thought-forming efforts when writing a book chapter. Yet, I believe that the virtual peer-review I have just described does not deploy itself with the same ferocity when we write a piece destined for an edited collection. The virtual peer-reviewer that speaks to us when we write a book chapter is much more benign. In my view, the benignity of the virtual peer-review in the process of writing a book chapter has to do with the personification of the review process. In the case of an edited collection, the author does not face the dark hole of the anonymized peer-review process but enters into a personified relationship with the editor(s). This is a relationship where all stakeholders are responsible for what they say, what they write, and what they decide. I contend that it is the anticipation of one’s interacting with a personified peer that facilitates imagination and innovation. What is more, the review process for an edited book is most often articulated around a collegial exchange where ideas are received, discussed, amended, finetuned, and possibly rejected. Such collegial exchange is commonly not possible within the rigid framework of the mechanical decision-making process of a refereed journal where types of exchanges are pre-defined and extremely limited (yes, no, revise & resubmit). After all, a straitjacket has never been conducive to imagination and innovation. This is why I strongly believe that the personification and collegiality of the review process for edited collections, even when carried out with the greatest severity, disinhibit potential authors and allow them to liberate their imagination and innovation. Incidentally, and however paradoxical that this may sound, being turned down for inclusion in an edited collection following a personal interaction with the editors feels much less humiliating than receiving a negative decision from a refereed journal through either an automatically generated email or a template-based message from an editor of the journal. For that reason, I believe one is much more daring and risk-taking when embarking on the writing of a piece destined to be a book chapter.

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Lorand Bartels says

February 3, 2020

I have to say my experience (personal and otherwise) is pretty much the opposite, in particular because I’m not sure peer review is quite the overly heavy hand you describe - and, to the extent it is heavy, to the good! But to add something constructive, might I suggest that the wasteland could be reduced by simply making points more efficiently? Creativity is one thing; editing another. Or, as Hemingway said, more memorably, write drunk, edit sober ...

Monica Garcia-Salmones says

February 3, 2020

Thank you! I agree with the idea of the edited volumes being potentially great sources of scientific innovation as well, and that they should be evaluated individually as to their quality, and not dismiss generally. The question of psychology is complex, since each individual is a world of her own. But I appreciate the insights of this piece. For the sake of complementarity, I may add also the other side: in the edited volume one has made a commitment to a colleague or a group of colleagues and the inner voice in this case, not of the 'virtual peer reviewer', but of 'the inner self-respect' forces one to write something decent, and in a sort of Mamba mentality, may push one to write something great. While after all, the journal starts and dies by one's initiative and there is no audience out there, if that makes sense.

Parisa Z. says

February 3, 2020

Thank you for publishing this. It is important for an early-career reseacher to read this. From my (very) limited experience, I would also argue that the (self?) censorship process (and pressure to begin publishing) begins much earlier than once a researcher has the security of a tenured or tenure-track position. It becomes evident during the early stages of a PhD, if not earlier, depending on the circumstances.

The consequences of censorship in academia and in practice can be felt in several areas, including but not limited to hiring. This is evident in terms of the numbers game: having an acceptable number of articles published in the right publications.

Early stage researchers may not be aware that this seems to be an inherently political process. It is political not just in terms of deciding what issues (or content) on which to focus. It is political in terms of decisions about which issues are worthy of including in academic debates, the angles that are taken, and who gets to have a seat at the table - in other words, who gets to influence which pieces get published, who gets to have their pieces published, and in which journals. In later years, this can impact who gets hired.

The censorship issue is also connected to other systemic problems in academia. It impacts not just the quality of academic debates, on the content, etc, and whether academia is dealing with the real issues that are present in society - in other words, whether it is fit for purpose. Censorship also impacts the well-being, health, and hirability (for lack of a better word) of researchers and academics.

Realizing this can be a little bit disconcerting for an early-stage researcher, as one would like to think that if you work hard and produce (another strange expectation of an academic, which may be an indicator that academic culture has become too influenced by values of commercialization and consumption) you will be able to find a tenure-track job. This is not always the case, and this can lead to severe consequences down the line, such the ability to make it through another political process, the process of being hired in a stable and secure tenure-track position. The possibility of falling through the cracks is a reality of which many young academics have to be cognizant. This may not have been as real a possibility as it was a generation or two ago, when more PhD graduates found tenure-track jobs. This is nothing to be proud of or to write home about.

This raises many questions, such as:

How will the current academic terrain impact the formation and development of early-stage researchers? What practices of self-censorship will they adopt early on, for fear of the political consequences down the line? What is the larger impact that this may have on academia and society?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but they are important to ponder. I also think that they need to be linked to a broader discussion touching on the issues mentioned. They also need to be linked to the reality that universities are employers, and that PhD students and academics as people who have legal and moral rights.

Further, I think these issues are interconnected with other larger issues such as the power structures in universities, which may use insecure and flexible working contracts as a means of undermining staff security and ability to publish. Such contracts may even potentially be used as a mechanism of enforcing censorships, as well as inflated "executive" salaries, inflated university management salaries, etc. (When did academics start becoming "managers" and "executives"? When did the insidious rhetoric of "management" start infiltrating universities?)

Thank you again, and for bearing with a very long response!

Parisa Z. says

February 3, 2020


The possibility of falling through the cracks is a reality of which many young academics have to be cognizant. [There may be a lower possibility of obtaining a tenure-track position in comparison with the possibility of doing so a generation ago], when more PhD graduates found tenure-track jobs. This is nothing to be proud of or to write home about.

Helmut Aust says

February 3, 2020

Great piece, Jean!

I tend to agree with your claim. An observation "from the other side" of reviewer and editor may further support your claim: when comparing the quality of a set of articles in a given field where you both act as referee for a journal and edit a book, it is striking how much more imaginative the book contributions are, at least on average. This may also be owed to the preselection of authors - after all you wanted those colleagues to contribute to your book for a specific reason.

Of course this also points to a drawback: edited volumes favour inclusion of already established authors vis-à-vis upcoming new scholars. One remedy in this regard is to design a workshop and/or a volume based on both invitations and a call for papers.

Looking forward to part two of your remarks.

Patrick S. O'Donnell says

February 3, 2020

I would argue "international lawyers" in the opening sentence can be replaced with "social scientists" and is no less true, thus much of what motivates your critique can be extended well outside international law scholarship. The reasons for this have to do with several factors, perhaps first and foremost those having to with academic training and socialization (I'm most acquainted with the situation in North America although I doubt the situation in other countries is significantly different, if only because of the nature of modern academy), beginning with the PhD, which compels one to carve out a small domain of research that to date has been missed, ignored, unimagined, what have you (and related to the work of one's supervisors). (Everything said from this point forward is subject to qualifications and exceptions, but that is the price to be paid for generalizations.) To be sure, one has to reference the requisite literature with some direct or at least family resemblance to one's subject area but I suspect this encourages, over time, less than creative or important work, however much it helps one acquire a grasp of the breadth and depth of one's chosen field and some sense of academic authority and security. Often the proverbial big picture gets lost in the details and few academics become courageous enough, especially before acquiring tenure, to risk being imaginative, as it were, to making truly novel or bold hypotheses or arguments. Every now and then a PhD will appear worthy of being published that proves an exception to the rule (a nice example of this is, if I recall correctly, is Ian Shapiro's The Revolution of Rights in Liberal Theory, published in 1986). Academics looking for tenure are required to publish, thus one's intellectual and academic bona fides are in large measure (that word is important here) assessed by the number of publications, a conspicuous fact alone that helps account for "overproduction." And perhaps needless to say, more than a few academics are better off teaching than being obligated to write when not, so to speak, inspired to do so.

Another relevant factor here is the nature of intellectual production or cognitive knowledge in the contemporary world. What follows are a few paragraphs from Nicholas Rescher’s book, Nature and Understanding: The Metaphysics and Method of Science (Oxford University Press, 2000). It’s material I’ve quoted on occasion before over the years in online fora and comment threads but your post accords a fresh reason for citing it yet again::

“The ongoing refinement in the division of cognitive labour that an information explosion necessitates issues in a literal disintegration of knowledge. The progress of knowledge is marked by an ever-continuing proliferation of ever more restructured specialties marked by the unavoidable circumstance that any given specialty cell cannot know exactly what is going on even next door—let alone at a significant remove. Understanding matters outside one’s immediate bailiwick is bound to become superficial. At one base one knows the details, nearby one has an understanding of generalities, but at a greater remove one can be no more than an informed amateur. [….]

The emergence of new disciplines, branches and specialties is manifest everywhere [think, for example, of the various neurosciences; of the emergence of ‘law and economics,’ ‘behavioural economics,’ ‘cultural economics,’ ‘institutional economics;’ specialized cognitive sciences; AI paired with this, that, and the other thing; ecological and environmental sciences; specialized fields in ethics: metaethics, applied ethics, bioethics, neuroethics, computer or machine ethics, animal ethics …, and so forth and so on].”

Arguably, international law scholarship, like legal scholarship generally, is highly dependent or parasitic upon much of the work in the social sciences (less so perhaps, with the humanities, but in that case philosophy looms large) and this further helps account for overproduction by way of fragmentation and specialization. Yet even those who understandably want to counteract or overcome this phenomenon often, unwittingly, contribute to it themselves:

“And as though to negate this tendency and maintain unity, one finds an ongoing evolution of interdisciplinary syntheses: physical chemistry, astrophysics, biochemistry, [sociobiology], etc. The very attempt to counteract fragmentation produces new fragments. [….] An ever larger number of ever more refined specialties has made it more and more difficulty for experts in a given branch of science to achieve a thorough understanding about what is going on even in the specialty next door. [….]

Yet complexity is not an unqualified negative. It is an unavoidable concomitant of progress. We could not extend our cognitive or our practical grasp of the world without coming to terms with its complexification. Throughout the realm of human artifice—cognitive artifice included—further complexity is part and parcel of extending the frontiers of progress.”

The sheer fact of complexity encourages timidity and specialization if only because one is no less compelled to produce by the academic system to assure one's survival, let alone success and precious little time can be devoted to mastering all the relevant literature that remains a necessary but not sufficient condition for interesting, bold, or imaginative work, i.e., work that will attract the attention of more than those familiar with one's area of specialization.

There's more to this argument but this should provide a sufficient taste of a few reasons why we might see the problem here as one not peculiar to international law scholarship, but rather symptomatic of conditions across the academic world.

Kishor Dere says

February 3, 2020

Prof. Jean d'Aspremont's views on the quality and quantity of academic writing practices are shared by many people inside and outside the academic world. Let us, however, honestly accept that everybody is not there to enthusiastically research, and write with an equal level of interest, commitment, dedication and ambition. Moreover, there are systemic and individual compulsions behind the rituals of academic writing and publishing. It is also a market-driven activity. One need not be unnecessarily judgmental about others especially when scholarship has become synonymous with number of publications and the so-called impact factor. There are artificial hierarchies of publications. Somebody may even call this system a graveyard. It is, however, a necessary evil. Long back, in an essay "Of Studies", Sir Francis Beacon wrote, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention". May be readers and future historians can decide the worth of voluminous literature on various subjects that is being produced.

Kishor Dere says

February 3, 2020

Correction: Please read Bacon, not Beacon. I would like to tender my sincere apologies for the spelling mistake committed, and inconvenience caused to you.

Parisa Z. says

February 3, 2020

Mr. O'Donnell, I agree whole-heartedly with you that this is a problem across the academic world. Other problems in the academic world are the destabilizing and potentially censoring effects of short-term contracts, underpaid staff, and also the real-world anxieties and pressures of eventually circumventing the red tape and finding a stable position. Unfortunately, this inevitably affects what early stage researchers might feel comfortable publishing, especially in a small field where they might accidentally offend someone, even if they are acting in good faith or on principle.

I personally would like to think that an imaginative and interesting/creative PhD would get published, but the other reality is that not every seed that has the potential to bear fruit is nurtured in the early stages.

I think we need to have a serious and frank conversation about the general state of academia that results in hard decisions made in favor of increasing respect for the rights of early-stage researchers (PhD students and entry-level and temporary/seasonal academic and support staff). I think this needs to occur at potentially the expense of "management" or the "executive" -- in other words, potentially reducing fees, the rights to issue insecure and inequitable contracts, interference with what is being published and the quantity of publications, etc.

I am glad that I am not alone in thinking this, though I suppose expressing this carries risks as well. But if there is a real risk in doing so, I repeat my earlier question: is the academy fit for purpose?

Monica Garcia-Salmones says

February 3, 2020

My mind read Bacon in the first post.

Frédéric Mégret says

February 3, 2020

Thanks Jean, this is interesting, but I want to push back gently against the automatic assumption that "more" scholarship in international law is a major problem. The point is we often do not know what pieces will end up being read or have an impact in advance, and the only way to do so is by pushing pieces out there. Also, the growing number of publications may reflect the fact that the discipline has become relatively more open to a diversity of voices as opposed to a few authorized ones, and that is hardly a door we would want to close. Finally, the volume of scholarship testifies to the fact that there are a great many different conversations going on and to the field's granularity. All that to say that quantity may be a problem but really the issue is quality. And whether there is a lot of it out there or not so much, bad, superficial, conformist or intellectually dishonest pieces are the problem, as well as the structures that incentivize them.

Alessandra Asteriti says

February 3, 2020

I have been arguing for years that academic output should be limited to one piece per year, and extra production discouraged or even subject to penalty. Academics write too much, for too few, and with too low standards of reflection and deep thinking.
And for coherence, I will stop here.

Vincent Dalpé says

February 4, 2020

Is anything being done about academic overproduction, or is this once again the kind of hallway discussions we find in law firms about billing targets being too high, the pressure too intense? My sociological insight is that elites in general compete extremely hard, that they ordinarily cannot help doing so, that they cannot risk going down the hierarchy...

Overproduction is one of the biggest problems in academia and yet I feel we are all complicit in it, thinking something should be done, like global warming, without ´knowing’ exactly what to do about it.

Ignacio de la Rasilla del Moral says

February 9, 2020

As my grandfather who, since I turned seven-years-old, regularly asked me to learn by heart a series of Latin adages he had compiled for me in anticipation of my weekly visit to his home, would have succinctly put it, dear Jean:

Saepe stilum vertas, iterum quae digna legi sunt scripturus
Hor., Sat. 1, 10, 72