Destination: the Wasteland of Academic Overproduction (Part 2)

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In the first part of this essay, I have argued that the space available for innovative and imaginative thinking about international law hinges on the format of our research output. I have particularly shared my feeling that, notwithstanding the current veneration of the field for publications in refereed journals, our most innovative and imaginative pieces of scholarship are likely to be found in book chapters. I have described such phenomenon as a one of self-censorship and explained it through the metaphor of the virtual peer-reviewer which authors subject themselves to when writing a piece destined for a refereed journal. Such self-censorship is arguably witnessed with much less intensity in the writing of book chapters thanks to the personification and collegiality of the quality-control process commonly practiced for edited collections. In the second part of this essay, I am considering three concrete actions that possibly allow us to mitigate the repression by the virtual peer-reviewer while giving more visibility to those platforms that nest our most innovative and imaginative works. On this occasion, it will be argued that facilitating the production of more imaginative and innovative scholarship helps reduce academic waste.

Scavenging the existing wasteland

We should take pains to visit the wasteland of academic overproduction and unearth the old edited collections with a view to extracting the possible gems they contain. This is about giving a second life to those old volumes that have long vanished from our radars and search engines. This concretely means getting out of our offices, going to libraries, grabbing the long forgotten dusty volumes and perusing their table of contents. This also means enabling such volumes’ greater online presence and accessibility. In that regard, we must encourage publishers (and other institutional actors) to facilitate the digitalization of both new and outmoded collections without hiding them behind unaffordable pay walls. And once we have secured access to these volumes, giving them a second chance requires that we actually read their content in order to distinguish between those book chapters that should never have been published in the first place (probably the majority of them!) and those that demonstrate imagination and innovation.

The foregoing does certainly not mean that more of these volumes should be produced. My point is that we should give another chance to the chapters that are already out there in the wasteland of academic overproduction. This would simultaneously help reduce academic waste. In fact, I believe that if we were to make a greater use of the book chapters already published we would end up producing less of them. If they feel their book chapters are taken more seriously, it is likely that international lawyers would no longer feel the pathological calling for a production of chapters at an industrial rate as they could realistically entertain the hope that, someday, somewhere in the wasteland of academic overproduction, someone will pick up some of their thoughts.

It could be objected that the abovementioned call for giving a second chance to book chapters reinforces the current distribution of power in the field while also reinforcing the visibility, influence and positions of those who are in favourable positions, are no longer in need of a tenured job, and are regularly invited to contribute book chapters and edit collections.I think that such an objection is irrefutable. Yet, I continue to believe that, compared to refereed journals, edited collections, thanks to the personification and collegiality of their review process,  are platforms that are more accessible to young colleagues and colleagues who are not affiliated with First World’s mainstream institutions. Taking these chapters seriously is also a way to build a more inclusive profession.

Muting the virtual peer-reviewer

We should mute the virtual peer-reviewer that haunts us when writing a piece destined for a refereed law journal. In particular, we should try to write without a destination in mind. We should write to think, think to write, think and write, irrespective of the destination. And maybe we should write with the idea that our piece may never be published and that this would be all right. In the same vein, we should try to create spaces where the virtual peer-reviewer is muted. For instance, I have always dreamed of a great fair of new ideas about international law (salon des inventions) where everyone would come and present innovative and imaginative works to publishers and journal editors. This was the original rationale of posters in academic conferences but this practice never picked up in international legal circles. I think we need to create new spaces (digital or not) patterned after innovation fairs where we can proudly and confidently walk in without self-censoring ourselves and fearing to come across the virtual peer-reviewer.

Ending anonymity of the peer-review process!

If personification and collegiality of review-processes for edited collections are conducive to greater imagination and innovation, there is no reason why they should not be generalized and extended to refereed journals. In this regard, whilst I can see why we want to preserve the anonymity of the author of a piece under review, I am of the opinion that we ought to terminate the anonymity enjoyed by the peer-reviewers which refereed journals resort to. I have two justifications for vindicating such transparency in the peer-review process.

First, although they commonly take their role seriously, provide constructive comments and help refine articles, peer-reviewers inevitably exercise a form of symbolic violence: they speak the language of the right and the wrong, they award marks and judgements, they repudiate arguments, they discontinue emerging or nascent ideas, they even terminate careers and throw authors in depression. However good-intentioned reviewers are, reviewing a draft article is a form of symbolic violence and I cannot see how we can justify it being exercised anonymously. It is said that anonymity is aimed at protecting the peer-reviewers and uphold the quality and robustness of the review. In this regard, I am struggling to see how the transparency of the peer-review process necessarily runs against the quality and robustness of evaluations. I believe that the decency of quality-control processes and the protection of the reviewers from possible retaliation or harm being done to their friendly working relations are better guaranteed by disciplinary ethics rather than procedural anonymity.

Second, I am convinced that generalizing the personification of evaluation processes and ending the anonymity of peer-review processes constitute an efficacious means to curb the amount of academic waste that enters into the wasteland of academic overproduction. In fact, personification of the review-processes circumscribes the virtual peer-reviewer that currently haunts the writing of our pieces destined for refereed journals and, for the reasons discussed in this essay, bolsters risk-taking, audacity, innovation, and imagination. I am convinced that, if we are able to maximize the innovative and imaginative characters of our works irrespective of whether they are destined for an edited collection or a refereed journal, we would have come a long way in limiting the amount of scholarship that is automatically dumped in the wasteland of academic overproduction. At the end of the day, the anonymity of the peer-reviewers and the never-ending production of academic waste are two faces of the same problem.



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Luigi Crema says

February 3, 2020

Dear Jean, I would say that chapters can be a cheap adaptation of a talk or an imaginative provoking idea - they can be both, and the first possibility pulled down the second one towards the wasteland. The most intriguing aspect of your blog entry on academic overproduction, however, is that you needed not one, but TWO parts to address it! :)

Kinnari Bhatt says

February 3, 2020

Dear Jean, what an intriguing post. I agree with you point about the violence of the anonymous peer review process- yet you do not mention that the practice facilitates a gate keeping culture that excludes new thoughts and gives patronage to those that reverberate those of the peer reviewer or at least speak to his/her scholarship. Yet, there is little self-reflection on your own position as a tenured academic now in the privileged position of being able to influence the rules of the academic publishing game for those coming up the ladder. Are you trying to kick it away? I am sure the answer is no, but your posts lead me to ask that question.

Eirik Bjorge says

February 3, 2020

What was it Kraus said of Freud's theory of psychoanalysis: the disease of which it claims to be the cure?

Silvia Steininger says

February 4, 2020

Dear Jean,

Thank you so much for your interesting blogs and arguments, which made me significantly more motivated to write some pieces on the ever-growing to do-list. However, as I am someone you personally taught about the role of power in international legal scholarship, and how to always challenge arguments, I would be interested in understanding how you get to the conclusion that edited collections are MORE accessible to young scholars and scholars from non-mainstream First World institutions?

For me, this sounds contrary to everything I observe in academia. It requires an immense amount of economic, social, and cultural capital to even get invited to the workshops which result in those edited collections. Even more, to get into the excellent and well-read handbooks you and others have compiled during the last years. Is there any empirical proof this is actually the case? We have many studies (see latest ICON editorial), where it shows that de-anonymous peer review on the tenure track etc. consistently perpetuates gender inequality. Hence, my wild guess would be that edited collections are even more exclusive and discriminatory re race, gender, social origin, and home institution than most journal submissions. The same question concerns the de-anonymization of peer review. How then would you control for all kinds of biases and discrimination? It certainly looks like what constitutes "violence" is in the eye of the beholder.

Kishor Dere says

February 4, 2020

Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It may be a monumental blunder to do away with the existing system of publications lock, stock, and barrel. Reforming the system from within and without could be helpful. Real challenge is to create an alternative system of publications along the lines suggested by Professor Jean d'Aspremont. Let there be multiple methods of reviews and publications. All of them can peacefully coexist and serve their respective purposes. Academic self-righteousness, authoritarianism and totalitarianism ought to be avoided at any cost. Let us not end up becoming "enemies of open society". Let there be pluralism and diversity in academic writing, reviewing and publishing styles and procedures as well. Moreover, one should not be in a hurry to judge others. Let the ideas and writings survive on their own inherent strength and intrinsic worth. Classics and epics will always remain so. Human mind inevitably compares and separates the wheat or grain from the chaff.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Herrmann says

February 4, 2020

A fascinating post that reminds me of discussions with colleagues years ago at the University of Munich, when we were still young, striving, ambitious …. and naive... ;-)

As an EU and international lawyer, I am quite aware of instruments dealing with overproduction, stemming from environmental law and the common agricultural policy. Let's start with "Academic Emissions Right", assuming that we are polluting more than necessary. AERs would be allocated using a base period (five/ten years) and decreased over time. We make them tradeable (and cut pensions of retired professors at the same time to force them selling their's to younger aspiring academics (who, at the same time, would have to make a rational decision about their respective career perspectives… Enter CAP Instruments: we subsidize publishers for terminating journals and the like, thereby reducing pollution capacity… Maybe certain forms of publications should be banned entirely (e.g. Liber amicorum)
I leave it to you to judge to what extent this is meant serious...

Toshi Uematsu says

February 4, 2020

Anonymous peer reviewer is declining in other disciplines

Pierre d'Argent says

February 5, 2020

Hi Jean -- great to read from you.

I am not so much convinced by Part 2, points 2 and 3. On Part 2, point 1 (resurrecting old pieces): of course, by all means.

But Part 1 is fascinating. In essence, you say that you felt free to think and write innovatively when colleagues who knew you from past work (the point raised by Helmut and Silvia Steiniger is spot on) invited you to contribute a chapter to an edited volume, trusting that you would have something interesting to say.
However (and here comes the fascinating bit), you confess that most of the time you accepted their invitation without any real idea of what you wanted to say in the first place (you write: "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..."). In other words, the inviting colleagues were either generous or fools!
Then, you candidly recall (and I praise your honesty in that regard, sharing your experience) that it is the process of being trapped into the need to deliver a chapter that brought you to produce what you consider to be your best work -- knowing, of course, that the editors would not reject your piece, either because it was simply great, or that they needed it for the volume to be completed or that they would not have dared rejecting it for all sorts of reasons.

The question then arises: is it not the very process that you seem to favour that is responsible for the wasteland you rightly deplore? Maybe a piece dies in the anonymity of academic overproduction because it is so distinctly innovative that it is irrelevant or useless. I am not saying that this is the case of your (or anyone else's) edited pieces, but who are we to say now that any of our chapters would be worth being resurrected/scavenged in a few decades? And what is the criteria for being offered a second life? Originality in the sense that nobody else said the same thing? But maybe that should be the criteria for being put to rest eternally... One thing is to feel free to write, another is the certainty that the outcome will have a lasting life.

Monica Garcia-Salmones says

February 8, 2020

It is quite a thing to see how many emotions have been stirred these days by Jean's posts on scholarship. Evidently what you wrote touches many of us deeply: scholars, long time applicants of academic jobs, or 'applicants to be' overwhelmed in advance by the difficult job market, scholars hoping to make an impact in the world and make it better despite our limitations of time and sometimes, as we might also experience it, of talent, scholars tired of their lack of creativity or their over-creativity, and a long etc...(incidentally something could be post about the current job market and IL)

I respectfully disagree with Pierre d'Argent when he notes that the fact that Jean or anyone is struggling to produce a piece that one was invited to write, is a sign, as he writes that 'In other words, the inviting colleagues were either generous or fools!'

Partly the process of creativity and specially of innovation is great suffering, and wondering why did i put myself in this position, the 'dragging' of 'feet' bit...and this may well be the sign that something incredible will come out of that pain and endurance. This is of course, well known, but the last commentator made me think about this again.