05 Apr A Methodological Manifesto for Modern Academia: Introducing Fresh Squeezed – The Opinio Juris Podcast
Dr Mohsen al Attar and (Dr) Omar Kamel
Academics are professional thinkers. We might be charitable and describe ourselves as specialised communicators as well. We engage in a variety of roles, ranging from the advancement of knowledge to the teaching and mentoring of students, from guiding policymakers to supporting social movements. Some of these tasks are mundane—setting assessment questions—just as others are transformative: providing pastoral care to struggling students or assisting parliamentary sub-committees to better understand what they are deliberating. Where does publishing fit in this medley?
One way academics advance collective knowledge is by conducting research and publishing their findings. While research practice boosts discovery and learning, thus complementing our overall mission, research publishing is a fraught affair. Academics regularly lament feeling pressured to publish, occasionally doing so when they have nothing new to say (Mohsen side eyes himself). A premature publication can interfere with the germination process, harvesting the plant before the idea matures. It can also injure the scholar, with negative reviews packing the punch of a sledgehammer. In these instances, feelings of frustration and disaffection waylay on the horizon. To add insult to injury, the relevant data reveals that even articles of the highest quality go unread, uncited, and unloved. We were bemused when we discovered that 80% of academic publications are destined for living death. They thicken digital shelves and CVs, to be sure, but these achievements hardly set our spirits aflame.
To this laundry list of concerns, we could add the punitive cost of paywalls, the hide-and-go-seek business model publishers operate, the gate-keeping of editors exacerbated by the bias of reviewers, and not to forget scholarship’s inaccessibility to untrained audiences. For all the ills of the sector—it is a growing list—this one takes the cake. Chomsky chided academics for favouring originality and complexity over intelligibility and accessibility and doing so for the sake of exclusivity. While harmful everywhere, this practice can be particularly pernicious in the Third World where grassroots struggles are often supported by a radical intelligentsia. Are we investigating complex matters that demand the highest level of precision, or are we weaponising impenetrability to inflate ego and value? These are towering questions for the academy, and ones we have been reflecting on at Opinio Juris.
OJ was born of a desire to provide prompt and snappy commentary on international law and beyond. Its original cast did not set out to revolutionise academic debate, though, gradually, the blog came to embody characteristics that counter the mischief of academic publishing. Foremost, it is open access. By far, this is the most effective way of broadening the availability of research. To a commendable degree, our scholarship also appears in plain language. We encourage contributors to write with courage and flair, and to approach their submissions as a scholarly rather than an academic endeavour. We have also collaborated with non-academic partners, even catching flak from puritans for inviting the likes of Facebook to a conversation about human rights. We have leveraged art to (y)our delight, regaling readers with a panoply of pictures that complement our prose. And our personal favourite: we have published the works of students alongside those of denizens. We assess submissions on their merit rather than the author’s profile. Again, each of these features of OJ was not deliberate, but their combined effect was avant-garde, generating commentary on international law that is accessible and engaging.
Of course, sitting alongside our successes are our deficiencies, with two standing heads and shoulders above the others. Like most international law blogs, we have succumbed to the hegemony of text and the imperialism of English. Since we share Marshall McLuhan’s insight about the medium being the message, we believe we could do better on both fronts and wish to share details about a new initiative: Fresh Squeezed: The Opinio Juris Podcast (#freshsqueezedOJ).
Keeping Up with the Jetsons
Digital platforms have revolutionised the production and dissemination of knowledge. One of their most significant characteristics is universal participation. Without over-egging the pudding, both knowledge production and dissemination have become much more democratic. Blogs, podcasts, and video-casts bring authors and audiences closer to one another, multiplying pathways to knowledge sharing and making content globally available at relatively affordable rates. This is a marked improvement over traditional academic channels, jealously guarded and ruthlessly priced. By circumventing both gatekeepers and (most) costs, academic content is now available to anyone who can afford a device and an internet connection.
The universal participation offered by digital platforms not only makes knowledge production and dissemination more democratic, but it also enhances linguistic accessibility. In fact, a wider array of audiences means that academics have every incentive to diversify their prose and speech with countless styles and tools available to support this endeavour. We must not confuse simplicity of language with simplicity of substance, and the effort to produce accessible content can scatter scholarship even further.
Drawing on McLuhan’s insight, the medium through which we convey information moulds the way audiences receive it. From young to old, African to Asian, audio-visual material has a greater impact on viewers, eliciting higher levels of engagement than written content alone. Audio-visual material is therefore a superb supplement to academic publications, smoothing messages where text stutters. Recognising the benefits of these communication methods and the swelling audiences gathered around them, we are excited to launch Fresh Squeezed! Our name reflects our pledge to engage (and alienate) lay and expert audiences alike.
Public appetite for informative podcasts prevails, with several scholarly productions populating the charts. Counter-intuitively, social sciences and humanities have been slower to cotton on than their counterparts in the hard sciences. Yet, the benefits of academic podcasts are hefty, especially for fields such as international law that operate on the edge of public consciousness (and we tip our hat to those already at it). While international law intersects with topics that command public attention—e.g. international relations and political economy—it remains unfamiliar to many. Just as the OJ blog did a generation ago, the goal of the OJ podcast is to further popularise and proliferate debates about international law. Podcasts and video-casts will not ring the death knell of erudite manuscripts or pay-walled articles, but they will enhance the production of more engaging and accessible content, offering academics a chance at transcending the insular confines of the profession.
Fresh Squeezed is more ambitious than this, however. Alongside our challenge to the hegemony of text, we will also inject both linguistic and epistemic diversity into our programme.
During Europe’s colonial-imperial era, English and French dominated academic scholarship. With the spread of the British empire and the rise of the American one, English pulled ahead, becoming a lingua franca in the academy, including international law. Add to this the transfer of wealth from the Third World to Euro-America and the profiteering of the most prestigious British and American universities, and it is no surprise that English-speaking academics were awash with resources: funding, facilities, and journals. These tools enabled them to produce more research, which they invariably published in English and to advance a Eurocentric outlook. While speaking in colonial languages remains a source of prestige for some and a necessity for others, academics are now aware of the need to promote linguistic diversity in academic scholarship.
The merit of linguistic diversity is self-evident. First, we deepen our collective understanding of a topic when exploring it from a diversity of perspectives. Second, as Ngugi maintained two generations ago, language is essential for the preservation and promotion of cultural knowledge. Third, researchers achieve greater accuracy and nuance in the representation of their findings when they publish in their native language. Fourth, collaborations take on new meaning when the medium of communication is pluralistic. Fifth, we make a mockery of decolonisation and inclusion initiatives if we do not approach academic debate with a commitment to epistemic equivalency. By promoting academic debate in a multitude of languages, we enrich our discipline and our world.
What does this mean for OJ and Fresh Squeezed? Even though the concept of international law was always intrinsically legally pluralistic, European publicists assumed the dominance of English and French was legitimate for international law. International lawyers thus excluded the perspectives and traditions of those beyond the Eurosphere. While OJ has long been sensitive to these issues, we have not taken steps to remedying the dynamic. Via our podcast, we commit to doing things differently and have assembled a team of OJ contributors and international legal scholars from a mix of cultural and linguistic backgrounds to advance a more inclusive debate.
Arabic: Omar Kamel and others
English: Babatunde Fagbayibo, Angela Mudukuti, and others
French: Mohsen al Attar and others
Mandarin: Binxin Zhang and others
Portuguese: Henrique Weil Afonso, Alonso Gurmendi, and others
Spanish: Rafael Quintero Godínez, Alonso Gurmendi, and others
Urdu / Hindi: Shahab Saqib and others
While it may seem redundant, the ‘and others’ is key to our vision: our goal is to grow our team, adding languages on an ad hoc or permanent basis at every opportunity. Our pluri-lingual approach will bolster the twin causes of decolonisation and decoloniality, and it will advance the renewal we are witnessing in the way international law is studied and practised.
What Next for Academic Publishing?
Whether we see ourselves as professional thinkers or specialised communicators, it is worth reflecting on the changing nature of academic discourse and the impact this is having on academic publishing. While talking to ourselves still holds appeal, the descent into group-speak and the inertia that comes with it is never far off, threatening a form of intellectual anachronism as we become further de-moored from public life. That this could happen at a moment where new methods and audiences are soaring will only embolden those committed to reducing universities to corporate vocational wings.
In contrast to academic journals and conferences, digital platforms enable academics to reach a wider audience, boosting interdisciplinary collaboration and the participation of underrepresented scholars. Promotions committees may still look down on these mediums, but this form of engagement pluralises academic scholarship, philosophically, linguistically, and epistemically. Informed by an equitable impetus, digital platforms make our scholarship more available and more accessible. These small steps are crucial for the cross-cultural development of international law, helping us overcome the unimodal tendencies that have long dogged our discipline. The team at OJ is thrilled to advance more radical discussions about international law.
Stay tuned for our inaugural episode with…