Writing in International Law and Cultural Barriers (Part II)

Writing in International Law and Cultural Barriers (Part II)

[Alonso Gurmendi is an OJ contributor and Paula Baldini Miranda da Cruz is a lawyer, holds an LLM Adv., and is a Ph.D. candidate at Leiden University. Part I of this post can be found here.]

As we have mentioned in Part I of this post, the sheer fact of having to face an international publication circuit is problematic enough. At the same time, even when such hurdles and obstacles are bridged, Global South scholars still face an uphill battle to be published. Academia in general, like the international community it operates in, exists in an underlying structure – a way of thinking that affects how international law is perceived.

Take, for example, this explanation of international law’s history in a now deleted section of the 8th edition of Brownlie’s Principles, in 2012:

In terms of intellectual history, international law was thus European in origin (…); thence international law travelled with the colonizers to the Americas, to Asia, to Africa and eventually to Oceania.

Think about this quote for a minute. This is an extract in perhaps the most quoted international law book written to date. And it is a book that very clearly places international law in a centre-periphery dynamic. The contribution of the Global South is, in this fashion, invisibilised – as if the arrival of “The West”, in the form of international law, had been a one way street, with Western legal institutions simply filling up the vacuum that pre-existed it.

Quite to the contrary, as recent research suggests, the creation of international law has been a much more collaborative endeavour. As Arnulf Becker Lorca shows, while European international law did expand with Western imperialism, in the 19th century, “[s]emi-peripheral jurists internalized European legal thought in order to change rules” and ultimately “transform[ing] international law”. Despite this, the modern journal system, having its seat in the great publishing houses of the US and Europe, becomes a filter of content that rather prevents this exchange to continue into the 21st century. Social media is filled with academics complaining about the provincialism of academic journals. To name but one of countless examples, take this case of an article being rejected because “it only deals with Chile, so a ‘non-Chileanist’ would not be interested”.

To illustrate this, look at the author-statistics for the current issue of each of the top 3 journals in the Washington & Lee international law journal ranking: The American Journal of International Law, the Yale Journal of International Law and the Chicago Journal of International Law. In total, there are nine articles and fourteen authors. Only one – writing as co-author – is based outside of the US or Europe.

In order to have a chance of featuring in one of these journals, Global South scholars may sometimes have to adjust not only their styles, but also research topics towards the preferences of the intended editors, which will often lean away from Global South topics. This means that Global North editors will not only find the writing strange, they will find the topics non-important, less interesting or too “niche” to be seen as part of general international law. This cultural and topical blindness towards the Global South, if left unaddressed, neglects relevant voices in the making of international law. The result is the perpetuation of an international law that is alienated from regional and peripheral realities.

It is not simple to address these communication gaps in practice, particularly because they are not always easy to identify. Ideally, they should be sorted out before articles are submitted to peer-review, since editors and reviewers are not able to address the broader structural issues that lie beneath them. At best, journals are only able to point out communication rifts in early stages, through the so-called desk-rejects due to language issues (see, eg, AsianJIL guidelines).

We do have, however, some suggestions on how those involved in teaching, writing and publishing can cooperate towards filling in cultural communication gaps. First, we believe that it is important that authors and publishers understand the problem needs to be addressed through a two-way street approach. It should not be for authors to do all the heavy-lifting of having to adapt to different writing styles, nor should this mean that authors should not be concerned with writing and communicating well. Authors should retain agency over the work they produce, whether this means learning the tricks of the Western style, or maintaining their own. Those involved in teaching academic writing and in the publication process should, on their side, engage in constructive dialogue with potential or future authors to find the correct balance. Style should not be taught or addressed as a template – and in any case we cannot assume that all authors will adopt such template in full – diversity in writing cultures, just as diversity in gender or geography, should itself be seen as a good practice for the international legal community.

Of course, this should not mean the end of academic style, merely the end of a strict template-like style. Journals and publishers can obviously determine styles that lean towards certain models. But this is something that should be thought about from an editorial standpoint. To be able to accomplish this, editorial teams need to become themselves more diverse. Only editors educated in various different academic backgrounds will be able to properly anticipate and/or identify different styles and differentiate them from incomplete or poorly structured articles. The same applies to reviewers. Having an all-Western roster of reviewers will likely be inadequate to address the needs of a journal that has a truly international vocation. 

We hope that these lines are able to kick-start a much-needed conversation in our profession, that helps us become more inclusive and representative community.

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Marko Milanovic
Marko Milanovic

Hi Alonso and Paula, Thanks a lot for this important contribution. It reminds me a lot of Anthea Roberts’ book Is International Law International? that we also had a joint symposium on here at OJ and at EJIL Talk. I do agree with much of what you have to say on systemic bias, entry barriers etc. But: (1) I’m not sure that the Global North/South divide is entirely representative of the centre/periphery dynamics in international law. (2) In that regard there are loads of countries in the ‘North’, ‘West’, or ‘Europe’ that are on the periphery. Think e.g. of a whole swathe of Eastern European countries. (3) A lot these dynamics are not at all international law (or law)-specific. Leading journals are concentrated in the US/Western Europe in virtually all scientific disciplines, from physics to linguistics to economics to computer science to whatever. So in examining causes, effects and remedies we must be aware of the wider context, the overall ‘firepower’ of universities worldwide, the openness of individual academic markets etc. (4) I’m not sure how exactly you would classify people like me -or Paula, or a gazillion others – who have had much or most of their education in… Read more »