Symposium on Systemic Racism and Sexism in Legal Academia: Transparency, Diversity and Representation in Mainstream Academic Publishing – International Law Monograph Series

Symposium on Systemic Racism and Sexism in Legal Academia: Transparency, Diversity and Representation in Mainstream Academic Publishing – International Law Monograph Series

[Dr Talita de Souza Dias is the Shaw Foundation Junior Research Fellow in Law at Jesus College, University of Oxford.]

1. Introduction

In this post, I discuss the findings of a short statistical survey into the gender and nationality/regional representation of authors published by two mainstream academic publishers in their main international law monograph series: Oxford University Press (OUP) and Cambridge University Press (CUP). These are OUP’s 1) Oxford Monographs in International Humanitarian & Criminal Law and 2) Oxford Monographs in International Law, as well as 3) CUP’s Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law. I selected these series as they are  representative of young scholars’ first choices for publishing their doctoral theses. Publication in one of those series is considered a marker for academic excellence, opening important doors in the career of junior international law academics and practitioners. I also reflect on why transparency, diversity and representation are important in academic publishing, and suggest ways past the status quo.

For context, this study was prompted by my personal struggle to publish my DPhil thesis in international law with both OUP and CUP. My thesis, entitled ‘Retroactive Recharacterisation of Crimes and the Principles of Legality and Fair Labelling in International Criminal Law’, was successfully defended in December 2019 at the University of Oxford without corrections. Earlier in 2021, it was awarded the Special Mention of the English-Speaking René Cassin – International Institute of Human Rights 2020 Thesis Prize. Previous versions of the thesis’ chapters had been published as academic articles in different journals, one of which received the 2018 Journal of International Criminal Justice Prize, awarded to the best academic article published by an under-35 author. This article has recently been cited with approval by the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court in the Abd-Al-Rahman (‘Ali Kushayb’) case. Nevertheless, the thesis manuscript was rejected twice by OUP (once in 2020 and then in 2021, following the submission of a revised book proposal) by the commissioning editor without being sent for peer-review. It was also rejected by CUP’s commissioning editor in 2020 without peer-review. These rejections were not followed or justified by any substantive feedback, apart from a general note that my area was ‘heavily published in’ (OUP) or that my work was ‘not within [the publisher’s] commissioning interests’ (CUP). 

I have witnessed other female colleagues face similar challenges with OUP and/or CUP. Meanwhile, white male colleagues continue to publish their work in the same or similar areas with both publishers. Examples include Patrick Labuda’s book ‘In the Court’s Shadow: International Criminal Tribunals and Domestic Accountability’, Barrie Sanders’ new book ‘Doing Justice to History: Confronting the Past in International Criminal Courts’, and my personal friend Antonio Coco’s forthcoming book ‘The Defence of Mistake of Law in International Criminal Law: A Study on Ignorance and Blame’. The irony is that, earlier this year, a senior editor for OUP’s Criminal Law and Criminal Justice acquisitions contacted me to review a manuscript on one of my thesis’ core topics – the principle of fair labelling. Unsurprisingly, the manuscript (based on a PhD thesis) was authored by a young white male scholar from the Global North (yes, the review process at OUP is not blind, with the author’s name and affiliation disclosed at the outset to the potential reviewer). I politely declined the request, but it is significant that it came from a publisher that had rejected my own work on the same topic, without submitting it for peer-review

2. The Findings of the Statistical Survey

a. Oxford Monographs in International Humanitarian & Criminal Law 

Since 2021, OUP’s Oxford Monographs in International Humanitarian & Criminal Law series has 17 titles and 20 published authors to date or forthcoming in 2022. According to the information publicly available, of these 20 authors, 7 or 35% are women, only one of whom is originally from the Global South (Ka Lok Yip, from Hong Kong, China). As the table and charts below demonstrate (the full data is available here), the vast majority of authors featured in this series, male or female, are from the Global North, particularly Europe (65%) and North America (15%). European men make up 50% of the series’ entire authorship. 

b. Oxford Monographs in International Law 

OUP’s main international law monograph series – the Oxford Monographs in International Law – has 68 titles and authors published so far since 1988, according to the publisher’s website. While the region/nationality breakdown in this series seems more diverse, its gender stats are worse than the previous. As one can see from the table and charts below (the full data is available here), 48 or 70.59% of the authors published in the Oxford Monographs in International Law Series are men, and 20 or 29.41% are women. Sadly, only two of those women – Lavanya Rajamani and Phoebe Okowa – are from the Global South. Overall, 50% of authors in this series are European, and 34% of them are men. Only 4 authors or 5.88% of the authorship in the series are Asian. An even smaller number and proportion of such authors are from Africa (3 authors or 4.41% of the total) and Eastern Europe (2 authors or 3% of total). Interestingly, 2 authors or 3% of the total are from Israel, a number comparatively high considering Israel’s small population size (NB: Israel was considered separately for this reason, as well as the lack of a better fit with other regional groups). There was one author or 1.5% of the total from the Caribbean (Jamaica), but zero scholars from the Middle East (excluding Israel) and Latin America. As a Latin American scholar, these numbers are not very encouraging. And whether the problem lies in Global South authors not daring to submit or not being published, it cannot go on unaddressed.

c. Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law

CUP’s Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law series has a total of 149 international law titles by 154 authors published to date or forthcoming in 2022, according to the publisher’s website. Among these, 100 or 65% have been authored by men, versus 54 or 35% of the titles authored by female authors, as the table and charts below illustrate (the full data is available here). Overall, this seems to indicate that CUP fares slightly better than OUP when it comes to gender diversity. However, when disaggregated by region, the results were not consistent. 

Of the 77 titles published by European authors (incidentally, there were no Eastern Europeans among these), 55 or 36% of the grand total were authored by men versus 22 or 14% by women. Conversely, when we look at authors from Oceania (and it is mainly Australians, plus a couple of New Zealanders), women have published more than men, with 24 or 16% of female authors versus 10 or 6% of male authors among the total number of titles. This is promising data but, unfortunately, only for Australian women. In third place are North American authors, with 19 publications overall. However, the large majority of these, i.e., 16 titles or 10% of the grand total were authored by men, against a meagre 3 titles or 2% of the total by North American women. Only 11 or 7% of the series’ titles have been authored by Asian scholars. While the gender balance among Asian authors was better than for other regions, male authors are still prevalent, with 7 or 5% of titles authored by men and 4 titles or 3% of the total authorship by women. The gender balance was the worst among Latin American authors published by the series: of the 8 total titles by Latin American scholars (5% of the total), 7 or 5% of the total are men and only 1 or 0.65% is a woman – Federica Paddeu. Among the 5 titles published by Israeli scholars, 4 or 3% of the total are male, with one female author making up 0.65% of the total. 

Lastly, there are no publications in this series by African, Eastern European or Middle Eastern authors, which should raise a big red flag. Of note, since this study was originally published in April 2021 on Twitter, 8 new international law books have been published or are forthcoming with CUP in this series, all of which by male authors (new titles highlighted in yellow here). 

3. Publishers’ Responses 

OUP responded to those findings on Twitter, stating that: 

‘[n]ot all of the info presented here is representative, but there is a diversity issue in academic publishing, reflecting academia more widely and the submissions we receive. OUP has been very active over recent years in diversifying our publishing and proactively reaching out to authors with a diverse profile. DM or email me specific info. Threads like these can give the impression that academic publishers are not open to submissions from non-white; non-male authors, which is not true. We specifically welcome and encourage proposals from female authors, authors coming from/ based in the Global South, or anyone else with diverse characteristics. The same is true for our competitors. OUP does not give special consideration to proposals passed on by senior figures.’ 

Yet, as others have noted on Twitter, it is too easy for a publisher to say that it actively seeks to diversify its portfolio without presenting any data or other information to back that up. This is especially so when both statistical and anecdotal evidence obtained so far suggest the opposite. CUP did not respond to the findings.

4. Why Do Transparency, Diversity, and Representation Matter in Academic Publishing?

A transparent decision-making process is important for academic publishing, as it enables legal scholars, practitioners, and other relevant audiences to scrutinise the different factors and criteria at play in any publishing decision. This is particularly true if submissions are open to all authors working in a certain field: how else can those authors understand (and potentially challenge) a decision to accept or reject their submission? Transparency is all the more important in big publishing houses, given their significant impact in shaping academic discourse around the world. OUP and CUP are two of the leading academic publishers in the English-speaking world, if not the entire world. They sell millions of copies of books across all continents. Yet we know very little about how they choose which titles or authors to publish. In particular, the big selling point of monograph series is the academic excellence of their titles. However, without a transparent decision-making process no-one can hold publishers accountable for the quality of the work they publish.

One hardly needs to explain why diversity matters. But I just want to reiterate that it matters because we are entitled to equality and non-discrimination in academia as we are elsewhere. And it matters especially in international law if the field is truly meant to be international. In the same vein, international law is not just built by different voices and perspectives but also affects different groups in different ways. For instance, it may be economically or politically harder for developing countries to fulfil certain international legal obligations, such as those contained in environmental or investment treaties. The same is true for other areas of international law, such as international criminal law and international humanitarian law. In particular, most contemporary armed conflicts have taken place in the developing world. Relatedly, most international criminal trials have focused on crimes committed in those regions. 

Diversity is all the more important in a monograph series since this will often be the first and most career-defining publication for a young scholar or practitioner in international law. Thus, if we want to make sure that all individuals have equal opportunities to enter and succeed in international law, diversity is imperative in the field’s publications. Similarly, representation is important for readers, be those students, academics, or members of civil society. If audiences do not see themselves represented in what they read or study, they will have little or no incentive to work in the field, and the lack of diversity and representation will only self-perpetuate.

5. Concluding Thoughts: Three Small Suggestions

In the spirit of constructiveness, I offer three small suggestions for change. The first (and most urgent) step in this direction is for publishers to keep track of the diversity issues they have themselves acknowledged. This should include submission and publication statistics, disaggregated at the very least by gender and regional representation/nationality. Publishers themselves need to take ownership of this process and show us what they have achieved in their efforts to improve transparency, diversity and representation. 

Second, peer-review and decision-making processes, at least for monographs and other open book submissions, should be double-blind, as is currently the care for most academic journals. If the point of having monographs is to showcase good academic work, then submissions should be judged on the basis of academic merit, rather than how big one’s name is, how many copies a certain author could sell, or how many works in the same area have already been published before. Granted, double-blind peer-review processes are insufficient in themselves to ensure that a diversity of international legal methods, such as critical, gender, Third World and other non-positivist or non-doctrinal approaches, are published. And insofar as those approaches are often championed by non-male and/or Global South voices, a double-blind peer-review process will not guarantee they will be published. However, double-blind peer-reviews are the bare minimum guarantee against blatant instances of conscious and unconscious bias in publishing decision-making processes. Coupled with more transparency and a greater commitment to publishing diverse legal methods, such processes can help achieve greater diversity and representation in academic publishing.

Finally, as has been the case with academic shortlisting processes, publishers should commit to no all-white and all-male lists of authors whose proposals get to go forth to publisher delegates. 

Although these small steps cannot transform academic publishing overnight, they would go a long way in allowing neglected non-male and Global South voices to be heard and appreciated for what they are by global audiences.

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