Writing and publishing in Lankan social sciences and humanities | Sunday Observer

Writing and publishing in Lankan social sciences and humanities

18 July, 2021

In this column in the recent past, I have talked about the status of social sciences and humanities in our country and also about the implication of theory in this scheme of things. Today, I want to make some observations directly relevant to the same broad theme, but focused on the dynamics of writing and publishing in these disciplines. It should be self-evident that writing and publishing are of crucial importance to the intellectual life in any discipline.

Whenever I visit the country, I have the habit of visiting one or two local bookstores to see for myself what has been published locally either in Sinhala or English in recent times -- the two languages I can read fluently. At times, I also ask a few friends to send me by mail a few such publications that ‘sound’ interesting in order to read them whenever I have the time. Through these reading forays, coupled with my personal experiences in Sri Lanka, I think it is possible to outline some basic feature of the country’s publishing industry in so far as they impact social sciences and humanities.

Features of academic publishing industry

Though this is a complex arena, I think it is possible to make four crucial observations:

Many of the books I have read in Sinhala tend to be simple published versions of BA and MA dissertations submitted to local universities. Globally, such dissertations are merely considered basic requirements for initial degrees, and are not based on research that is worth publishing. This is why no global publisher of any repute will consider publishing such documents as books. But in the Sri Lankan context, dissertations of this kind tend to be a major source of books.

One can also see that most of these publications have not gone through a self-conscious process of converting them from a dissertation to book, which in itself is an established process for more advanced dissertations. But in many of the publications of this kind in the market, it is not possible to see even basic things such as the correction of spelling, grammar or essential copy-editing and updating of references, all of which are basic preconditions that any academic publication must fulfill before they become public documents. Also, it is quite evident many of these books are based primarily on secondary sources, rather than on new and prolonged research.

It is difficult to imagine that these kinds of texts would add to the advancement of theoretical sophistication or conceptual development in local social sciences and humanities. There is no way such basic texts, with all their accompanying stylistic lapses, can help update knowledge in any degree of seriousness. While publications like these may bring personal benefits to the authors, such as some internal publicity in the university system and support for promotions within universities, these certainly would not help in establishing an advanced writing and publishing tradition.

The second feature I see is that a significant number of such books also fall into the category of basic textbook. That is, their primary purpose is not to expand the horizons of knowledge. Instead, their purpose is to merely provide guidance to individual undergraduates pursuing courses in local universities.

In other words, if we accept these publications collectively as one of the most visible features of the present Sri Lankan tradition in writing in social sciences and humanities, then, it means that tradition is at a very early stage in its development. That is, more than 70 years after the formal teaching of social sciences and humanities began in Sri Lanka, there is still considerable emphasis on textbooks in our writing tradition rather than other more advanced forms of writing. Irrespective of the importance textbooks when it comes to teaching, it is a misconception to assume that they can create an advanced tradition of writing and thinking.

The other sad feature I constantly see with regard to publishing allegedly scholarly publications (as described above) is the general non-professional approach most well-known publishers have adopted when publishing these books. For instance, there are numerous issues when it comes to central facts, major lapses in the core arguments, problems with language and style, outdated sources and references, all which would be visible even at a cursory glance. If a serious peer review process was adopted as a matter of policy and a professional process of copy-editing and proof-reading was implemented, ideally all of these issues should have been resolved before these books come into the public domain.

This indicates the extreme informality of these publications and the resultant non-compliance with the basic practices and conventions applicable to such publications internationally. Given this situation, we have to assume that personal relationships and financial dealings between authors and publishers are more important than globally accepted professional standards and practices or individual merit when decisions are made to publish these works.

In countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, we find that several international publishing companies with an established interest in academic publishing have been active for over half a century. Examples include Cambridge and Oxford University Presses and commercial publishing companies such as Sage and Routledge.

In India, there are also local publishing houses that operate and distribute their publications globally. Companies such as Orient Black Swan and Permanent Black, among many others, are examples of this. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, international publishers have not made any attempt to establish their businesses in our country since the colonial era. At the very least, there is no formal process in this country to establish some of these as joint ventures or to introduce Sri Lankan authors to such companies via intermediate means that can be facilitated by universities.

It is not that Sri Lanka did not have publishing ventures affiliated with universities in the past such as University of Ceylon Press and the University of Ceylon Press Board. It is not that they did not publish some crucial texts in the past that were globally important. But they collapsed and ended their operations by the early 1960s. Similarly, in the private sector, Gunasena Books also published some important academic texts until the 1970s. But these conditions are no longer in operation today. What we need to understand is, under such a weak professional environment, it is not possible for Sri Lanka to develop a tradition of advanced and critical writing and publishing.

So far, I have only talked about books. But it is not only quality books that create a tradition of writing and publishing. As we know well, globally, journals also play an important role in this regard. Until the 1970s, the University of Peradeniya-based Ceylon Journal of Humanities regularly published numerous important articles on the humanities and social sciences. What I have heard is that the journal is now difficult to sustain, even though it still exists. This is because of issues such as financial constraints, the difficulty of obtaining high quality articles and lapses in its organisational and operational structure. During the heyday of this journal (that is, until the 1960s or early 1970s), the journal Sanskriti, based beyond the formal university structure, played an important role in addressing issues of contemporary scholarship in the Sinhala language. It was an effort to bring contemporary scholarly knowledge via Sinhala to a more popular readership.

Today, we know there are several journals maintained by universities, faculties and departments. These are open to publishing articles in Sinhala or English. Though there are such journals in Tamil too, my knowledge on these is limited. However, when I read these, it becomes clear that some of the issues I described earlier, as well as the limitations in peer-review and editorial policies become apparent.

But ideally, there simply cannot be such lapses in journals published by universities. In this situation, it is heartening to know that the University of Colombo Review has reinvented itself in recent times. It remains to be seen if this journal can sustain itself in its new life over time by taking into account the reasons that led to its collapses earlier. So far, I have discussed very briefly the problems in the writing and publishing tradition in Sri Lankan social sciences and humanities. But in the midst of all these issues, we must not forget that there are at least a handful of scholars who attempt to bring their research and writing on Sri Lanka into the global discourse.

In addition to several research articles published globally, I am reminded of the recent works of two Sri Lankan researchers based on research in Sri Lanka. The first is, Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka by Professor Tudor Silva, formerly of the University of Peradeniya. This was published in 2014 by Orient Black Swan, India. The other example I have in mind is Professor Harshana Rambukwella’s 2018 publication, The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity: A Cultural Genealogy of Sinhala Nationalism. Rambukwella who teaches at the Open University of Sri Lanka published his book via University College London Press, England, which also happens to be an open source book making anyone access it and download free of cost.

I have only mentioned two examples of publications of this category to make one simple point. That is, if one wants to take crucial knowledge produced in Sri Lanka to global discourses and has the interest do so, it is obviously not impossible. But it takes considerable time and effort, and, as I described earlier, it requires one to comply with the standards of international publishers and to conform to their practices. Whether we like it or not, we have to accept that these fundamental issues exist in the Sri Lanka’s present tradition in writing and publishing. If we are reluctant to accept what is obvious, solving these problems would be impossible.

Remedial action

There are a number of approaches we can think of and implement as solutions in this regard. I would focus on four of these:

The first is to consider republishing in Sri Lanka at least a few of the recent globally published books on Sri Lanka. That is, to publish these books that are currently mostly unavailable in the country specifically for local distribution at the time of their original release. Without this, it would be impossible let this knowledge entre the intellectual discourse in Sri Lanka. With the intervention of interested authors, this is not an impossible task. As far as I remember, the Social Scientists Association of Sri Lanka undertook this process successfully to some extent by collaborating with a number of local and global publishers.

As a result, these books were made available to Sri Lankan scholars at an affordable price and was more easily available locally. But to make this kind of process more successful, it must be part of a clear and organised mechanism that can survive over time. For example, is it not possible to imagine reprinting such books in Sri Lanka with the co-participation of a Sri Lankan university, an interested Sri Lankan private sector publisher and the international publisher who published the original book?

There is another important approach that needs to be considered in this regard. No matter how important English and other international languages ​​are in the production and global distribution of knowledge, these alone cannot build and sustain a tradition of local intellectual writing and publishing. There is no argument that local scholars must be fluent in English and other international languages to enter domains of global knowledge.

Even so, a local writing and publishing tradition can only be more comprehensively established if the widespread and more established local-languages can sustain this tradition. Therefore, we need an institutional system that can properly maintain academic and technical standards and would regularly publish original works in Sinhala and Tamil while also making available Sinhala and Tamil translations of selected globally published books of the kind I have referred to earlier.

The third possible intervention is to seek out a handful of publishers who already publish scholarly works - with all their shortcomings – and explore the possibility of persuading to run their businesses, subject to a certain set of basic normative preconditions when it comes to publishing academic texts. That is, is it possible for a university or a group of academic volunteers to provide the necessary training to a selected group of publishers, providing them with knowledge on the essential practices and techniques, and nudge them to publish more serious books than is done now to further nurture the local tradition in writing and publishing in social sciences and humanities?

The fourth approach has to do with improving the intellectual standard of journals. As I noted earlier, intellectual standards of most existing journals are not comparable to well-known standards adopted by journals of global repute. If this reality is accepted, is not possible for the relevant universities or individual academics in charge of these journals to reconsider their editorial policies and practices, clearly understand to what extend they come close to or deviate from global standard practices, and enhance the skills of editors and peer-reviewers? If this can be achieved, then, it is not impossible to upgrade the scholarly standards of these journals.

But before attempting any of these, it is important to understand that there are a number of obvious issues in operation in this context, and to clearly comprehend what they are and what interventions can be made to address them.

What I have done so far is to simply present a set of ideas and a glimpse into the Sri Lanka’s academic writing and publishing tradition as I see it based on my observations and notes jotted down over the last two decades. These ideas can be more suitably adapted and fine-tuned by scholars and academics currently active in Sri Lanka. Similarly, what I have not emphasised can be brought into this discussion to make it more robust. Alternatively, of course, these ideas may be dismissed as baseless and useless.

However, when it comes to writing traditions in any discipline and irrespective of what language that tradition operates in, it is not possible that the preconditions and standards associated with them can be perceived differently – one for Sri Lanka and another for the more advanced intellectual hubs in the world. That is, what we publish in Sri Lanka should be suitable for publication anywhere else in the world.