A journal bent on change opens the door to more diversity

Despite the strides made in the education sector, over a quarter of the population in India is yet to receive any form of primary education. The numbers for higher education are even more dismal, with fewer than 10% of Indians receiving a university education.

Indeed, academia in India and the wider South Asian region is often considered an exclusive club for the few. This lack of opportunity, compounded by a ruthlessly competitive academic culture and a points system wherein professional opportunities and promotions are directly linked to the quantity of publications, provides the perfect ground for the growth of numerous predatory journals across the country.

Despite the government’s best efforts to intervene and stop such activities on numerous occasions, the damage has been done. Academics have received incentives to pay large sums of money to have their papers published, mostly without review, in multiple bogus journals with fancy names, with nearly no consequences for the publishers.

Having gained some experience working for academic journals, we encountered multiple structural issues within them. Among these issues was the lack of accessibility of the research being published. There was also a lack of opportunity to be published in the more reputed journals for the vast majority of Indian students, a large percentage of whom attend state-subsidised colleges and universities and face various constraints, including financial and linguistic ones.

As a result, in the early months of 2018, we started discussing the formation of a journal that would free our peers from these limitations. The initial idea was to create a small student-run journal that would be mostly restricted to our law school (the faculty of law, Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi). However, a chance meeting with Dr Catherine Cerulli, who was visiting our law school as a Fulbright fellow, changed our plans and helped us to aim bigger with our audience.

After discussing our idea, she offered to support us and continued to do so throughout our journey. Her expertise in the interdisciplinary study of law and social sciences, coupled with her experience in academia, has proven to be crucial for the expansion of our original vision and she has helped us create our open access journal, the South Asian Journal of Law, Policy, and Social Research.

Shared values and an interdisciplinary approach

This journey and the journal that resulted, though different from our original idea in many ways, have remained in keeping with our guiding and foundational principles. In this regard, our partnership with SSRN, Elsevier’s pre-print and early-stage research platform, has proved to be especially beneficial.

We chose this platform because the objectives and values of SSRN aligned with ours, specifically with regard to the accessibility of research, the ease of dissemination and the mitigation of financial constraints.

Furthermore, we had long held the belief that law, as a discipline, should not be studied in isolation, but rather in relation to wider society and in conjunction with the social sciences. Subsequently, we decided to make our journal interdisciplinary.

SSRN is built to encourage learning and sharing across multiple subject areas. Uniquely, it organises research across different areas of the platform, which allows researchers to quickly and easily access relevant and interesting papers that would otherwise be invisible to them because they appear in entirely different disciplines than their own.

This provides interdisciplinary discovery and encourages the cross-pollination of ideas that are crucial for fast and collaborative research.

Both regional and global

We also recognised that the South Asian region is a cultural agglomeration of sorts as it shares a common past and subsequently a similar legal structure due to a shared history of colonisation. It has also suffered from common social ills and issues in the past, which led to our area of interest being the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations.

This aspect was further cemented by the choice of our first theme, gender-based violence, which has certain features that, while unique to the region, are shared by most of the countries in SAARC.

Due to the immense support we received from the University of Rochester in the United States, and particularly the Susan B Anthony Center, we added another aspect to the journal: a transcontinental editorial board.

Linking the academic expertise of both Western and Eastern scholarship and the cultural considerations and lived experiences of South Asian students has resulted in the publication of high-quality and diverse research.

Internet penetration across the subcontinent has grown exponentially over the last decade. Hence, an online journal that could be shared widely and rapidly seemed like the best option for us to complement the wider access to Wi-Fi.

However, to ensure we did not leave any gaps in our reach, which might be caused due to the lack of internet in certain areas, we also decided to do a print run of the journal, which we could circulate to major libraries and also distribute on request, free of charge.

Passing the mic

The results have been extremely effective as far as our initial goals were concerned. We were able to establish transcontinental academic relationships, which we believe will aid further legal research projects.

Also, the demographics of the authors published in the journal and the speakers at our first conference that followed span diverse backgrounds. By including gender, linguistic and religious minorities as well as people from marginalised castes and regions, we were able to ‘pass the mic’, which is uncommon even in progressive South Asian academic spaces.

Finally, our core aim of being able to influence policy-making through informed research, with special regard to policies concerning marginalised groups, also looks likely to be realised thanks to our open access journal. We stand in good stead to influence policy-making through increased participation of marginalised groups and thanks to the good visibility of the research being published.

Admittedly, we are on a journey and a lot of gaps remain to be filled as far as concrete change-making is concerned, but we do believe our journal has made its first step. It has started a conversation.

Umair Ahmed Andrabi and Naseer Husain Jafri are lawyers based in Delhi, India. They are the co-founders and directors of the Foundation for Academia, Innovation and Thought (FAITH) and the South Asian Journal of Law, Policy, and Social Research. They believe in increasing accessibility and diversity in research, and view law as a crucial instrument in social change.