Thursday, September 29, 2016

What's the point of an academic journal?


I find that I often read my academic colleagues' papers at and other similar repositories, or they send me their drafts directly.  I am not always aware of whether the paper has been published or not.  Sometimes I can see that I'm looking at a word-processed document (double spacing, etc.); other times the paper is so smart it's impossible to distinguish from a formally-published piece of writing (LaTeX etc.).

Reading colleagues' drafts gives me access to the cutting edge of recent research.  Reading in a journal can mean I'm looking at something the author had finished with one, two or even three years ago.  In that sense, reading drafts is like attending a conference.  You find out what's going on, even if the materials are rough at the edges.  You participate in the current conversation.

In many ways, reading colleagues' writings informally like this is more similar to the medieval ways of knowledge-exchange that were dominated by letter-writing.  The most famous example is Mersenne (fl. 1600), who was at the centre of a very important network of letter-writers, and just preceded the founding of the first academic journal, Henry Oldenberg's Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (founded 1665).

What am I missing?

Editorial control

What I don't get by reading private drafts is the curatorial intervention of a board of editors.  A journals' editorial board acts as a gatekeeper for knowledge, making decisions about what is worth propagating and what is not worth propagating.  The board also makes small improvements and changes to submissions, required since many academic authors are poor writers, and because of the natural processes of error. So, a good editorial board makes curatorial decisions about what to display, and improves quality.

Counter-argument: Many editorial boards don't do their work professionally. The extended "advisory board members" are window-dressing; the real editorial activity is often carried out by only one dynamic person, perhaps with secretarial support.  This depends, of course, on the size of the journal and the academic field it serves.  I'm thinking of sub-fields in the humanities.

Archiving and findability

A journal also provides archival storage for the long term.  This is critically important.  An essential process in academic work is to "consult the archive."  The archive has to actually be there in order to be accessed.  A journal - in print or electronically - offers a stable way of finding scholars' work through metadata tagging (aka cataloguing), and through long-term physical or electronic storage.  If I read a colleagues' draft, I may not be able to find it again in a year's time.  Is it still at  Where?  Did I save a copy on my hard drive?  Is my hard drive well-organized and backed up (in which case, is it a journal of sorts?)?

Counter-argument:  Are electronic journals archival?  Are they going to be findable in a decade's time?  Some are, some aren't.  The same goes for print, but print is - at the present time - more durable, and more likely to be findable in future years.  An example is the All India Ayurvedic Directory, published in the years around the 1940s.  A very valuable document of social and medical history.  It's unavailable through normal channels.  Only a couple of issues have been microfilmed or are in libraries.  Most of the journal is probably available in Kottayam or Trissur in Kerala, but it would take a journey to find it and a lot of local diplomatic effort to be given permission to see it.  Nevertheless, it probably exists, just.


A journal may develop a reputation that facilitates trust in the articles published by that journal.  This is primarily of importance for people who don't have time to read for themselves and to engage in the primary scholarly activity of thinking and making judgements based on arguments and evidence.  A journal's prestige may also play a part in embedding it in networks of scholarly trust and shared but not known knowledge, in the sense developed by Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge, The Tacit Dimension and other writings).


At the moment, I can't think of any other justifications for the existence of journals.  But if editorial functions and long-term storage work properly, they are major factors that are worth having.

Further reading


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Getting Xindy to work for IAST-encoded text

Xindy is an index-processor for use with TeX and LaTeX.  It is a successor to Makeindex, and is the standard system for formatting and sorting indexes and glossaries that go with LaTeX documents.


The main distribution of Xindy is included in TeXlive and is downloadable at CTAN.  At the time of writing (July 2016), this is version 2.5.1 (2014).  The source code used to be maintained at Sourceforge (Xindy at sourceforge, currently version 2.3 from 2008), but a later version is now available at Github (Xindy at Github).  Since Github has version 2.5.0, source development and compilation for TeXlive must be going on somewhere else, but I don't know where.   The best place to fetch Xindy if you want to tinker with it is from the CTAN base directory.

Use and benefits

The development of Xindy is uneven, given the various repositories with different versions.  The documentation is also of limited use to beginners, being technical and out of date (the examples in the tutorial do not work with the current software release).   Nevertheless, it is a very flexible and powerful program, and does a great job when it works.  And for many texts and nearly fifty modern languages, it "just works," which is great.

In LaTeX documents, the packages index, makeidx or imakeidx will normally be used to provide the macros needed for indexes.  Xindy does the rest.

Sanskrit and IAST

For my writing, I normally use XeTeX with LaTeX and I write using Unicode UTF8 encoding and the IAST transliteration scheme when doing Sanskrit in Roman script.  (For Devanagari I use normal Unicode encoding.)

Xindy by itself doesn't recognize the IAST accented characters like vowels with a macron or consonants with under-dot.  I found that setting Xindy's language to "general" did a pretty good job of nearly all the characters, but not all.  I got words with ā-, ṛ- etc. at the beginning of the index, before "A."


The program for creating a new "alphabet" for Xindy is in Perl and is called make-rules.  I couldn't initially find it at all, because it isn't at the Sourceforge or GitHub repositories (or I couldn't find it).  Later, I found it at CTAN, and I wish I'd seen that earlier.

Finally, I could not get make-rules to work.  The documentation and tutorials simply didn't provide me with enough accurate information to start, as a beginner, and get a workable result from make-rules.

Solution (aka kludge)

I therefore made up a very simple Xindy style file, IAST.xdy, with the following content:
(merge-rule "ā" "a")    (merge-rule "Ā" "a")    (merge-rule "ḍ" "d")    (merge-rule "Ḍ" "d")    (merge-rule "ḥ" "h")    (merge-rule "Ḥ" "h")    (merge-rule "ī" "i")    (merge-rule "Ī" "i")    (merge-rule "ḹ" "l")  (merge-rule "ḷ" "l")    (merge-rule "Ḹ" "l")  (merge-rule "Ḷ" "l")    (merge-rule "ṃ" "m")            (merge-rule "Ṃ" "m")            (merge-rule "ṅ" "n")    (merge-rule "Ṅ" "n")    (merge-rule "ṇ" "n")    (merge-rule "Ṇ" "n")    (merge-rule "ṝ" "r")     (merge-rule "ṛ" "r")    (merge-rule "Ṝ" "r")     (merge-rule "Ṛ" "r")    (merge-rule "ṣ" "s")    (merge-rule "Ṣ" "s")    (merge-rule "ś" "s")    (merge-rule "Ś" "s")    (merge-rule "ṭ" "t")    (merge-rule "Ṭ" "t")    (merge-rule "ū" "u")   (merge-rule "Ū" "u")
  • I place IAST.xdy in my local TeX tree, namely as  ../localtexmf/xindy/modules/IAST.xdy 
  • I run "sudo mktexlsr" to rebuild the TeXlive indexes so that Xindy can find IAST.xdy
  • I then run Xindy from the Linux command line with the following syntax:

    texindy -I xelatex -M iast.xyd -L general -o foobar.ind foobar.idx
This last point is a Knuthian white lie (TeXbook, vii).  I currently use TeXStudio for actual writing, so the above "command line" is entered into TeXStudio's "options/configure/commands" menu and invoked with a convenient function-key shortcut. 


  • texindy is just xindy with some tweaks for use with LaTeX
  • -I means the input file use "xelatex" encoding, i.e., UTF8
  • -M means please use this style file
  • -L means please use the pseudo-language "general" which does the right thing with most UTF8-encoded Roman / European text.
  • "foobar" is replaced by your TeX filename; in TeXStudio's syntax it's "%", which stands for whatever file you're currently working on, 

I'm now getting results that look like this, which is what I was after:

I'm sure that all this could be done more elegantly and completely.  In the longer run, I hope a successor to IAST.xdy might take its place alongside all the other languages formally supported by Xindy.
While working on this, I sent cries for help to the Xindy discussion list.  Zdenek Wagner replied, and shared with me work he has done towards indexing Hindi and Marathi in Devanagari script.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

How "open" is "Open Access"

As the Open Access model becomes increasingly important for public knowledge dissemination, some agencies with vested interests have begun to complicate matters by introducing hybrid publishing models.  Some of these are not fully in the interests of authors or readers.

PLOS has a great discussion about the issues at stake, and they refer to the OAS brochure, which is provided in many languages.

The second page of this OAS brochure is very short, clear and helpful.  Recommended!

Friday, April 22, 2016

On the use of parentheses in translation

This deserves a fuller discussion; I'm just doing a quick note here, arising out of a conversation with Dagmar and Jason Birch.;

My thinking is influenced by my teachers Gombrich and Matilal, both of whom had a lot to say about translation, and by reading materials on translation by Lawrence Venuti and Umberto Eco (Mouse or Rat?).  There's a huge literature on translation, including specific materials on Skt like Garzilli, E. (Ed.) Translating, Translations, Translators from India to the West.  Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ., 1996.

I wonder about the heavy use of parentheses by Indologists.  One does not see this in English translations from French, say, or German.  Or even Latin or Greek.  What are we up to?  I can distinguish several reasons for parentheses in English trs. from Skt. 
  • Fear.  We are asserting to the reader that we know what we're doing, and making our word-choices explicit.  This is a defence against the small voice in our brains that says "professor so-and-so won't accept a fluent, uninterrupted translation from me, seeing it as bad.  I'll get criticised in public."
  • Habit.  We see others doing it and absorb the habit.
  • Germanism.  Venuti has shown compellingly, in The Translator's Invisibility, how different linguistic audiences receive translations differently.  English readers and reviewers approve strongly of translations of which they can say, "it reads as naturally as if the author had written in English."  German readers are different, and want to experience a sense of foreignness in their translations; if a translation reads fluently in German, they feel there is some deception being carried out. Since so many translations from Sanskrit were done by Germans, English readers like us get used to the "German" presuppositions of the nature of translation, and simply carry on in that idiom.  See the attached Kielhorn example.  

The Kielhorn exemplifies another major problem, that Matilal used to talk about passionately.  If you read Kielhorn's tr. leaving out the parentheses, it's gobbledegook. Matilal said that if one has to use parentheses, then the text not in parentheses should read as a semantically coherent narrative.  This is because the Sanskrit is a semantically coherent narrative.  To present an incoherent English text is a tacit assertion that the Sanskrit is incoherent.  In which case, we should see parentheses in Sanskrit too.  Sometimes we do, as in Panini's mechanism of anuvṛtti, when parts of previous sutras are tacitly read into subsequent ones.  Anuvṛtti is doing similar work to that done by parentheses.  So Vasu's translation of Panini uses parentheses in a valid way, I would argue.
What are valid reasons for parentheses?  I would say that very, very rarely it is justified to put a Skt word in brackets when not to do so would be seriously confusing or misleading for the typical reader, or when the Skt author is making a tacit point.  "He incurred a demerit (karma) by failing to do the ritual (karma)."   Or, in the RV, "The lord (asura) of settlements has readied for me two oxen ."(Scharfe 2016: 48).

Then there's the psychology of reading. For me, this is one of the important reasons for not using parentheses or asides of any kind.  I've never articulated this before, so what follows may be a bit incoherent.​  When I watch my mind during reading, I absorb sentences and they create a sense of understanding.  It's quite fast, and it's a flow.  As I go along, the combination of this flow of sentences and the accumulation of a page or two of it in memory produces the effect of having a new meaning in my mind, of having understood a semantic journey shared with me by the author.  But when there are many parentheses, that flow is broken.  The reading becomes much slower, and I often have to read things several times, including a once-over skipping the parentheses.  This slow, assembly-style reading is not impossible, and one may gain something.  But one loses a lot.  What's lost is the larger-scale comprehension, and the sense of a flow of ideas.
What I find works for me as a reader and writer is to avoid the branching of the flow of attention while reading.  Branching is often done through parenthetical statements, -- and through dashed asides -- (and through discursive footnotes), but not citation footnotes.  In my mind, it's like travelling in a car and taking every side road, driving down it for two hundred metres and then coming back to the main road, and continuing just until the next side road, etc.  As a writer, I find it quite easy to avoid branching.  I do it by thinking in advance about the things I want to say, and then working out a sequence in which I want to present them so that the reader gets the sense of connection.  Cut-n-paste is very helpful.
I'm not sure whether the above is totally personal to me, or a widely-shared phenomenon.  I've never read anything about this topic.  I have read about eye-movements during reading, and the relationship of this to line-length and typeface design.  I should look around for material on the psychology of comprehension during reading.  There must be something out there.

Wendy Doniger, who writes well, said last year:
I sound out every line I write, imagining the reader reading it, and never imagining as the reader certain scholars, who shall remain nameless, who might be watching with an eagle eye, poised to pounce on any mistake I might make; no, I always imagine the reader as my father, on my side. I try to be that person to my students, who are otherwise vulnerable to an imaginaire of hostile reception that can block their writing, as it keeps some of my most brilliant colleagues from publishing. My father saved me from that.
-- "A Life of Learning"


  • Eco, U. Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation.  Phoenix Press, 2004
  • Garzilli, E. (Ed.) Translating, Translations, Translators from India to the West.  Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ., 1996.
  • Scharfe, H. "Ṛgveda, Avesta, and Beyond—ex occidente lux?"  Journal of the American Oriental Society, 2016, 136, 47-67.
  • Venuti, L. The Translator's Invisibility: A History Of Translation.  London, New York, Routledge, 1995

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Essay-writing support

For those of you who are writing essays for the first time, here are some guidelines.

There are many guides available to help you with essay-writing.  However, I am mainly familiar with those in English.
  • One of my favourites is the long-established students' guide published by the UK's Open University,
    • The Arts Good Study Guide by Chambers and Northledge (2nd ed., 2008).
      It's clearly printed, well-written, and realistic.  I find the book at, and the OU.  It's £15.  There is a preview of about 40 pages available from the publisher.
      The sister volume, The Good Study Guide, is also, er, good.
  • The University of East Anglia has an excellent reputation for teaching how to write well.  They have a free, online guide that you can download.  It is basic, but you may find it useful. Free, online PDF.
  • The University of Southampton has a Study Skills Handbook by Barbara Allan that addresses essay-writing in chapter 7.  Chapter 13 on Reflection is unusual and rather good, I think.   Free online PDF.
  • The Modern Humanities Research Association puts out an excellent booklet on writing: The MHRA Style Guide. You can buy it in print (cheap at $19), or download their free PDF version. Be aware, though, that unlike the other guides above, the MHRA guide is only about the mechanics of writing, spelling, punctuation, footnotes, and bibliographies.  It does not help with how to assemble your ideas, or plan an essay.  But since it's free as a PDF, it's still worth getting, and will help you answer questions about silly details like what English words should have capital letters, or how to put together your bibliography.

Many guides to writing suggest that you should begin by having a question, and then doing some research, organising your notes, and then writing your essay.  Or some variant of this procedure.
I am not sure I agree.  I think it's important to start with a question, yes.  But sometimes the best way to begin can be to actually sit down and start writing or typing.  Write a sentence, or two, or a paragraph, about the question.  Then you will begin to feel how much you know and can say, and how much you need to go and read in order to be able to write the next sentence.
The great cultural historian Peter Burke makes some very interesting remarks about his own process of thinking and writing in this 2004 interview (from 3min 11sec).  He goes to his desk in the morning and writes.  No preliminary reading.  Then, in the afternoon, he goes to the library.  Writing precedes reading.
Two more late additions.  These can be bought second-hand in the UK from Amazon for 0.01p, plus postage!
  • Ashman & Creme, How to Write Essays (1976). PDF
  • Ashman & Creme, Reading for Study (1976). PDF

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Re: Against the petition against Pollock

A petition that started this business was posted on  I noticed it on 26 Feb.
The background causative issues include present government policies in India towards national culture, and the publication of the book by Rajiv Malhotra (USA) called The Battle for Sanskrit.  I haven't seen the book, but it appears to be an attack on Sheldon Pollock's scholarship.   Malhotra is a rich American who funds attacks on American scholars of Indian studies etc.

My response to the petition was posted to the INDOLOGY forum on 27 Feb.:
Some media responses: