Shibboleths in Academia

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A New Orleans resident challenges out-of-towners there to protest against the 2017 removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument. Their inability to pronounce “Tchoupitoulas Street” according to the local fashion would be a shibboleth marking them as outsiders. Source: Infrogmation of New Orleans, via Wikipedia.

I’ve wanted an excuse to use this word for years.

From Wikipedia :

A shibboleth (/ˈʃɪbəlɛθ, -ɪθ/) is any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another. Shibboleths have been used throughout history in many societies as passwords, simple ways of self-identification, signaling loyalty and affinity, maintaining traditional segregation, or protecting from real or perceived threats… The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת‎), which means the part of a plant containing grain, such as the head of a stalk of wheat or rye…The modern use derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect used a differently sounding first consonant. 

It’s also “a single sign-on log-in system for computer networks and the Internet. It allows people to sign in using just one identity to various systems run by federations of different organizations or institutions. The federations are often universities or public service organizations.”, Wikipedia again. But I’m referring more to the original meaning.

A few months ago I submitted a paper to an academic conference, just heard it had been rejected. The three reviews concluded: weak accept; reject; borderline. I’m not particularly bothered – the big thing for me was getting the thing written, was material I believe useful which I’d been sitting on for years without doing a proper write-up. Doing a paper gave me an approach and a deadline. Had a very encouraging person prompting me for this, her positivity got me to do something I’d been struggling with. Yes, getting the paper published would have been a nice little ego massage, but I had nothing else riding on this.

Reading the content of the reviews, most of this was valid, reasonable criticism. But all three noted that I’d not used the preferred format/style. In one of them, out of 5 sentences, 2 referred to the format. (One was quoting what the paper was about, a standard little check on the reviewer, so 50% form/content, Marshall McLuhan would love).

I’m amused by my own stupidity here. I had to write a bunch of code from scratch to be sure I knew what I was talking about and naturally left the writing until the very last minute (actually submitted a couple of weeks after the official deadline, so that could easily have been an automatic fail). I used the first template I thought looked good enough. Had I taken the time to find and use the correct template, might that have nudged the reviews up the right side of borderline? Probably not, but…

There are plenty of reasons good papers can get rejected and bad ones accepted. There have been some notable cases recently, eg. Huge study supporting ivermectin as Covid treatment withdrawn over ethical concerns : It appeared that the authors had run entire paragraphs from press releases and websites about ivermectin and Covid-19 through a thesaurus to change key words. “Humorously, this led to them changing ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome’ to ‘extreme intense respiratory syndrome’ on one occasion,”… From SARS to EIRS, oops.

Things like this can (initially) slip through the net, because the authors know the shibboleths.

I’m no doubt a little over-sensitive about this, being very much more town than gown. Although I don’t have any formal qualifications to speak of, I’ve contributed to several papers and books and have spent a fair bit of time associated with academic conferences, been invited to talk a few times. Done a lot of reviewing over the years, so I should know the score.

But more generally the odds are stacked against folks that aren’t within the academic system. I’ve no doubt the author’s honorific and affiliations can sometimes have a role in priming the reviewer in one direction or another. My mistake over format is a silly thing, but if I worked within a Uni and had a supervisor experienced in such things, they’d have caught that right away. There are more subtle things, such as the language style, but hopefully anyone submitting a paper would have spent enough time reading papers to get that about right. More blatant things could also be a factor – knowing whose papers to reference could make a big difference.

Yeah, I am shying away from the elephant, that the material might not have got a lot going for it. I’m pretty sure the thing I did offered something, presumably not what was wanted. Academia has it’s perversities, vogues, hype curve, all the same as the real world (or the commercial sector, if you wish to frame it that way). I’m just very glad I did the write-up, get it out of my system. The organiser that asked me for a paper has said she can probably reposition it as a workshop thing for publication, given edits. Not sure what that’ll involve (aside from taking reviewer crit on board). We’ll see what happens there. All I can say is, very strongly, if you have an idea, write it up. It’s very satisfying. Publish if possible for sure, get the idea out, worst case, blog! (And/or use one of the open academic peer-review systems.)

I don’t know, net-net I suppose the shibboleths aren’t a terrible thing, they can be learnt by people outside the system and shouldn’t be an obstacle to folks with a bit of diligence (unlike myself). On the plus side they can act as a useful filter. I would just hope that they aren’t the determining factor for lazy reviewers.


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