I began as editor-in-chief of the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde in 2009, and the current issue is the last to be produced under my aegis. It is time to step aside before the journal has remained in the same hands for too long. Being the editor of a journal that has appeared since 1853 has been a privilege, an honour, and quite a responsibility as well. The journal has been guided by such a long series of editors—many of them quite famous scholars—and I was determined that it would not deteriorate, or even disappear, on my watch. I believe that I am handing over the Bijdragen to my successor in good shape and hope that readers continue to find the journal a stimulating mix of the old and the new. Peer reviewers, at least, have often confirmed its good reputation when observing that a manuscript was worthy of being published, ‘but was not yet up to the standard of the Bijdragen’.
Being the editor means taking painful decisions, including rejecting manuscripts from friends or distinguished seniors. Manuscripts that required greater technical competence from readers have fallen victim to my policy of encouraging authors to think about a wider readership than just the few people who are interested in precisely the topic under study. Linguistic manuscripts and anthropological studies of kinship systems in particular have been repeatedly turned away, belying the name of the journal (taalkunde, meaning ‘linguistics’). Quite a few linguistics scholars have been indignant about this policy. Personally, I am more troubled by other editorial decisions that in hindsight may have been unjust, when I have relied too much on critical peer reviewers who gave thoroughly revised manuscripts the thumbs down. I cannot mention anyone by name here, but in my thoughts I apologize for these editorial decisions.
One policy that so far has had only limited success is to give more space to Southeast Asian scholars. The Bijdragen is the only Dutch journal that survived the decolonization of Indonesia, after dropping the words ‘van Nederlandsch-Indië’ from its name. However, the journal still contains too many articles about the Global South written by scholars from the Global North. Since the introduction of the online editorial system in 2013, which saves a complete copy of all submitted manuscripts, the overall acceptance rate for manuscripts has been 38 %, but the acceptance rate for manuscripts submitted by Indonesian scholars based at Indonesian universities is a disappointing 5 %. (The acceptance rate for manuscripts submitted by scholars from other ASEAN countries is somewhat higher, namely 15 %; the acceptance rate for manuscripts from Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong equals the overall acceptance rate; the acceptance rate for manuscripts from Europe, Australia, and North America lies above 50 %. In contrast not a single manuscript from scholars based in a diverse group of countries including India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Ethiopia, and Botswana has been accepted, nor have any of the manuscripts submitted by scholars with a Western-sounding name based at Southeast Asian universities.)
The international community needs to think about the best way to decolonize Academia. As early as 2002, Ariel Heryanto asked the question, ‘Can there be Southeast Asians in Southeast Asian studies?’ He observed that English language skills are overvalued, while fluency in indigenous vernaculars or familiarity with local customs are undervalued (Heryanto 2002). I still vividly remember my first presentations at an Indonesian university, for the faculties of economics and social sciences of the Universitas Andalas in Padang in 1990. I was in Padang to collect data for my PhD thesis about the development of that city and presented my preliminary findings to audiences of interested Indonesian scholars. The discussions at these seminars could easily run on for two hours. I quickly realized that the staff from Universitas Andalas knew more about my topic than I did, but although my writings found their way into international journals, theirs did not. More recently, just five years ago, I joined Ibnu Fikri on his fieldwork, accompanying him, among other excursions, to the landfill in Semarang. I had carried out research at the landfill in Surabaya, where I had had to work hard to establish a rapport with the waste-pickers, and sometimes struggled with the language when they interspersed their Indonesian with Javanese words that I did not understand. Ibnu, in contrast, sometimes did not even have to ask a question: he could just offer a cigarette and stories from the male waste-pickers would begin to flow (Fikri 2020). In my experience, therefore, Heryanto was right that Indonesians can undertake excellent research. Why, then, do we not get to see more articles from them?
Partly driven by my own frustration about the small number of Indonesian inclusions in the journal, and as a minor contribution to making the voices of Indonesian scholars better heard, I have given four one-week writing clinics at Universitas Gadjah Mada and Universitas Airlangga and hope to give more in the future. I usually begin these clinics by stating that the term ‘international journal’ is a misnomer for journals promoting hegemonic Western standards and writing conventions and imposing the use of English as the only accepted language for disseminating findings. Having said that, if Indonesian scholars (and the Indonesian government) want to publish in these allegedly international journals, they will have to learn the rules of the game. However, contrary to what most Indonesian scholars think, the English language is not the biggest obstacle; most peer reviewers are willing to overlook language flaws, as am I. (Our copy editor can take care of language issues.) In fact, it is usually the growing number of Indonesian peer reviewers who are most critical of the language skills of their compatriots.
In my experience, manuscripts from Indonesians (and those of other scholars whose manuscripts are rejected) are often found wanting in two aspects. Firstly, they lack a connection to broader academic debates. A detailed case study can be interesting, but only if its relevance to broader issues is made clear. Unfortunately, this connection is often lacking. Secondly, manuscripts often lack a clear argument; the best way to make the argument clear to the reader is to write coherent paragraphs with topic sentences that summarize the paragraphs and refer to each other.
The further decolonization of Academia in general, and the Bijdragen in particular, is necessary not only because it would give Indonesian and other Southeast Asian scholars a fairer chance or because it is morally unacceptable that only Northern scholars write about Southeast Asia. Just as importantly, the international community of scholars misses a lot of the detail when Southeast Asian work goes unnoticed. While we can discuss the degree to which research is subjective, the fact that the positionality of researchers has an impact on our scholarly work cannot be contested. For this reason, too, we all need input from Indonesian scholars. At the risk of making gross oversimplifications, Indonesian scholars can give fresh perspectives on, for instance, the role of religion, gender relations, the mechanisms of historical and contemporary disempowerment, or subtle cultural sensitivities that pass unnoticed by outsiders. Decolonization means that people in hegemonic positions must decentralize their own views and create space for different voices.
Fortunately, I can report some progress on the input from Indonesian scholars. Not only has the number of manuscripts submitted per year almost tripled since 2016—probably thanks to the state pressure on Indonesian scholars to publish in Scopus-indexed journals—but more importantly, the acceptance rate for manuscripts written by scholars based at Indonesian universities has been twice as high in the past three years as it was between 2013 and 2018. The acceptance rate for Indonesian scholars (that is, scholars with Indonesian-sounding names) at universities in the North is very similar to the acceptance rate for Northern scholars; this group, including scholars pursuing a PhD in Europe and Australia, combines familiarity with Southeast Asian cultural subtleties with familiarity with Northern writing conventions. While I do not have figures for the backgrounds of peer reviewers, in this respect the role of Indonesians is also clearly on the rise. Moreover, in the book reviews published in the Bijdragen, the input of Indonesians has grown rapidly (book reviews have not been my responsibility but that of the book-review editors). These reviews might be a stepping-stone to an increased submission of fully fledged articles.
To end, I would like to thank a large number of people and organizations. I have always enjoyed pleasant cooperation with the staff from the publisher, Brill, and I thank the members of the editorial board for their practical advice and, when necessary, moral backing. The whole community of Southeast Asian scholars should be very grateful to the Vereniging van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (KITLV) for paying the authors’ fees and the copy-editing expenses. I am not sure many people are aware of this luxury, but it is thanks to the KITLV that the Bijdragen is a fully open-access journal, freely accessible to both readers and authors, regardless of their financial situation. In this sense, the Bijdragen is a progressive journal; it is also old-fashioned—and this is meant as a compliment—in still accepting a high word limit of 12,000 words for an article.
Over the years I have learnt a lot about Academia and the editorship has enriched my insights into human character. I am grateful to the authors with whom I have had to deal, especially those who graciously accepted the rejection of a manuscript and those who treated peer reviews not as a tick-the-box exercise to get a manuscript accepted but sincerely tried to learn from them and were not afraid to completely overhaul a manuscript to improve it.
Special thanks go to my managing editors, first Tom van den Berge and later Rosemarijn Höfte; copy editor Klarijn Anderson-Loven; and desk editor Iedske van Coevorden, all of whom cannot be praised too highly. The deliberations with Tom took place in a small room with one desk for two persons at set meeting times; with Rosemarijn everything goes through the editorial management system and by email, seven days a week. What has remained unchanged is the camaraderie and sense of humour.
Finally, I want to use this editorial to sing the praises of the numerous peer reviewers. Your work was done voluntarily, took a lot of your precious time, and nevertheless remains anonymous and hidden from the sight of the general public. It is thanks to you that the Bijdragen maintains its academic standards and I greatly appreciate your unwavering support, especially at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has increased the pressure upon us.
Fikri, Ibnu (2020). Green Islam in Indonesia: Islam and environmental practice in Semarang. [PhD thesis, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.]
Heryanto, Ariel (2002). ‘Can there be Southeast Asians in Southeast Asian studies?’, Moussons. Recherche en sciences humaines sur l’ Asie du Sud-Est 5:3–30.