Two More from Laudator.

1) Shocking Blunders:

Mark Thakkar, “Duces caecorum: On Two Recent Translations of Wyclif,” Vivarium 58 (2020) 357-383, is a review of Stephen Penn, John Wyclif: Selected Latin Works in Translation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), and Stephen Lahey, Wyclif, Trialogus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Some of the errors Thakkar exposes are quite shocking. I select two (both from Penn’s translation) as exhibits for my gallery of howlers.

Thakkar, p. 367:

Jesus’s famous aphorism that “many are called, but few are chosen” (multi sunt vocati, pauci vero electi) is jaw-droppingly mistranslated as “many of the elect are called poor” (p. 292).

Id., p. 368:

… both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed contain professions of belief in the Catholic church (‘credo ecclesiam catholicam’ dicit utrumque simbolum), which Penn translates as: “the words ‘I believe in the Catholic church’ represent a symbol everywhere!” (p. 173).

Thakkar concludes his review with this observation (pp. 382-383, footnotes omitted):

[I]n countries like the UK and the US, where secondary-school Latin has collapsed outside the private sector, where few medievalists have an undergraduate background in Classics, and where lecturers would be embarrassed to sit in on language classes, most medievalists are only ever taught Latin while they are graduate students. What’s more, we have already reached the stage where, in some universities, medieval Latin is taught from scratch to graduate students by people who were taught it from scratch when they were graduate students. This is not necessarily unsustainable, but it can only be sustainable if the language is taught seriously and intensively as a major component of graduate study, which it almost never is. And of course the problems we are storing up here are not confined to Wyclif: they will affect almost all areas of medieval studies. If, therefore, we do not drastically improve the level of graduate training in medieval Latin, hopeless misunderstandings of medieval sources will increasingly come to scar the scholarly landscape. In the meantime, it is evidently worth reminding translators and reviewers alike, as Wyclif used to remind his contemporaries, that “if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit.”

The post title is part of the Latin version of the final quote, from Matthew 15:14.

2) Soiled Undergarments:

Dear Mike,

Tom Shippey’s suggested nickname dritbrók, which he coyly forbears to translate, has an English parallel in the name of a Lincolnshire man, Randulfus Bla de Shitebroc, recorded in Court Rolls for 1202. Melissa Mohr, in Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 94) translates the name as ‘roughly, Randall Shitboast’. To quote Shippey, ‘This is a theory one has to reject!’ According to the MED ‘broc (?Cp. OE gebræc noise)’ means ‘a loud boast or threat’. However, if Mohr had consulted the entry for brẹ̄ch n. ‘The undergarment covering the lower part of the body; underpants, drawers, or tights;’ I think she’d have seen in brōc the true source: ‘Etymology OE brēc (pl. of brōc, corresp. to OI brōk, OHG bruoh); perh. also the ON pl. brök-r, although ME brẹ̄k in N texts can come from OE.’ The word needs no translation, just updating. OED citations for shit-breech span the period 1648 to 2001 and include Joyce and Davenport. For brōc-brēc, the same applies as to bōc ‘book’: ‘a feminine athematic consonant stem, with nominative and accusative plural and genitive and dative singular bēc (probably /beːtʃ/), reflecting i-mutation of the stem vowel to ē … and palatalization and assibilation of the final consonant, both due to following i in the lost inflectional ending.’ The plural form beec ‘books’ survived into early Middle English.

Best wishes,

Eric [Thomson]

I’ve always loved the plural bēc; as I wrote back in 2003:

And while I’m at it, the plural of book should historically be beech, which is the result of applying the regular sound changes to the Old English plural bec, with long e. Isn’t linguistics fun?

Comments

  1. [I]n countries like the UK and the US, where secondary-school Latin has collapsed outside the private sector, …

    But those howlers aren’t merely explained by poor Latin. They don’t make sense in English. And what kind of ignorance of the subject matter would make anyone miss a “famous aphorism”?

    It’s the sort of gibberish coughed up by Google Translate. Could we be sure Penn didn’t use Google? Ah, we can: Google gets the aphorism right; but totally fouls up re the Creed.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    The author in question is presumably

    https://www.stir.ac.uk/people/256245

    Not the sole guilty party, though, by any means; was there nobody involved in the conception and production of this book who could have explained to Dr Penn that he lacked the necessary specialised skills? It seems to reflect rather badly on the Manchester University Press. And on the University of York, for that matter …

    Perhaps there is just nobody left who knows enough Latin. Something to do in my retirement? I very much doubt that I am overstating the case if I claim to know more Latin than Dr Penn, at least …

    O tempora! O mores! (grumble, grumble, grumble …)

    [EDIT having seen AntC’s comment: yes indeed! What kind of “Wyclif scholar” fails to recognise one of the best-known passages in the New Testament, even if he’s a crap Latinist?]

  3. St Andrews Research Repository has Thakkar’s full paper. It notes an error of the Wolf-Outrages class:

    in the 2400-odd places where [Lechler’s 1869 edition] had recorded a rejected reading from the editio princeps [of 1525] in the apparatus and marked it with “ed. pr.”, Lahey took this to mean “editor prefers”

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    The credits to Stephen Baxter’s fairly dreadful Ultima thank “Prof Adam Roberts” for help with the Latin (don’t bother reading it to find out why there’s Latin in a Stephen Baxter book, it’s so not worth it); the Latin (of which there is unfortunately quite a bit) is riddled with elementary errors. I presume the Adam Roberts in question is in fact

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Roberts_(British_writer)

    What is it with professors of English that they imagine they know Latin without, like, learning it?

  5. I don’t know what Wyclif’s original Latin was, but simple quote of “many called, but few are chosen” doesn’t fit the context.

    “For just as Christ was said to be a blasphemer, which is the worst part of heresy, so the faithful poor, who today remain in the truth of the law of the Lord, are called heretics by the opposing party of Antichrist. And since many of the elect are called poor, it is true that the poor are nominally heretics, whi then retain that position.”

    OK, so maybe “many of the chosen” is better, but.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    @mollymooly:

    Many thanks for that. It’s an illuminating paper (in a somewhat horrifying way.) It explains something of what went wrong with the peer-review of the Penn book too, that I was wondering about above …

    (Always happy to see St Andrews folk as good guys. I have personal and family links with the place. Take that, York and Manchester!)

    Wyclif sounds more interesting (or interesting in a rather different way) than I had appreciated. My own (utterly inexpert) view of him has always been highly informed-by-hindsight; obviously he really needs to be understood in his native habitat as a mediaeval scholastic. Interesting stuff about scholastic technical Latin too.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    @D.O.

    It’s a direct quote from the Vulgate, Matthew 22:14: Multi enim sunt vocati, pauci vero electi “for many are called, but few are chosen”; the meaning is quite unequivocal (it’s very simple Latin), and (even if it wasn’t) the passage ought to be immediately recognisable to anybody claiming to be a Wyclif scholar (it was immediately recognisable to me, and I couldn’t even play a Wyclif scholar on TV.) Even by itself, this mistranslation is so egregious as to prove Thakkar’s point. It really is. But from Thakkar’s entire article, it’s unfortunately clear that Penn was just winging it.

    The pity of it is that Penn is obviously by no means a write-off as a scholar (Thakkar does have some good things to say about him.) Penn himself has been extremely badly served by a system which is so badly broken that there was nobody to tell him that he needed to put in a lot more work on Latin in general and scholastic Latin in particular before even thinking about putting out this translation.

    It’s as if there was nobody to explain the periodic table to aspiring chemists (except at St Andrews, of course.)

  8. David Eddyshaw, do you have access to the Wiclyf’s original Latin? From the translation I don’t see how the exact Biblical quote fits, so maybe Wyclif haven’t written it.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    Good point; no I don’t.

    I take it your snippet is from Penn’s translation: have you got more of it in context? (Or a link?) I suppose Penn might have been unjustly accused in this instance (though Thakkar’s whole review is pretty convincing.)

  10. “This brings me to a more delicate point, although since I already seem to have my tanks on the lawn, it is probably too late to start tiptoeing around the flowers.” I love it.

  11. Alas, no. I took it from gBooks.

  12. This is the page of Stephen Lahey, the other guilty party. It’s hard to reconcile his CV with Thakkar’s review. He and Penn are not mere dabblers: these are people who specialize in Medieval scholasticism and specifically in Wyclif. They have gone through their three academic degrees, and published in many places, and presumably their Latin was no better then than it is now. That makes their teachers, and the reviewers and the readers of their publications all complicit. Given that this must be a small field, it really seems like it must have fallen on hard times if no one noticed this kind of thing until now.

    I’d like to know what TR thinks of this.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    From the google books n-gram viewer, it looks as though “Wyclif” remains the minority variant spelling of the Arch-Lollard’s surname, with “Wycliffe” remaining the majority variant, albeit not overwhelmingly so. Does using one spelling rather than the other signal some sort of factional affiliation on the part of the writer (or the publisher, if house style is being imposed regardless of the writer’s own preference)?

  14. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    @D.O., the translation mangles the whole passage beyond recognition. The original is in Buddensieg’s (1883) John Wiclif’s Polemical Works in Latin, vol. 2, p. 397. From De Solutione Satanae, Cap. II:

    Sicut enim Cristus vocatus fuit blasphemus, quod est pessima pars heresis, sic pauci fideles, qui stant hodie in veritate legis domini, vocati sunt heretici a parte contraria anticristi. Et cum multi sunt vocati, pauci vero electi, verum est, quod pauci sunt nomine tenus heretici, qui tunc stabunt.

    The first sentence seems easy and I’m pretty sure there’s no mention of the poor in it: “For just like Christ was called a blasphemer, which is the worst part of heresy, so the few faithful believers, who stand firm today in the truth of the Lord’s law, are called heretics by the opposite side of the Antichrist.” The second sentence is harder but there’s no doubt it contains a direct evangelical citation. Possibly: “And when many are called, but few are chosen, the truth is, that the few are the nominal heretics, who will then stand firm.” But I’m afraid a correct translation requires more knowledge of medieval Latin than I ever had—word order and commas seem to be carrying meaning here.

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    (except at St Andrews, of course.)

    A good day to make this post, then 🙂

  16. Giacomo Ponzetto, thank you. It does seem indeed that Dr. Penn systematically mistook “few” for “poor”. This is … strange. Apparently, they are etymologically related, but you have to get to PIE to see it. O tempura, O morons, O.

  17. morons

    Actually, it’s moriawase.

  18. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    There’s ‘pauper’ in English, but the Latin word is closer to ‘paucity’, with the right meaning (and presumably related to poco/peu, which I’ve never noticed before).

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    They have gone through their three academic degrees, and published in many places, and presumably their Latin was no better then than it is now

    Thanks to Giacomo Ponzetto!
    Penn’s translation is not merely incompetent, but mysteriously incompetent. His teachers, his peer reviewers, and his publishers are indeed revealed as incompetent too. “Complicit” would imply a degree of knowledge that they evidently lack themselves.

    Seems like Thakkar is abundantly justified in deploying the tanks, and justified in his grim diagnosis of the state of the field; more unfortunately yet, this utter lack* of the necessary self-correcting mechanisms to safeguard genuine scholarship is unlikely to be confined to the study of Wyclif’s theology.

    I suspect this is a variant of a phenomenon we’ve lamented before: scholars highly competent in one field quite unable to recognise that they lack even basic competence in another. Still, whereas it’s merely a bit sad that (say) an eminent Sinologist or an entirely competent biologist can’t tell scholarship from drivel in comparative linguistics, it seems pretty serious when multiple academics whose research depends on Latin sources have not realised that their own Latin is grossly inadequate to the task.

    To be more charitable, I’ve seen laments elsewhere that mediaeval studies are seriously threatened by the lack of scholars able to cope with primary sources in Latin; still, the disease has worsened significantly when matters progress from regretting the lack of skills to being unaware of the lack of skills.

    *Perhaps too apocalyptic: after all, Thakkar’s piece is part of such self-correction. One hopes.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    A good day to make this post

    Indeed. I celebrated appropriately. There may have been Glenfiddich involved.

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    it looks as though “Wyclif” remains the minority variant spelling of the Arch-Lollard’s surname, with “Wycliffe” remaining the majority variant, albeit not overwhelmingly so. Does using one spelling rather than the other signal some sort of factional affiliation on the part of the writer

    Yes indeed. “Wyclif” is the eco-friendly form.

  22. A possibly relevant quote from Guy Davenport: “As a professor I must work with people for whom indifference is both a creed and a defense of their fanatic narrowness of mind.”

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    sic pauci fideles … systematically mistook “few” for “poor”

    I initially thought it might be a glancing reference to Pauci Pig. But that would be a prolepsis too far. Yet it is undeniable that Wycliffe prevented looney tunes.

  24. A good time to rescue the following story,related on the internet years ago by Jacques Guy. A fellow student in his Latin class produced the translation “Romulus and Remus, suckled by the Roman she-wolf by means of the brazen awl”, at which their teacher yelled at him, “How dare you, how dare you; do you take the Ancients for cretins that you should have them spout such stupidities!”

    (Lucky I found a quote of it. It was originally on sci.lang or such. Google, having been entrusted with the Usenet archives, shoved them all into moldy boxes in the attic and locked the door.)

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yup.

    “Cicero did not write nonsense.
    Your translation is nonsense.
    ERGO:
    Your translation is wrong.”

    Thakkar actually mentions that Wyclif has a reputation for opacity in his Latin, which Thakkar attributes pretty briskly to problems with reception rather than transmission.

    It puts me in mind of the comment that I see in patients’ casenotes from time to time: poor historian (a term of art, meaning that the patient doesn’t give a clear account of his symptoms, their timescale and so forth.)
    It is most often best interpreted as poor history-taker.

    (A mere pretext for repeating my favourite of all the aphorisms of the quondam medical guru Richard Asher: Listen to the patient. He is telling you the diagnosis.)

  26. John Cowan says:

    I have confessed before that it was I in second-year Latin (textbook + Caesar) who translated “with many horses” as “multo equo” and my Latin teacher proclaimed my error: “With much horse? With much horse?” The other students may or many not have laughed.

    Then again, in third-year Latin[*] I misunderstood Cicero in a letter to Atticus: he had written that he was dining on a porch extending over the river, which I understood as a couch floating down the river!

    [*] I had, for scheduling reasons, fourth-year (Virgil) before third-year (Cicero).

  27. I’d like to know what TR thinks of this.

    Only that I share the general consternation — these are first-year-level howlers. The “poor” are (for once) nowhere with us in the original of the first passage, and “everywhere” for utrumque is just an easily avoidable wild guess. I don’t recall seeing anything this egregious in published translations from Classical Latin; I hope it isn’t representative of medieval Latin translations.

    I think Giacomo’s translation is right, except maybe “seeing as many are called” rather than “when”. (This kind of “causal” cum usually, but not always, takes the subjunctive in Classical Latin, but I don’t know how it behaves in medieval Latin and anyway one would probably preserve the form in the scriptural quote.)

  28. Mention of Latin and tanks in the same thread inevitably made me recall that Latin translation of a famous Soviet WWII song:

    Per campum ruit equitatus*,
    Extremus instat impetus —
    At ille iuvenis legatus
    Portatur capite fractus.

    There is an old tradition in Russian universities where Latin (or any other ancient language) is taught. Every class shows off skills they learned by translating Russian popular songs or classical poems into some ancient language.

    * in case if you were wondering, the original – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_Tankmen%27s_Song

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    I note that some adaptations have been made in keeping with minor differences in the details of military equipment (which would probably only be of interest to specialists in any case); more striking is the bold, but justifiable, rendering of командир by legatus. A fair “dynamic equivalent” (though I myself would have suggested tribunus, as more in keeping with the youth of the officer, and for greater pathos. Eheu fugaces …)

  30. John Cowan says:

    first-year-level howlers

    Third-year. I insist.

    [A would-be New Yorker artist] yelled at Ross one day during the thirties, ‘Why do you reject drawings of mine and print stuff by that fifth-rate artist Thurber?’

    ‘Third-rate,’ said Ross, coming promptly and bravely to the defense of my stature as an artist and his own reputation as an editor.” (Thurber, The Years With Ross)

  31. TR, thanks; I also meant, is it also your expereience that competent Latinists are getting scarce in academia? Are fields other than Wycliff studies so badly afflicted?

  32. It hasn’t been my personal experience, but I’m not sure how representative my experience is; the two departments I’ve taught most at both contain some outstanding Latinists as well as Hellenists. I don’t really know how things look in terms of recent translations of classical texts, but my sense is that standards are still reasonably high, if only due to fear of mortification (I think there’s more language-related status anxiety among classicists than medievalists).

  33. Many medievals embraced mortification.

  34. I can’t find an unembarrassing way to express my reaction to being featured on Languagehat, so I might as well say Squee! and have done with it. It’s a particular pleasure (though not a surprise) to see so many comments that are genuinely thoughtful and in some cases required additional research – thanks in particular to Giacomo Ponzetto for digging up the context for the jaw-dropping mistranslation and confirming that Penn “mangles the whole passage beyond recognition.”

    I’m sure TR is right that classical translations are in a less parlous state, but I think it’s worth saying more about why this should be so, because it isn’t just about a discrepancy in the level of language training. Most classical texts have been edited several times over the past 500-odd years, often by highly competent philologists, and the upshot is that the available editions are by now tolerably reliable (occasional wrinkles notwithstanding). What’s more, most classical texts have been translated and/or commented on so many times that anyone producing a new translation usually has several cribs for when the going gets tough. By contrast, most medieval texts are still buried in manuscripts, and of the ones that are available in print, few have ever been re-edited; the upshot is that the available editions are on the whole much less reliable. To make matters worse, very few of the edited texts have been translated and/or commented on, so the would-be translator almost never has a crib to turn to. Of course there are exceptional cases like The Consolation of Philosophy, but we can hardly stick to reploughing the same scattering of furrows. Ironically, then, medievalists in general – not just the ones who publish translations – need better Latin than classicists do, because they will often need to deal with material that no one else has read for over 500 years, and they will often need to fix textual corruptions as they go. And yet here we are.

    [N.b.: This comment was trapped in the spam folder until Dec. 8; my apologies to Mark! –LH]

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s true. They got medieval on their own asses.

  36. SFReader might enjoy the Latin translation of a famous limerick:

    Puella Rigensis ridebat
    Quam tigris in tergo vehebat
    Externa profecta
    Interna revecta
    Sed risus cum tigre manebat.

  37. John Cowan says:

    Others, however, embraced fortification.

  38. Emily Pigeon says:

    @David Eddyshaw: Does using one spelling rather than the other signal some sort of factional affiliation on the part of the writer (or the publisher, if house style is being imposed regardless of the writer’s own preference)?

    If I recall my logic, “Wycliffe” means “Wyclif and only Wyclif.”

  39. Heh.

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    LOLlard.

  41. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Does the Niger have an accepted name in Latin? I’d have expected nigrensis. (of Niger probably means Haut Sénégal et Niger or one of its pre/successor colonies which existed from 1890 to 1960, and I assume the Vatican had occasion to mention it, at least).

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    Vicipaedia has Niger, seu Flumen Nigrum here

    https://la.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niger_(flumen)

    with a link to a 1698 source that gives “Nigir, seu Niger, Nigris et Nigres”, and which (impressively) points out that “Flumen Nigrum” is a mistake: “Barbarum potius vocabulum censendum.” Quite so.

    https://la.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iohannes_Iacobus_Hofmannus

    is the Swiss cleverclogs who makes this entirely correct observation.

  43. David Eddyshaw says:

    Leo Africanus calls it Niger

    and goes on to make the accusative Nigrum fluvium immediately thereafter, in talking about its supposed origin from a subterranean branch of the Nile, why not.

    I suppose proper pedants should make Niger indeclinable: Niger fluvium.

  44. Peer review is hard, and reviewing bad work can be extremely unrewarding.*

    I am a good peer reviewer (IIDSSM), because I have broad knowledge of my field and am willing to spend time delving into other people’s manuscripts to figure out what they are really trying to do. And that kind of deep delving is needed unfortunately often, because there really is an awful lot of low-quality research that people are trying to get published. Now, it is probably inevitable, given the somewhat peculiar kinds of problems that I work on myself, that I end up being asked to review quite a bit of lousy work; however, even in other areas, I know that there are plenty of manuscripts submitted to journals that are of decidedly marginal quality, and unfortunately plenty more that are (or should be) totally unacceptable. A good referee ought to provide guidance to authors and editors on how those marginal manuscripts can be improved, to turn them into useful contributions to the academic literature. However, part of the referee’s job is also to point out when submissions contain such serious mistakes and misapprehensions that there is nothing that can be done to cure the deficiencies.**

    Some referees seem to have a lot of trouble with that last part. At a personal level, I generally want to support researchers, especially young researchers still building their reputations. People need to publish to advance their careers, and so it feels natural for many referees to give questionable work the benefit of the doubt, especially if a referee finds they are not truly qualified to evaluate all the parts of a submitted manuscript. In fact, there are a lot of tendencies that make it easier for referees to let poor-quality work through to publication—simple laziness (or, euphemistically, being too busy); a desire not to hurt another academic’s career; and classic Dunning–Kruger overestimation of one’s own ability to ferret out problems. (This last one obviously seems to be a big part of the problem with the Wylcif translations, with the manuscripts having been sent to readers whose knowledge of medieval Latin was no better than the authors’ atrocious command of the language.) Working in the physical sciences, I have never been involved in refereeing a full-length book manuscript, but I can imagine that the pressure to be supportive of junior authors is even greater in humanities fields where book-length publications are the norm. If a scholar cannot get a book published by a respected university press, their academic career may be stalled or even over. On the other hand, positions in academia are a scarce commodity, and if somebody is not producing good research, they are commonly taking a position away from somebody who may be more deserving; so this does not seem like a very good argument in favor of excessive leniency (although maintaining professional standards is, in my view, still a much less important reason for rejecting bad papers than simply to keep the academic literature as free as possible of erroneous results).

    * I made that particular remark last week when I received a request to referee a revised edition of a paper that I already recommended be rejected, on the basis that it was fundamentally flawed. However, just this afternoon, I got another message from the same journal, informing me that the paper’s authors had submitted yet another manuscript, based on the same idea, and that the editor thinks it makes sense for them to be refereed together. I can’t disagree with that judgement, but I am not looking forward to dealing with what are probably two very bad papers from a group of evidently rather combative authors.

    ** I recently got sufficiently angry about another manuscript that I was given to review—which I deemed to be unpublishable for what I feel was a particular obnoxious reason—that I posted an excerpt from my report to my “Unrealistic Dialogue” blog.

  45. Brett, have you read Haspelmath’s discussion and subsequent conversation on “revise and submit”?

  46. @Y: Thanks. I had read some of his earlier writing about similar issues, but I had not seen his essay from 2020.

    Maybe Haspelmath is responding to legitimate problems that plague publishing and peer review in academic linguistics. I don’t know. I only know that the issues he points to are not serious ones in my own field. In theoretical physics, there is no problem with getting your research seen by colleagues without formal journal publication; virtually everything goes on the arXiv. There is not intense competition to get to present at certain conferences. Peer reviewing is generally fairly rapid, and the best journals routinely make decisions based on just a single referee’s evaluation. Reviewing can be time consuming, but the alternatives to doing careful, detailed reviews, with recommendations for improvement are not appealing to me, since in practice they amount to either publishing low-quality work, or shutting out researchers who need help to improve their output.

    The specific thing that Haspelmath seems to really, really dislike is making changes to his papers at the request of referees and editors. He just doesn’t want to have to change what he has written to get it published. If that view was propounded by somebody in the mathematical sciences, it would sound straight-out nuts! I write lots of referee reports that say, in essence: This is basically good work that should eventually be published, but there are some errors in the ancillary calculations that need to be corrected first. Those kinds of changes really, really need to be made, and “journal shopping,” trying to find a journal that one can slip a paper into without its problems being noticed, is considered by many to be detestable conduct. Of course, not all changes that referees suggest are so unequivocally necessary, but practically every change I have made in response to a reviewer request has been an improvement, even if sometimes a very small one. Moreover, on occasion, when the referees’ suggestions were genuinely inapplicable or unreasonable, I have successfully argued against making them and gotten the articles published anyway. Maybe Haspelmath views his submissions more like the creative output of a literary geni than as technical reports on scientific research performed. Yet even fiction authors don’t ordinarily get their writing published without having it edited by the publisher. So I have to admit that I am rather doubtful that, even in the context of linguistics, Haspelmath’s viscerally negative reaction to having to revise his writing is actually reasonable.

    Finally, I want to note that I am also generally suspicious of any argument in favor of going back to the way things were run in some “good old days,” when that old procedures were less transparent. Academic publishing has enough problems with being
    too hierarchical as it is. Transparency is important for helping scientists from less prestigious backgrounds and from marginalized groups get fair treatment.

  47. My take is (and I haven’t thought this out much), let the reviewers present their evidence, and let the editor decide what to do with it. The reviewer might have some valid but minor comments about organization or typos; irrelevant comments (which one of the commenters to Haspelmath’s article talks about); or fatal flaws. In all of these cases, let the reviewers address their issues to the editor, and let the editor ignore them, forward them to the author to revise, or decide the pepaer can’t be salvaged. The back-and-forth between author and reviewer, or the reviewer who decides that a typo equals a death sentence, would be avoided that way. I have also seen lazy preprints, where the authors didn’t bother to do basic checking and proofing, leaving the conscientious reviewers to do the shitwork for them. That is also something a good editor should prevent.

    BTW, I don’t think Haspelmath wants to defend his own work from reviewers. I have seen him react to reviewers on Academia.edu, and he’s quite open to constructive criticism. I think he really does look to make the world of publlishing a better place.

    As to what you said earlier about reviewing a book: people review books all the time after publication. Thakkar’s paper is a case in point. In this case, a spot check revealed too many errors already, that going over the whole book was not necessary to find out that it was bad.

  48. John Cowan says:

    there really is an awful lot of low-quality research that people are trying to get published

    Given the publish-or-perish law, that’s understandable. These are probably people who have invested half their lives into something they aren’t very good at (yet), and who have no safety net whatsoever. Of course, the penalty for winning by cheating is winning — by cheating. But it must feel like survival pressure, and that brings out the knives, not to say the teeth.

    the issues he points to are not serious ones in my own field

    In linguistics, it’s not unheard-of for papers to remain unpublished for decades, circulating only in samizdat.

    John Cowan-2005 on the ambiguity of constructive criticism, with three classic examples.

  49. David Marjanović says:

    The specific thing that Haspelmath seems to really, really dislike is making changes to his papers at the request of referees and editors. He just doesn’t want to have to change what he has written to get it published. If that view was propounded by somebody in the mathematical sciences, it would sound straight-out nuts!

    Not just in the mathematical sciences, as I tried to express in my comment.

    Of course, not all changes that referees suggest are so unequivocally necessary, but practically every change I have made in response to a reviewer request has been an improvement, even if sometimes a very small one. Moreover, on occasion, when the referees’ suggestions were genuinely inapplicable or unreasonable, I have successfully argued against making them and gotten the articles published anyway.

    Same here.

    let the reviewers present their evidence, and let the editor decide what to do with it.

    In my experience, most editors don’t do that. They read the reviews, tell the authors “based on the reviews, I say medium-sized revision”, forward the reviews, and leave it at that. Usually, it seems, they don’t read the manuscript (so if a review is based on a misunderstanding, they never know).

    It’s not surprising, of course. Editors are generally overworked and wholly unpaid, or in rare cases paid a rather symbolic sum like 250 bucks a year.

  50. @David Marjanović: Another thing that makes physics publishing good is that the American Physical Society journals (including the largest and most prestigious journals in the field) employ a dozen or so full-time editors with doctorates in physics. To supplement the professionals, there is an editorial board of volunteer “divisional associate editors,” but their workloads are not very heavy (largely limited to adjudicating borderline situations), and the associate editor positions are considered quite prestigious. However, most other journals (those not run by the non-profit academic societies) tend to operate on the usual exploitive model, with minimally remunerated editors.

  51. let the reviewers present their evidence, and let the editor decide what to do with it

    I worked as an editor at both Nature and Science, and that was the essence of how we ran things. John Maddox, who was the editor of Nature when I was there, very specifically included language in the “guide for authors” to the effect that editors made the decisions about publication, taking the reviewers’ evaluations into account but not being in any way beholden to them.

  52. David Marjanović says:

    the American Physical Society journals (including the largest and most prestigious journals in the field) employ a dozen or so full-time editors with doctorates in physics

    Wow!

    editors made the decisions about publication, taking the reviewers’ evaluations into account but not being in any way beholden to them.

    That’s normal – but in practice many editors just say “do whatever it is the reviewers want, and I’ll accept the manuscript”, without caring much what exactly it is the reviewers want.

  53. @David L: Science and Nature are quite different from most scientific journals, since the editors have to do a lot of pruning of otherwise good articles, because they are not “important” enough for those journals. Even at most other selective journals, like Physical Review Letters and the Journal of the American Chemical Society (although maybe not Cell), the determination of which articles are good enough can be left largely to the referees. Although the final decision is with the editors, it would be quite unusual for them to go against a clear consensus of the referees in favor of publication (and virtual unheard of for the editors to publish a paper that the referees deemed correct but insufficiently interesting). But Science and Nature (and maybe Cell or some other highly prestigious science journals I am not familiar with) publish so few articles in total, that the editors frequently override the reviewers and decide that, for various intrinsic or extrinsic reasons, it is not worth publishing even some very high-quality work.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    Oh yes. I wasn’t thinking of high-prestige journals because there aren’t any in my field specifically or close enough for me to review for them.

  55. Brett: the more curious cases were when (for reasons I hesitate to go into) we decided to publish stuff that the referees were less than enthusiastic about: Benveniste and cold fusion come to mind.

    ETA: I looked again at the Wikipedia page I linked to, and it has the strange allegation that “There was concern on the part of Nature’s editorial oversight board that the material, if published, would lend credibility to homeopathic practitioners even if the effects were not replicable.” I say strange, because Nature had then and still has, as far as I know, no ‘editorial oversight board.’

  56. David Marjanović says:

    “Editorial board”, then?

  57. David Marjanović says:

    People who received multiple Ig Nobel Prizes

    Jacques Benveniste, 1991 and 1998 Chemistry
    Alexander Lukashenko, 2013 Peace and 2020 Medical Education
    Patricia Yang, 2015 and 2019 Physics
    David Hu, 2015 and 2019 Physics

    from here.

  58. Nature has traditionally had a reputation for being more willing than Science to publish really outre stuff—the cold fusion and water memory examples being the most famous.

  59. would lend credibility to homeopathic practitioners

    It was brought to my attention that some homeopathic remedies sold in Russia (and I presume in Europe as well) are just pretending to be homeopathic in order to avoid more stringent oversight for ordinary drugs.

    They are just ordinary drugs in disguise and their effect is real, nothing homeopathic about them except label.

    Apparently there is a lot of this going on.

    As Kozma Prutkov said: “If you see a “buffalo” sign on an elephant’s cage, do not trust your eyes.”

  60. David Eddyshaw says:
  61. David Marjanović says:

    Nature has traditionally had a reputation for being more willing than Science to publish really outre stuff—the cold fusion and water memory examples being the most famous.

    Interestingly, this has not translated to less famous cases – Science had a few “birds can’t possibly be dinosaurs because obvious” papers, even years after that could be justified; Nature never did.

    some homeopathic remedies sold in Russia (and I presume in Europe as well) are just pretending to be homeopathic in order to avoid more stringent oversight for ordinary drugs.

    Yep, not just in Russia. Mixtures of homeopathic substances with real ones (of dubious effect like vitamin C) are particularly common.

  62. Science had a few “birds can’t possibly be dinosaurs because obvious” papers

    Some of these peculiarities come down to the special interests (or hobbyhorses) of individual editors. Because both Nature and Science reject far more than they publish, there is inevitably room for a certain amount of subjective judgment in deciding among the more borderline cases.

  63. Just ran across this in Edward Chancellor’s NYRB review (April 18, 2019) of James Buchan’s John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century:

    At one point, Buchan states that Law could not possibly have attended Edinburgh High School, a top grammar school, on the grounds that “in his writings in French, Law makes small mistakes that he would not have made had he known the Latin grammar underlying the language.” This overconfident assertion reveals more about the author’s own erudition than it does about Law’s education.

  64. David Eddyshaw says:

    Law’s Wikipedia entry is headed “John Law (economist)”, which doesn’t quite seem to do him justice. “John Law, Adventurer-Economist” maybe. Harrison Ford could play him in the movie …

  65. I’d pay to see that movie.

  66. David Eddyshaw says:
  67. I’ve just rescued Mark Thakkar’s December 2 comment from the spam file (sorry, Mark, I have no idea why Akismet hates you!) and I’m posting this comment so people will have a chance to read it; it’s very nice.

  68. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hat
    MT used his University website, whereas e.g., Brett uses his blog site. It may be that a lot of spam comes over compromised Uni servers (or uncompromised servers accessed legitimately by trollish students/researchers 🙂).

  69. Trond Engen says:

    It is very nice. I hope he gets your message.

    You might add an editorial comment for posterity about how it will appear out of context after having been miraculously rescued from the Great Void.

  70. Done!

  71. For just like Christ was called a blasphemer, which is the worst part of heresy, so the few faithful believers, who stand firm today in the truth of the Lord’s law, are called heretics by the opposite side of the Antichrist.

    I’m sure Donald Trump sympathises with this point of view.

  72. David Eddyshaw says:

    I would think that his shtick is quite the opposite: viz that only a minority of Christians oppose him, and they are all really godless communists anyway and don’t count. Most of them are probably antifa. Or not even Americans.

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