Dutch universities boycott Elsevier

‘Science is not a goal in itself. Just as art is only art once it is seen, knowledge only becomes knowledge once it is shared.’

So said the Dutch State Secretary for Education, Sander Dekker, in 2014. Now the Dutch universities are putting their money where their mouth is by boycotting Elsevier, the publisher best known for dubious business practices and extortionate fees.

The Dutch universities have a strong preference for Gold OA and have been unable to reach agreement with Elsevier in negotiations, so are taking action. From the University of Tilburg’s website:

As a first step in boycotting the publisher, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has asked all scientists that are editor in chief of a journal published by Elsevier to give up their post. According to the VSNU in daily NRC, the reactions varied from very willing to consider this to some reluctance.

A variety of linguistics journals are published with Elsevier, including the prestigious Lingua. It will be interesting to see how linguists respond to this call.

You can read more on the potential significance of this boycott at Cambridge’s Unlocking Research blog.

Advertisements

Open Access Linguistics: You’re Doing It Wrong

Note: this post first appeared on my personal blog in 2014.


If you’re a linguist – any kind of linguist – then you, like me, will probably have received an email from the Open Journal of Modern Linguistics, inviting you to submit your work.

I’m extremely committed to open access in linguistics, and in academia more broadly; here’s why. But OJML is doing it wrong, and the rest of this post aims to explain why. The tl;dr list version of this post is as follows:

  • Don’t ever submit your work to OJML.
  • Tell your friends never to submit to OJML.
  • If you know someone who’s on the editorial board, gently ask them not to be.

So, what’s so very wrong with OJML? The short answer is that it is run by the wrong people and threatens to bring the entire, very promising, open access movement into disrepute by charging stupidly high APCs and skimping on quality both in terms of typesetting and intellectually.

The “costs” of progress: predatory publishers

Let’s take a look at OJML’s guidelines on Article Processing Charges (APCs). It’s $600 per article, but only if that article is within ten printed pages: in linguistics, that’s barely out of squib status. For each additional page above ten, an extra $50 is whacked on.

This may not seem like much, given that Elsevier charge up to $5000. But for a 20-page article, which is still short by linguistics standards, we’re talking $1100. Moreover, this kind of incremental model penalizes thorough argumentation and, in particular, proper referencing. It might even not be so bad if what you paid for was worth it – but I’ll argue below that it isn’t even close.

The open access community has a name for this kind of publishing practice: “predatory”. Jeffrey Beall maintains a list of predatory publishers on his website, along with criteria for inclusion. Surprise, surprise: “Scientific Research Publishing” (SCIRP), the publishers of OJML, are on the list at number 206.

What’s in it for them? Large amounts of money, made from academics’ naivety. Last year, journalist John Bohannon conducted a “sting” operation by submitting a series of 304 deliberately deeply flawed manuscripts by fictional authors to gold open access journals, many of them ostensibly peer-reviewed. More than half of them accepted the papers, including many that apparently sent the paper out for review, and 16 journals accepted the papers despite the reviewers spotting their damning flaws.

The journal Science, who hosted Bohannon’s piece, were keen to trumpet the failure of open access (unsurprisingly, as they represent the status quo that open access threatens). However, there are a lot of problems with Bohannon’s approach, which have been ably summarized elsewhere. In particular, since Bohannon didn’t include a “control group” of traditional subscription journals, there’s no evidence that open access peer review practices are any worse than those. And even if they were, the existence of exploitative behaviour within open access of course doesn’t entail that open access itself is a bad thing. But it’s clear from Bohannon’s experiences and those of others that, where there are new ways of making shady money, there will be crooks who leap to seize them, and that gold open access (and OJML) simply illustrates one instance of this general principle.

Bad production standards

One of the areas where any publisher can claim to add value is in ensuring the formal quality of their published submissions: typesetting, copy-editing, proofreading, redrawing complex diagrams or illustrations, etc. If a publisher does this well, they may merit at least some of the fees that they typically charge for open access. However, OJML’s performance in this area shows that they hardly even look at the papers they publish. Here are some examples from Muriungi, Mutegi & Karuri’s 2014 paper on the syntax of wh-questions in Gichuka (which, at 23 pages, must have cost them a pretty penny):

  • Glosses are not aligned (e.g. in (6) on p2).
  • The header refers to the authors, ridiculously, as “M. K. Peter et al”.
  • There are clauses which contain clear typographical errors, e.g. “the particle ni which in Bantu, which is referred to as the focus marker”, on p3.
  • In (17), the proper name “jakob” is not capitalized.
  • There are spelling errors: “Intermadiate”, in table 1, p8.
  • The tree on p14 has been brutally mangled.
  • Some of the references are incomprehensible garbage: “Norberto (2004). Wh-Movement. http.www.quiben.org/wp.content/uploads”

A quick glance through any OJML paper will reveal that these aren’t isolated occurrences, and little of this is likely to be the fault of the authors: at least, any linguistically-informed copy-editor or proofreader should have picked up on all of these points instantly, and any proofreader at all should have picked up on most of them.

Low quality papers

What about the academic quality of the papers accepted? I don’t want to pick on any particular paper: in fact, I’m sure that there are nuggets of gold in there (the Muriungi et al. paper mentioned above, for instance, is a valuable syntactic description of an aspect of an understudied language). But I invite you to skim some of the papers and draw your own conclusions.

In particular, the dates of acceptance and revision of the papers aren’t exactly indicative of a thorough review process. For instance, the paper by Muriungi et al. was “Received 7 June 2013; revised 9 July 2013; accepted 18 July 2013”. Again, this isn’t unusual for the papers in this journal. It’s certainly not impossible for quality peer review to take place at this speed – and it’s certainly desirable to move away from the unacceptable slowness of some of the big-name journals – but it is at least doubtful. And one thing that is extremely eerie is how many of the articles are dated as having been revised exactly one month after receipt, suggesting that the process may have been even shorter and that SCIRP is trying to cover itself, by means of outright lies, against exactly the kind of allegation I’m making.

The fields of linguistics given under their Aims & Scope don’t inspire confidence, either, with “Cosmic Linguistics” and “Paralinguistics” among them.

Why is this important?

OJML is symptomatic of exactly the wrong approach to open access. Open access, to me, is about disintermediation, about putting power back into the hands of academics. There are several good open access operators out there: Language Science Press is a prime example in the domain of books, the e-journal Semantics and Pragmatics has been performing a valuable no-fees open access service for years, and the Linguistic Society of America recently took a step in the right direction by making papers in its flagship journal Language openly accessible after a one-year embargo period. These initiatives are all run by researchers, for researchers.

In contrast, OJML is about opportunistic money-making. Here’s a quote from SCIRP’s About page, in relation to why their base of operations is in China while they’re registered as a corporation in Delaware: “What SCIRP does is to seize the current global trade possibilities to
ensure its legitimate freedom with regard to where to do what.” If this sort of creepy graspingness doesn’t put you off submitting to OJML, and the problems outlined in the previous sections don’t either, then I don’t know what will.

Unless we nip this problem in the bud, then it threatens to damage the reputation of the Open Access movement more generally. Time to boycott OJML, and to spread the word.

The case for Open Access

Note: this is a modified version of an original which appeared here in 2013. A few things have changed since then, but the rationale behind this post hasn’t.


A large proportion of academic research in the UK is taxpayer-funded. The money comes either via grants from the Research Councils, on which the government spends approximately £3 billion each year, or directly to universities from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which in 2011-12 distributed £1.6 billion.

The transformative potential of world-class research is pretty clear. In the last few years alone, UK researchers have developed the wonder material graphene and discovered the body of Richard III, among other things. Yet, in a curious and inequitable twist of fate, the results of this research have for the most part never been made available to the taxpayers who funded it.

Instead, research findings are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals run by private publishing companies. In the modern era, these largely take the form of PDFs behind pay-walls, tantalisingly close and yet inaccessible to those who aren’t willing to fork out $40 per view. Universities and libraries, meanwhile, can buy back-breakingly expensive subscriptions to this content. The net result of all this is that research findings are available only to the wealthy and to research institutions themselves, and even then only at great cost.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the last few years people have begun to comment on how deeply perverse and unfair this system is. The culmination of this trend in the UK is a document called the Finch Report, produced by a group of academics, funders and publishers. Published in summer 2012, the report delivers a number of recommendations to all the bodies involved. Its key conclusion is that the UK should abandon the traditional subscription-based model of publication and embrace Open Access (OA).

OA itself is hardly a new idea; in many ways it co-evolved with the digital age. It’s been around since the early 1990s in its current form, and the roots of the movement can be traced back even further. The Budapest Open Access Initiative crystallized its main methods and objectives: “to make research free and available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection”. However, only in the last few years has it entered the mainstream academic consciousness in the UK. The shift has been sudden and dramatic, and the effects of the Finch Report are still making themselves felt. HEFCE and the UK Research Councils have published responses to the report, enshrining OA as a requirement for future taxpayer-funded research outputs.

It might seem as if OA would be welcomed by all involved, but the reality is that reactions among the academic community have been mixed. The reasons aren’t hard to understand: the Finch Report proposes to shift the cost of research publication from the consumer to the producer, via a mechanism of Article Processing Charges (APCs). Under this new business model, research findings will indeed be free for the reader, and accessible to the taxpayer. It’s the researcher who must shell out for the “privilege” of making their findings known to the world. Unsurprisingly, this “pay-to-say” model has been criticised. A comparison with the creative industries may help to indicate why: an industry in which musicians, or authors, must themselves pay through the nose in order to make their work accessible to the world doesn’t exactly inspire artistic confidence. Making APCs the primary route to funding of research findings amounts to encouraging vanity publication, and has the potential to crush independent researchers and smaller research institutions.

The Research Councils have promised to make substantial funding available to universities to enable them to foot the APC bill, but problems remain. For one thing, it’s not clear whether this new funding will in fact cover the costs, which can in some instances be astronomical: I was recently offered the option of paying $3000 to Elsevier in order to make an article that had been accepted to one of their journals freely available. If decisions must be made about which articles get their APCs paid, who will make those decisions, and on what basis?

The key to resolving these issues lies in a more radical rethink of academic publishing than envisaged by the Finch Report. The report rightly identifies the need for a transfer of costs, but implicitly assumes that the costs themselves must remain at the same level as they are at present. Given that the panel responsible for the report included representatives from publishing companies such as Wiley-Blackwell and Springer, this is to be expected. The report mentions the possibility of “disintermediation”, defined as a reduction of the role of intermediaries such as publishers, but the possibility is cursorily skipped over. There is reason to believe, however, that this sort of disintermediation is exactly what academic publishing needs. As George Monbiot has argued, it is questionable whether academic publishers really add value at all – and yet for-profit publishers such as Elsevier operate with seriously substantial profit margins. Meanwhile, in what is perhaps the best-kept non-secret of the business, the real drivers of the process – editors and reviewers – are for the most part paid nothing at all, but assume their roles out of the goodness of their hearts, confident that they are helping to ensure rigour in their chosen field.

What are the real costs of running a journal, then? In the digital age, print editions of journals are at best a quaint reminder of the past and at worst a waste of space; every journal worth its salt is available online. Online publishing is quick and cheap: the only costs are hosting (minimal), typesetting, and marketing (which can largely be carried out on the basis of word-of-mouth networks that already exist within academic disciplines). A perfect case study is provided by the eLanguage programme, a digital publishing platform for academic journals in my own field, linguistics. Hosting here is funded by a learned society, the Linguistic Society of America, leaving journals to meet the costs of typesetting, which in many cases can be carried out on a voluntary basis (just like the more arduous task of peer review).

Faced with this type of business model, the arguments against OA evaporate. The funds provided by the Research Councils for the purposes of paying APCs can, and should, be re-purposed to directly fund the operation of a new generation of free-to-view, free-to-publish academic journals. All that is standing in the way of this position is an attachment on the part of policy-makers to the role of traditional publishing companies – an attachment which can, and should, be questioned.