Brill partners with ScienceOpen

Brill Publishers are not just a long-established linguistics publisher – they’ve also demonstrated in recent years that they’re ahead of the game, by spearheading the charge towards Open Access in journal publishing. Brill has now partnered with rapidly-growing new kid on the block ScienceOpen to share content from three of its journals: the no-fees Gold OA journal Indo-European Linguistics, the Gold OA Journal of Greek Linguistics, and the sporadically OA Language Dynamics and Change.

I’ve added content from these three journals to my collection on Language Change at ScienceOpen. See my editorial for more details!

Open Handbooks in Linguistics

One to watch is the new initiative Open Handbooks in Linguistics. From their blurb: “We consider the open access publishing model to be especially important for handbooks for the following reasons:

  • Handbooks can represent a significant benefit to scholars around the world with limited or no access to commercial publishers’ book products, since they summarize current research in a compact and organized fashion.
  • Commercial publishers in our field are producing many more handbooks than in the past, since they represent a significant profit opportunity. Many linguist-hours are being poured into these volumes, but their focus and direction is being at least partly driven by publishers’ goals, rather than by the field’s needs.
  • Open exchange of ideas is essential to the advancement of science, and open access to our research products is therefore a key priority for our field, as for all scientific work.”

Three hundred years of piracy: why academic books should be free

I think academic books should be free.

It’s not a radically new proposal, but I’d like to clarify what I mean by “free”. First, there’s the financial sense: books should be free in that there should be no cost to either the author or the reader. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, books should be free in terms of what the reader can do with them: copying, sharing, creating derivative works, and more.

I’m not going to go down the murky road of what exactly a modern academic book actually is. I’m just going to take it for granted that there is such a thing, and that it will continue to have a niche in the scholarly ecosystem of the future, even if it doesn’t have the pre-eminent role it has at present in some disciplines, or even the same form and structure. (For instance, I’d be pretty keen to see an academic monograph written in Choose Your Own Adventure style.)

Another thing I’ll be assuming is that technology does change things, even if we’re rather it didn’t. If you’re reluctant to accept that, I’d like to point you to what happened with yellow pages. Or take a look at the University of Manchester’s premier catering space, Christie’s Bistro. Formerly a science library, this imposing chamber retains its bookshelves, which are all packed full of books that have no conceivable use to man or beast: multi-volume indexes of mid-20th-century scientific periodicals, for instance. In this day and age, print is still very much alive, but at the same time the effects of technological change aren’t hard to spot.

With those assumptions in place, then, let’s move on to thinking about the academic book of the future. To do that I’m going to start with the academic book of the past, so let’s rewind time by three centuries. In 1710, the world’s first copyright law, the UK’s Statute of Anne, was passed. This law was a direct consequence of the introduction and spread of the printing press, and the businesses that had sprung up around it. Publishers such as the rapacious Andrew Millar had taken to seizing on texts that, even now, could hardly be argued to be anything other than public-domain: for instance, Livy’s History of Rome. (Titus Livius died in AD 17.) What’s more, they then claimed an exclusive right to publish such texts – a right that extended into perpetuity. This perpetual version of copyright was based on the philosopher John Locke’s theory of property as a natural right. Locke himself was fiercely opposed to this interpretation of his work, but that didn’t dissuade the publishers, who saw the opportunity to make a quick buck (as well as a slow one).

Fortunately, the idea of perpetual copyright was defeated in the courts in 1774, in the landmark Donaldson v. Becket case. It’s reared its ugly head since, of course, for instance when the US was preparing its 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act: it was mentioned that the musician Sonny Bono believed that copyright should last forever (see also this execrable New York Times op-ed). What’s interesting is that this proposal was challenged at the time, by Edinburgh-based publisher Alexander Donaldson – and, for his efforts to make knowledge more widely available, Donaldson was labelled a “pirate”. The term has survived, and is now used – for instance – to describe those scientists who try to access paywalled research articles using the hashtag #ICanHazPDF, and those scientists who help them. What these people have in common with the cannon-firing, hook-toting, parrot-bearing sailors of the seven seas is not particularly clear, but it’s clearly high time that the term was reclaimed.

If you’re interested in the 18th century and its copyright trials and tribulations, I’d encourage you to take a look at Yamada Shōji’s excellent 2012 book “Pirate” Publishing: the Battle over Perpetual Copyright in eighteenth-century Britain, which, appropriately, is available online under a CC-BY-NC-ND license. And lest you think that this is a Whiggish interpretation of history, let me point out that contemporaries saw things in exactly the same way. The political economist Adam Smith, in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations, pointed out that, before the invention of printing, the goal of an academic writer was simply “communicating to other people the curious and useful knowledge which he had acquired himself“. Printing changed things.

Let’s come back to the present. In the present, academic authors make almost nothing from their work: royalties from monographs are a pittance. Meanwhile, it’s an economic truism that each electronic copy made of a work – at a cost of essentially nothing – increases total societal wealth. (This is one of the reasons that intellectual property is not real property.) What academic authors want is readership and recognition: they aren’t after the money, and don’t, for the most part, care about sales. The bizarre part is that they’re punished for trying to increase wealth and readership by the very organizations that supposedly exist to help them increase wealth and readership. Elsevier, for instance, filed a complaint earlier this year against the knowledge sharing site Sci-Hub.org, demanding compensation. It beggars belief that they have the audacity to do this, especially given their insane 37% profit margin in 2014.

So we can see that publishers, when profit-motivated, have interests that run counter to those of academics themselves. And, when we look at the actions of eighteenth-century publishers such as Millar, we can see that this is nothing new. Where does this leave us for the future? Here’s a brief sketch:

  • Publishers should be mission-oriented, and that mission should be the transmission of knowledge.
  • Funding should come neither from authors nor from readers. There are a great many business models compatible with this.
  • Copyright should remain with the author: it’s the only way of preventing exploitation. In practice, this means a CC-BY license, or something like it. Certain humanities academics claim that CC-BY licenses allow plagiarism. This is nonsense.

How far are we down this road? Not far enough; but if you’re a linguist, take a look at Language Science Press, if you haven’t already.

In conclusion, then, for-profit publishers should be afraid. If they can’t do their job, then academics will. Libraries will. Mission-oriented publishers will. Pirates will.

It’s sometimes said that “information wants to be free”. This is false: information doesn’t have agency. But if we want information to be free, and take steps in that direction… well, it’s a start.


Note: this post is a written-up version of a talk I gave on 11th Nov 2015 at the John Rylands Library, as part of a debate on “Opening the Book: the Future of the Academic Monograph”. Thanks to the audience, organizers and other panel members for their feedback.

Kai von Fintel’s Lingua roundup

If you’re a linguist, then unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks you’ll have heard about the Lingua team’s bid for freedom in the form of Glossa. There’s a great roundup of all of the relevant steps and news coverage over on Kai von Fintel’s blog.

You can find Glossa on Facebook here, and on Twitter here.

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.

TROLLing: new open data archive

Linguists at the University of Tromsø have released a new repository for language and linguistic data, which is fully open access.

From the archive’s About page:

The Tromsø Repository of Language and Linguistics (TROLLing) is designed as an archive of linguistic data and statistical code. The archive is open access, which means that all information is available to to everyone. All postings are accompanied by searchable metadata that identify the researchers, the languages and linguistic phenomena involved, the statistical methods applied, and scholarly publications based on the data (where relevant).

Linguists worldwide are invited to post datasets and statistical models used in linguistic research. The TROLLing Steering Committee is responsible for the scientific content of the archive, whereas the University Library provides quality and relevance control, in addition to user management. The University Library also oversees the technical and legal structure of TROLLing.

You can visit the archive here. There’s also an amusing promotional video:

What happened to eLanguage? 18 months on

eLanguage was a beautiful idea. Founded by Dieter Stein and Stephen Anderson, it was an online platform for linguistics e-journals. The cost of hosting and technical support was borne by the LSA, while other things – such as typesetting, proofing, copy-editing and marketing – had to be paid for by the editors or their institutions. From 2011-2013 I was one of those editors, and, since I didn’t have a budget of my own to play with, everything was done on the cheap: I did the copy-editing and marketing (insofar as there was any) myself, and my estimable colleague Moreno Mitrović looked after the typesetting.

For whatever reasons, the LSA decided to discontinue eLanguage – presumably as part of their negotiation to bring Language itself closer to full no-fees OA status. I wasn’t happy with the decision, and neither were many others, but by the time I’d heard about it the decision had already been made. Though you can still find the archives on their website, none of the journals have been accepting new content in this form since the end of 2013. I thought I’d take a quick look at what happened to the “co-journals”, as they were called. These fall into three main categories: some ceased to exist, some were absorbed into Language, and others have struck out on their own.

Ceased to exist

In this category we have:

The former doesn’t really count, since it is the precursor of Pragmatics, and ceased to exist as such long before eLanguage came into being. Its purpose on the site was only ever as an archive. Mesoamerican Languages and Linguistics, on the other hand, was never very active: it only published two articles and one review, between 2008 and 2010. Its demise is thus perhaps unsurprising.

Became part of Language

This category covers:

My own Journal of Historical Syntax published three full papers and three reviews before it merged into Language, not bad considering that it was only set up in mid-2011. After some negotiation, it became an online-only section of Language. The deal is rather similar to eLanguage, with a few crucial differences:

  • We’re paginated as part of Language, and count as such for the purposes of impact factors, etc.
  • We now have the administrative support of the Language team, who deal with the papers once they have been accepted. (This saves me and Moreno a LOT of work.)
  • The copyright agreement is no longer in the CC-BY family, though authors still retain copyright of their work, unlike with most journals.
  • It no longer carries reviews.
  • The Journal of part had to be excised from its name, due to its new non-independence.
  • Most importantly, the materials are now not instantaneously open access. Authors can pay $400 (a lot of money, but chicken feed compared to what the for-profit publishers charge) for instant Gold; otherwise, all content is made available through the LSA website after one year. Since the half-life of a linguistics article is presumably much longer than this, it’s hardly a problem to wait that long. In the meantime, it’s behind a paywall at Project Muse.

To date, three full papers have been published in the Historical Syntax section of Language, with several more on the way.

Teaching Linguistics has followed a similar path; they were established even later and hadn’t published anything as part of eLanguage. Now they have four papers out, two in 2013 and two in 2014.

Historical Syntax and Teaching Linguistics are joined by Language and Public Policy, Phonological Analysis, and Perspectives. These have generated three, one, and two papers respectively (not counting the responses and “Short Shots” that Perspectives has also generated). So all the new sections are healthy, though none incredibly prolific.

Struck out on their own

The journals which took their own path are:

The only one of the batch to move to a commercial publisher is Pragmatics, which is now at John Benjamins and has a similar setup in terms of OA to Language and its sections, including a one-year embargo. Unlike many of the other eLanguage co-journals, Pragmatics was big and established before moving to eLanguage; you can view its extensive archives here.

It’s not immediately clear what’s happened to Studies in African Linguistics. Like Pragmatics, it’s a long-established journal that much predates eLanguage. The archive page proclaims in CAPITAL LETTERS that it is NO LONGER PUBLISHING NEW CONTENT (you can view the old stuff here). However, a quick search reveals that it appears to be alive and well. It’s still fully no-fees gold OA online, which seems to be funded through print subscriptions.

Semantics and Pragmatics is the golden boy of eLanguage, its biggest success story. It has simply continued in its original form: no fees to publish or to read. The LSA still support it, though they also receive funding from MIT and the University of Texas at Austin.

Since they have technology on their side, LiLT have done well for themselves, and like Semantics and Pragmatics have hung on to gold no-fees OA. They’re now simply hosted on a server at Stanford and supported by CSLI. Their back catalogue is here.

Dialogue and Discourse ticks along quietly. They don’t publish much outside their special issues (typically only one article a year), and are hosted at Bielefeld, with no-fees gold OA. They’ve kept their identity and migrated all their back issues to the new site, which is nice.

Constructions appear to have a similar arrangement, hosted using blog software at Osnabrück. Their back issues are here. Sometimes they have a lot of content; at other times, not so much. After producing no articles in 2013, they came back in 2014 with a special issue.

(It’s important to emphasize that by highlighting the sporadic nature of these e-journals I’m not making a criticism. The principle of uniformly-sized little issues was really rather specific to print, an artefact of the Gutenberg parenthesis. It’s neither necessarily healthy nor particularly important for a journal to have a consistent volume of content. If there are ten good 100-page articles one year and only a squib the next, then so be it. Quality over quantity.)

So there’s a diversity of outcomes. Of those journals that survived, the LSA has hung onto relatively few; most are still immediate gold OA, and all are gold after no more than a year. Though the LSA’s decision to drop eLanguage was regrettable, the programme as a whole has made a significant and lasting impact on the linguistics publishing landscape.