A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps

Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. This is something that perhaps I notice more than other linguists in the richer countries, because as a typologist I need access to works on many different languages. The commercial publishers would argue that this is unavoidable, but filesharing has become so easy that I expect fewer and fewer scholars to be willing to accept this argumentation in the future. What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? They used to print and distribute books, but we don’t really need this anymore (due to technological changes, print-on-demand services are more efficient than large printruns anyway). They used to advertise books and organize the sale of books, but from the authors’ perspective, it would be much better if our books were freely available. This is the big difference between science and music or film: No scientist has ever made a living off the sales of their books and articles. These days, the best advertisements are social media like Facebook and Twitter, and we don’t need publishers for this. Publishers normally expect that the manuscript of your book is not freely downloadable from your website, so by “publishing” a book, you actually make it less public. While not published yet, it’s freely available on your website to anyone in the world, and after publication, it exists as a paper copy in a few dozen libraries in the rich countries – this is what I call absurd.

So why do people still publish books with the traditional commercial publishers, instead of just putting their works on their website, or making them available via sites like ResearchGate or Academia.edu? The reason is not that this would benefit the readers – the reason is that it benefits the authors. What authors primarily get from the publishers is prestige, and this is the most urgent thing they need. Prestige is what builds careers, and without careers there’s no academic linguistics. Everything else comes after that. This is why people publish grammars of small languages at prices that are totally unaffordable to the speakers, and unaffordable also to many linguists who would like to read them. The authors don’t feel good about it (I certainly felt awful when my grammar of Lezgian was published, which costs EUR 229.00), but they often accept it as a necessary evil.

However, the prestige of publishers is not something that the publishers themselves created on their own. Publishers’ imprints are prestigious because prestigious scholars have published with them. For example, Mouton (which later became De Gruyter Mouton) got a big boost from publishing Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic structures in 1957. So prestige is something that ultimately derives from prestigious scholars. If enough established scholars get together, they can create an imprint that is prestigious, out of nothing. This has often worked with journals, and it also works with book imprints. This is the idea of Language Science Press, a new book imprint associated with the Freie Universität Berlin, run by Stefan Müller together with me. We approached many colleagues and asked them if they favour the idea of free (open-access) electronic book publication in general terms, and after an overwhelmingly positive response, we decided to go ahead and start a new scholar-owned linguistics publisher. In the meantime, the DFG has awarded us over €500.000 to pursue this idea, so we can expand our activities.

The reviewing and selection of the book manuscripts will be taken care of by the series editors of the various series. So far, we have eight series, one of which (Studies in Diversity Linguistics) not accidentally has a name that is reminiscient of the name of this blog. These aspects are no different than with commercial book publishers, and our goal is to publish books of the same quality and prestige as the major publishers in the field (Oxford University Press, De Gruyter Mouton, Benjamins, Brill). The first books should come out in March or April 2014.

Since there is now free software for book publishing (PKP’s Open Monograph Press), the main costs we have are typesetting costs, and we hope that these will become lower and lower as more and more linguists acquire good typesetting skills, especially skills in using LaTeX. We also hope that there will be continued support from institutions like the DFG and the FU Berlin, so that there will be no need to charge authors. We think that it should not cost more than EUR 500 to publish a linguistics book if the author has used LaTeX in creating it.

Of course, open-access book publication is a growing trend, and the commercial publishers are increasingly offering open-access options as well, usually with an author-pays model (you pay EUR 10,000, and the publisher will make your book available free of charge to its readers). But can there be a functioning market for scientific publication by commercial publishers? I have argued that market forces will not bring the costs down as long as the publishers own the imprints and therefore authors have a strong incentive to collaborate with the companies who own the imprints. It would be irrational if companies did not make use of the prestige of their labels to extract the maximum price out of public science budgets, whether they are library budgets paying for subscriptions, or research budgets paying for author-pays open-access.

So what I’d like to see in the future is that all the prestigious labels in science is owned by the scholars themselves, like Language Science Press. We should try not to publish in journals whose titles are owned by the publisher, and for journals whose titles are owned by the scholarly associations (e.g. Linguistic Typology and Folia Linguistica, owned by the Association for Linguistic Typology and the Societas Linguistica, respectively), the organizations should shop around for the publisher that offers the best price. In the past, publishers and scholars had largely the same goals, because both wanted to see as many copies of their books and journals sold as possible. But in the world of electronic publication, the interests no longer coincide, unfortunately: Publishers want to charge high prices, but scholars want to pay low prices, while still publishing in prestigious outlets. This is a situation where the scholars will keep losing unless they take the valuable labels (book imprints and journal titles) into their own hands and unsentimentally look for the cheapest deal for the technical services.


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15 Responses to A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps

  1. Pingback: L’édition scientifique en linguistique (2): faire publier sa thèse | ELIS

  2. jeffgood says:

    This is a genuinely exciting initiative, and I hope other national scientific funding bodies will be willing to put in similar sums to support this kind of work. In terms of long-term funding for these sorts of endeavors, I would personally like to see university libraries begin to transition some of their budgets away from traditional journals and monographs and towards supporting “author pays” even for initiatives like this one where it is not required. In this way, the sums that have been allocated to support publishing will remain available for publishing but hopefully be used more in support of actually disseminating research results and less in support of hard-to-justify profit margins. Perhaps if such money does not go directly to an institution like Language Science Press, it can at least be used to help authors with typesetting and related kinds of editorial work. LaTeX can help with a lot of typesetting issues, but good copyediting will probably still be worth paying for for a long time to come.

    What worries me is that, as open access becomes more normal, the funds that universities allocate to pay for journals and books will simply be reallocated away from research dissemination and towards less worthy endeavors. (I don’t know what the climate is like in this regard in Europe, but, in the U.S., universities find all sorts of ways to spend money that are only loosely connected to what most scholars would perceive as the traditional mission of the university.)

  3. Our field definitely needs such open-access initiatives; I have two suggestions. First, I think that electronic publication allows the inclusion of sound files (or video files), and ideally, a reference grammar should include sound files linked to most example sentences, so as to increase the reverifiability of the data. Second, I think that cheap paper copies of the work should still be available, especially for dicitonaries and text collections.
    For the journals, whould it be possible to establish something like a “PLoS diversity linguistics”?

  4. Anthony Grant says:

    Excellent discussion! Two points:

    1) How anonymous can anonymous publishing really be in pravctice? People who know a field can hazard a guess at the authorship of anonymous work (even if that guess is wrong).
    2) The tenure question, sadly, does not arise in the UK, as tenure was abolished there in 1989, and progression is now by other means including peer review. Some fine scholars have been stuck at Lecturer for decades.

  5. Eleonora Sciubba says:

    Interesting idea and comments.
    As an aside, I would like to ‘leak’ that a young Italian publishing company (recognized by the Italian Ministery of Education as ‘scientific’) charges you € 100,00 if you format the whole book yourself (not only in latex but also .rtf). So the costs should eventually come down to that amount.
    A series on less formal approaches to Linguistics would be welcome, though :)

  6. David B says:

    It’s been referred to indirectly, but I’m surprised nobody’s actually used the word “tenure” yet in this discussion.

    Like a few people said above, the problem is that prestige/recognition comes with time, so the ones who are the most desperate to publish books (read: assistant professors in North America, equivalent ranks elsewhere) have to avoid new presses, since the tenure system promotes an aversion to risks like that.

    This means that in order to get the press fully established, you need to convince full professors and their equivalents (plus, perhaps, associate professors at second-tier institutions who could use a book by any non-vanity press in their promotion file) to publish with you. That said, I’m a fan of this model, so maybe a few years down the road, if you’ve got a series going in variation and/or dialectology by then…

  7. Allan R. Bomhard says:

    I agree totally with Martin. The current model is simply no longer tenable. I, for one, cannot even afford to buy my own books at today’s prices, and I cannot imagine that others can afford them either. Moreover, I need access to the works of other linguists, which I also cannot afford, in order to do my own research, and, I would hope, others want access to my works as well. I make no money (no royalties) from the work I have produced and would gladly make more of it available for free on web sites such as academia.edu were it not for the fear of retribution by those who hold the copyrights on my published work.

    Current and emerging technologies mean that new models of creating, evaluating (peer review), and disseminating scholarly work are already being exploited, and I only see more of this coming rather than a retreat to more traditional publication methodologies. Instead of resisting these emerging technologies, publishers of scholarly works would to well to embrace these technologies and partner with the scholarly and academic community to make scholarly works available to a wider audience at affordable prices, if not quite for free.

  8. Traditionally, publishers serve the following roles

    1. Certification (“John Doe submitted a new idea on 2014/4/21″)

    2 Validation (“John Doe’s content is up to standards”)

    3. Publicizing (advertise, print, disseminate)

    4. Archive (long term access via books stored in libraries)

    The services of traditional publishers are bundled. This means that you buy all four services in a package, and it is not transparent how the overall price is calculated.

    Today, however, we have to ask ourselves the following question: “For which of the services do we still need traditional publishers, and which services can better be provided by the authors themselves, or other agents?”

    Registering: content in order to claim novelty and assure against plagiarism is easily done by simply publishing a paper on your homepage, or in an archive which gives you a time stamp. This is so trivial that there is no need to pay publishers for this service.

    Validation is more demanding, as peers have to review the idea, and yet another person has to organize the review process. This is certainly a service which comes at a cost. However, as of today, publishers charge authors for this, but the actual work is done by peers, who work for free. To put it differently: reviewers (paid by the state) work for a publishing house (a private company), which then sells the product (the reviews) back to the state. Since reviewers work pro bono anyway, there is no reason why they could not work pro bono for a non-profit enterprise as well.
    The thing which remains is the organization of the review process. This is normally done by the editors, who are also not paid by the publishers (but they get royalties).

    PR is an area which is often underestimated. People have to be told that great books exist. If a pdf is only found on your homepage, it might be brilliant, but no one will ever know it is. Scientists regularly cannot keep up with all of the literature even in their particular subfield, so if there is no way to publicize new content, chances are that it will never make it to the relevant readers. I would say that PR is the domain where traditional publishers still have an edge. There are other ways to create publicity, the social networks Martin mentioned. However, I do think that this only works for established scholars. It will be much more difficult for say a starting Athabascanist to create impact by announcing her book to her 26 followers on Twitter. The idea of creating an OA book series with prestige is the right response to this: readers will know that content published in that series is worth their time and will happily read it.

    The fourth aspect, archiving, is already taken care of by institutional repositories. They are already better than traditional publishers now, because of the lack of paywalls.

    tl;dr: PR remains the only domain where traditional publishers have an edge. We must find alternative ways for publicizing our content.

  9. Guus Kroonen says:

    I give my full support to this great initiative, except perhaps that I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to replace the word ‘prestige’ by ‘recognition’. The only thing junior scholars should have to need at pursuing an academic career is that they can find some form of official scholarly recognition for good publications (and this is of course where the board comes in). Prestige to me seems undesirable as a measurement of academic success since it is only a social derivative of it (at least in an ideal world).

    • Martin Haspelmath says:

      Ideally, prestige would play little role in academia, but in my perception, it plays an enormous role. This is not surprising, because academics are human beings like everyone else. You get recognition by having your Ph.D. thesis approved and by having your book published by a provincial publisher, but if you publish with Cambridge University Press, then that gives you a lot more, namely prestige. Publishing with a major brand is like playing in the major league. Your colleagues are much more likely to cite your work if it was published in a prominent (=prestigious) place, and these citations give you additional prestige. And if you can list these prestigious elements on your CV, that will get you a job. Maybe the best world would be different, but I don’t see how one could achieve this. Far more radical innovations would have to be proposed (such as making all scientific publications anonymous) which I’d be happy to discuss, but not to bet on. But I’m betting on the success of Language Science Press and similar initiatives.

      • Guus Kroonen says:

        You read my mind: I’ve been thinking about the possibility of anonymous publishing a lot lately, since it would remove some of the irrational social side effects of academic practice we discussed here. However, it also creates some serious challenges. If it is no longer possible for people to use (public) CVs, how will employers know who to hire? And without CVs, will funders still have enough information to decide which research proposal to fund? Also, since academics are human beings, as you noted, the complete lack of prestige or even recognition resulting from anonymous publishing will probably very soon leave academia almost void of academics. Still, it is an interesting option that needs further exploration.

  10. I absolutely agree with you, Martin. But what happens with all the evaluation processes young scholars are subject to based on the ranking of their publications (using JCR, etc.)? Isn’t it a vicious circle?

    • Joseph T. Farquharson says:

      But Isabel, I have never been able to understand the problem here since measures for the evaluation of (younger) academics in most universities are put together by older academics. This means that we are creating our own barriers. It is time we change the status quo.

    • Martin Haspelmath says:

      It takes a while for new brands (imprints like “Language Science Press” and new journals) to acquire the same prestige as the established brands. So clearly by publishing in a new outlet, one takes a certain risk. But I think that there are enough people who can afford to take such a risk, and if you want to count citations, then of course open-access publication has advantages – freely available books are likely to get cited more often simply because they are not behind paywalls.

  11. Anthony Grant says:

    A daring idea! Let’s see what comes of it – and what kind of vested opposition it encounters…

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