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Recently Read: The Lingua controversy

This week’s ‘big story’ undoubtedly was the mass resignation of all the editorial board and the reviewers of Lingua, a prestigious journal published by Elsevier. For those of you who may have missed it, here are some highlights.

What happened?

Last July, the editors of Lingua asked Elsevier to renegotiate the way the journal worked. Like all academic journals, Lingua publishes articles written by researchers, whose salaries are paid by universities or research grants. These are submitted for free to the journal, and they are reviewed by unpaid volunteers. For their part, the publishers provide some services, such as proofreading and typesetting, often of somewhat uneven quality, and then they resell the content to university libraries through opaque deals, at what are arguably exorbitant prices. Alternatively, Elsevier might make individual articles publicly available under an Open Access model, in exchange for which they levy substantial Article Processing Charges, or APCs.

In a letter to Elsevier, the editors suggested the Lingua should become a fully Open Access journal with modest APCs. Here’s a relevant quote:

First of all, we would like Elsevier to transfer the journal to full Open Access status. We understand that the current Article Processing Charges (APCs) at Elsevier are in the amount of 1800 euros. We believe that this amount is too high under current market conditions, and would like to ask that the APCs be lowered to a maximum of 400 euros.

Predictably, Elsevier was reluctant to make such concessions, at which point all six editors and the 31 academics who made up the editorial board resigned their posts, and announced their plans to launch a new academic journal, called Glossa. Apparently, they already have a Twitter account:

Johan Rooryck, who has been editing the journal since 1998, made the following comments to International Higher Education:

By quitting his position, Rooryck will give up his current compensation from Elsevier, which he said is about 5,000 euros (about $5,500) a year. He said the pay is minimal for the two to three days a week he works on the journal. “I would be better off going to flip burgers in that time,” he said.

Rooryck expects to earn nothing when Glossa launches — and he’s fine with that. “I’m doing this for purely idealistic reasons. I’ve had it. I think you have to move forward and it might as well be linguistics” that does so. Rooryck said that while he is particularly bothered by Elsevier’s policies, the criticisms extend to other corporate publishers. He said that some of his colleagues are already talking to editors of other journals, and hope that they will follow the lead of Lingua and that “linguistics can be a model for other disciplines” in standing up to publishers.

The Empire Strikes Back

For their part, Elsevier have brushed off concerns. In a public statement that was issued on Wednesday, they pointed out that “they are are managing the activities of 80,000 editors for 2200 journals”, and that the small number of dissenters who handed in their notice will be replaced. They also presented their own account of events:

The editors of Lingua wanted for Elsevier to transfer ownership of the journal to the collective of editors at no cost. Elsevier cannot agree to this as we have invested considerable amount of time, money and other resources into making it a respected journal in its field. We founded Lingua 66 years ago.

There are many who might take issue with the last statement. Johan Rooryck, for instance, had the following comments to make:

It does not come down to what “we” means. It comes down to what “found” means. […] Elsevier seems to retroactively and transitively claim that North Holland, hence Elsevier, set up and established Lingua. Now please consult the introduction of the first volume of Lingua in 1949 […] North Holland is not even mentioned anywhere, it is simply the printer of the journal. So there is no way Elsevier can claim to have “founded” the journal 66 years ago. That claim is demonstrably false.

But the claim is also interesting, as it is revealing of the hubris of publishers today. Elsevier seems to believe that, because it has legal ownership of the title of the journal and the copyright of the articles, it can also claim intellectual ownership of the journal and of its articles. This is not so. Scientific results belong to their authors and to the public. Research is paid for with public money. Private companies should not make exaggerated profits on goods produced with public money.

What next?

It remains to be seen how successful Glossa becomes, both in terms of commercial sustainability, and in terms of academic reputation. I think it will do both. More importantly, it remains to be seen whether we are at the brink of a paradigm shift in academic publishing.

Patrick Dunleavy, writing in the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, argued that unless there is a substantial reduction in APCs, universities could reclaim scholarly publishing for the academic community. Here’s his take on what an alternative model might look like.

Serious, big universities will be thinking, are already thinking – why don’t we publish digitally and open access ourselves?  All that academics at (for instance) Stanford, Harvard, Imperial or LSE get from being published in prestigious journals is the certification of peer review, itself an increasingly battered and replaceable currency. Yet top universities could organize their own conventional peer review processes economically and effectively, much as they do for PhD examining in the UK, using a system of mutual service and support. All the rest of the piece – getting articles publicized by twitter and blogs, providing a well-edited product, delivering the article to any PC, phablet or colour printer in the world – can be done easily and cheaply by universities themselves.

There are already many signs that academic publishing is nearing a crisis point. Universities across the world are increasingly unwilling to pay extortionate prices for access to research [1, 2, 3], and many academics are wary of providing free labour to profit-making entities (e.g. the Cost of Knowledge campaign). I wouldn’t be surprised, or saddened, if the hard line adopted by Elsevier precipitates such a change.


Featured Image: University of Nottingham @ Flickr,  CC-BY-NC

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