Beyond the zombies: How we might get out of the science publication disaster

By now, everyone knows that scholarly publication is serious trouble. The actual costs of disseminating content have plummeted drastically, and yet academic institutions are paying more and more to the commercial publishers. This feels deeply wrong – as if Facebook charged us for posting cat videos. In some fields such as linguistics, there has been a lot of discontent for quite a while. Johan Rooryck’s efforts to take the old “Lingua” away from Elsevier have been widely publicized, and Elsevier’s handling of the situation, as well as the continuation of “Zombie Lingua”, are regular talking points among linguists.

But while it’s easy to agree that Elsevier’s behaviour is outrageous, it is not so clear what a good general solution will look like. Some of us had hoped that the Lingua/Glossa example would be taken up by more and more other journals, and linguists (as well as academics in other fields) would increasingly move away from the commercial giants and adopt “fair open access” publication models. Authors would increasingly submit to the good journals (e.g. those on George Walkden’s platinum open access journal list), and there would be more book-publishing brands like “Language Science Press” which are based on community collaboration and charge neither authors nor readers.

Is this happening? I’m not sure. Most of our colleagues seem to have sympathies with what we activists are doing and saying, but at the moment, it takes quite a bit of extra effort to find an alternative model for one’s journal, or to typeset one’s book manuscript in LaTeX (as is required by LangSci Press). And with all the other pressures on academics, few people have these extra resources. There are over a hundred well-established linguistics journals, and the great majority of them show no signs of wanting to change their publication model.

One can understand this, because individual scholars are not really affected by the disastrous situation. While paywalls are sometimes a nuisance, the access we have to the literature has actually been getting better and better. This has largely happened thanks to developments that had nothing to do with our traditional literature providers (our academic libraries): First, more and more colleagues uploaded their papers to their personal websites (a development of the early 2000s), and then, and ResearchGate made it very easy to share one’s research with one’s colleagues. Again, it’s a nuisance that often one has access only to the manuscript version of a paper (because only the manuscript is truly public, while the “published” version is paywalled), but we’ve learned to live with this. We know that our institutions waste a lot of money on hugely overpriced content, and we feel that our libraries are less and less needed. But these problems do not affect us directly.

For a long time, open access seemed to be the solution to the problem of high subscription prices and lack of access – and it was taken up eagerly by politicians in some countries, because it seemed reasonable that the results of publicly funded research should be publicly accessible. But these politicians did not understand the logic of academic publishing: They saw research papers as providing insight that might benefit the society, whereas for an academic, a branded publication is a way to measure their professional success. And of course the default funding model of open access publication has always been APCs (author fees), so if a linguist is told that they should pay €10.000 to publish an open-access book with De Gruyter , they naturally prefer the traditional paywall route, and share the PDF privately with all those colleagues that are actually likely to read the book.

So the “science publication disaster” is a nuisance for ordinary academics, and a true disaster only for science funders, who have to spend more than US$10 billion per year on publication (i.e. about US$5,000 per article). Publishing an article does not cost more than a couple of hundred dollars, so one billion should be enough, and science would gain US$ 9 billion per year if we could “take back control”.

Probably the most successful academic-led effort to disrupt the disastrous system is Sci-Hub, which now gives access to 77% of all research articles (including 97% of Elsevier’s articles). This is not a legal site according to Western standards (although using Sci-Hub is at least partly legal, according to an expert opinion from Germany), but it is widely used by scientists from around the world, even for access to articles that are available through their institution – naturally enough, because Sci-Hub’s interface is as easy to use as Google.

Sci-Hub (or its successors) will not go away, so it seems clear that the transition to full open access will be very quick. Thanks to Sci-Hub, all paywalled journals are now zombies for the publishers. Even small, family-owned linguistics publishers like De Gruyter and Benjamins will charge linguists for publication in the future, maybe even the near future – there will not be any alternative business model left.

But will this solve the problem that science funders spend $9 billion too much for publication? No, because the publishers have the same costs and want the same profits. If they can get away with it, they will charge the same amounts in author fees that they have traditionally received through subscriptions. And since we need their brands, they may well get away with it.

The only long-term solution that I see is for scientists to implement the principle of non-profit publication (as recently argued forcefully by Jefferson Pooley on the LSE blog). We take the academic freedom that comes from the non-profit nature of our research for granted – and in the same way, we should demand non-profit publication to free ourselves from the publication zombies.

If publishing were funded in the same way as research (e.g. by giving 20-year tenure to a journal after it has been evaluated positively), then it could be vastly cheaper, because the funders/publishers (mostly universities, but maybe also charities like the Gates Foundation) could buy the technical services from the cheapest bidder. The value of publication brands (like journal titles or book imprints) would be used in the same way as university brands are used at present: To attract the brightest minds and to motivate people to do the best science, rather than to extort money from science budgets.

This will not be easy, because our evaluation system relies on prestigious journal labels and book imprints, which are mostly owned by for-profit organizations. A book publication with Cambridge University Press still carries a lot of weight on everyone’s CV, and a paper in Springer’s NLLT is much better than a paper in the platinum journal Catalan Journal of Linguistics. The brand owners will do everything they can to preserve the value of their brands (this is what we see with Lingua, a brand whose value has been severely compromised, but that Elsevier doesn’t want to give up on).

Thus, even if we had enough funders willing to redirect money from their libraries to journal publication, there would still have to be a shift in the behaviour of the community. We would have to distinguish between “best-practice publishers” and “legacy publishers”, and there would have to be some mechanism for rewarding best-practice publication and penalizing legacy publication, to counteract the prestige of the old-style labels.

Thus, I see no easy way out of the current predicament. But maybe a disruptive development will come from a direction where nobody is expecting it now. One thing is for sure: The present system is a disaster, and is ripe for major change, going far beyond individual journals and individual disciplines.


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What should I do with my draft paper? Hide it, upload to Academia, or upload to Zenodo?

In the 20th century, when I had a draft paper, I might make a few copies and share them with close colleagues, but the main action would be send it anonymously to a journal – in paper.

In the modern world, there are more things one can easily do with a draft paper to get comments from colleagues – one can send it by e-mail to dozens of colleagues, or upload it to a repository like, or upload it to a commercial science networks like or ResearchGate.

But one still needs official publications, of course – these are not going away, even though they are not strictly speaking needed for dissemination anymore. Without official publication, a scholarly work is unlikely to be cited widely, and unlikely to provide the kind of recognition that we need for our careers. So we still need to submit our papers to journals (or publish them in edited volumes – something that continues to be widespread practice in linguistics).

Now three questions arise:

– Is it OK to submit a paper to a journal at the same time as uploading it to some other site?

– Is it OK to use commercial science networks, which exploit our data the way that other “gated communities” do, without being accountable to science?

– Is it even sufficient to have everything on Academia, so that I don’t even need my own website?

I’ve been wondering about the best answer to all these for quite a while, and here I’d like to share my preliminary conclusions. As circumstances change (and they tend to change quickly in the modern high-tech world), or as I hear new arguments, I might change my mind, of course.

First, is journal submission compatible with simultaneous uploading to some other (semi-)public site?

I think it should be – you don’t need to hide your paper until it has been accepted.

It is true that traditionally, peer review is supposed to be double-blind, and authors should be anonymous. Some journals say explicitly in their submission guidelines that authors should anonymize their articles, but in the modern world, true anonymity is almost impossible to achieve for most papers. Conference and colloquia programs are typically available online, so by searching the internet for the title of a paper, we will often be able to get a fairly good idea of who the author might be.

In my experience, reviewer anonymity is far more important, especially since many reviewers are junior and non-tenured, and by writing critical reviews of papers (co-)authored by influential colleagues, they could be afraid to jeopardize their careers. Moreover, even more important than journal paper reviews are grant reviews, and these are never anonymous. So if we accept non-anonymity for grants, it cannot be so terrible for papers. Moreover, uploading a paper at the same time as submitting it for review is something that is already being practiced widely anyway, and I have not seen anyone object to it strongly. Thus, I see no reason not to endorse this practice.

(Well, maybe there is one reason: Reviewers may be somewhat less motivated to read a paper carefully when they feel that the paper is already being discussed widely elsewhere. But if peer review becomes less informative for the authors while feedback comes from elsewhere, this may be an acceptable tradeoff.)

Second, are commercial science networks acceptable?

Some people say that they are evil, because they are parasitic on the publicly funded research infrastructure.

But commercial companies that serve scientists are active in all kinds of domains: From cleaning companies and equipment maintenance to logistics companies that ship our samples and airlines that transport our fieldworkers – we need service-providers that can do things that we cannot do ourselves.

Now it is true that I have argued that publication should be seen as part of science, not as something that can be outsourced, because the publication brands are used to measure our success, so they are the currency of our business. Publication brands should be scholar-owned, but the commercial science networks are adding something to this: They are telling us how many people are reading our work, who is citing us, and so on. These are the kinds of things we really care about, so if they provide a useful service to us, I don’t see why we shouldn’t pay them for it, either with our data, or even by signing up to a premium account.

As long as no publicly funded organization provides these services, I would not want to do without them. Scientific libraries often emphasize how important they are, but in fact, many of us by now find much more important than libraries.

Third, is it enough to have a ResearchGate account?


Commercial science networks (of which there are two well-known ones, and ResearchGate) do not provide truly open access – one needs to become a member to access the papers. Moreover, and maybe even more importantly, there is no guarantee that the materials uploaded will be there permanently. If they run out of funding, they might simply close down without even sending you a warning.

For permanent accessibility of your papers, it’s best to upload them to a repository like This is safer than keeping them on your own website, because when your contract terminates, your university may switch off your website right away. Or if you pay your own provider, there may be changes in the terms, and users may lose access to all the materials. Big public repositories that provide uploaded materials with a DOI seem to be the best place for your work, whether unpublished or published (of course, if it’s published, it can be uploaded only if it’s permitted).

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We don’t need open access, but scholar-owned publication brands

Suppose that each time you have your bike repaired, the bike shop raises its prices for the other customers, and for you, too – and the other bike shops are not differemt. In such an absurd situation, wouldn’t you rather repair the bike yourself, instead of contributing to further price hikes for everyone?

Publishing is supposed to be a service to the community of scientists – to disseminate our research results. But each time you publish with a certain commercial publisher, you contribute to higher prices for the next article or book, because commercial publication prices are regulated by the prestige of the brand, not by the value of the service.

Dissemination has actually become almost trivially cheap. Large repositories like HAL or contain hundreds of thousands of articles, and uploading your article there is quick and inexpensive. Commercial venues like and ResearchGate are used even more widely by scholars, because they provide additional services such as telling you who is reading your work.

So why don’t we all just upload our articles to these free sites? Why do we still need publication? Why do our science organizations spend billions of euros on journals and books?

The reason is that our careers hinge not only on our research output, but on the brands that our publications are associated with (journal titles and publisher imprints). This is something a scientist learnd very early, but that is rarely discussed, and that the politicians seem to be completely unaware of. Even scientists often seem to be unaware that the cost of publication comes from the prestige of the brand, not from the dissemination. Commercial publishers exploit our need for their brands to justify their exorbitant prices (and thus their high profits or inefficient processes), and there are no market forces to keep the prices low.

The idea of open access was launched in the 1990s because of the frustration with ever rising subscription prices, and it has gained widespread acceptance by politicians because there seems to be no reason in the digital age to hide results from publicly funded research behind paywalls. Strangely, however, the politicians (and open-access adocates in the universities and science organizations) have not understood that digital dissemination can actually save a large amount of money – probably up to 90% of the current publication costs. Recently the German universities and research libraries have been imploring the government to make the copyright law a bit more science-friendly, but at the same time, they promise the commercial publishers that they will keep spending the same amount of money. Isn’t this depressing?

Increasingly, open-access publication means that publishers charge not the readers (via paywalls and subscriptions), but the authors (via APCs). This isn’t any better as long as the brands are owned by the commercial companies, who will be able charge more for prestigious journals than for less prestigious journals. So if you pay €1500 for publishing a first-rate article this year, you increase the prestige of the journal and you may have to pay €2000 for another article in the same journal next year.

Clearly, the only way to behave responsibly in this situation is to take the brands out of the hands of commercial, profit-oriented organizations.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that universities and science organizations should have technical departments for publication – of course, the technical services could be outsourced to the cheapest contractor, as is routinely done for construction and cleaning jobs, for example. (On the other hand, universities already have technical departments – called “libraries” – which can probably retrain their staff to take over the publication tasks, as they will not be needed for acquisition of journals and books in the future.)

What matters is that scientists should be given the opportunity to start new journal brands or book imprints (such as Language Science Press), and to migrate existing brands, as has been done with the migration of commercially-owned “Lingua” to the new scholar-owned “Glossa” (and a few other journals). Ideally, there would be 20-year “tenure” financing for new journals and book imprints. In this way, our publication needs would be served just as well as our building needs and cleaning needs.

Thus, it is time to drop “open access” as a progressive issue, and to push for scholar-owned brands as the gold standard of science publication.

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Style rules explained (I): Title case (special capitalization) and related issues

The Generic Style Rules for Linguistics, whose widespread adoption will make linguistics publication more efficient, normally adopt the most widely used practices, but sometimes it is not so easy to say which practice is the most widespread, and in this cases a choice had to be made, ideally on the basis of rational principles. One such principle is:

(P1) Neutralize as little information as possible.

Thus, given names should not be abbreviated (because an abbreviation like “H.” neutralizes the distinction between Hans and Hankyung, for example).

But the princple also argues against special capitalization (also known as “title case”) in English, the rule according to which titles of books (and sometimes also of articles) get special capitals on some of the words. For example, the following reference can appear in two different forms:

Without special capitalization (“sentence case”, as in the Generic Style Rules):

  • Bybee, Joan. 2008. Formal universals as emergent phenomena: The origins of structure preservation. In Jeff Good (ed.), Linguistic universals and language change, 108–121. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

With special capitalization (or “title case”, as in the Chicago Manual of Style, for example):

  • Bybee, Joan. 2008. Formal Universals as Emergent Phenomena: The Origins of Structure Preservation. In Jeff Good (ed.), Linguistic Universals and Language Change, 108–121. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

It is my impression that special capitalization is not common in linguistics anyway (publishers like Benjamins, De Gruyter, Oxford and Cambridge hardly use it), but there are also good reasons for avoiding it, because it neutralizes the distinction between ordinary words and names. Many names of theories or principles or subdisciplines are typically capitalized (e.g. Universal Grammar, Case theory, Construction Grammar), and we don’t want to lose this information.

(Unfortunately, many publishers use special capitalization on their book covers, thus creating extra confusion. In this post, I am talking about reference information exclusively. Reference information cannot be derived from book covers – special capitalization on book covers is a book-design feature and is conceptually distinct bibliographic information.)

Moreover, when applying title case, it is often unclear whether a word should be capitalized or not, and the rules are typically complex (as noted by Wikipedia, one should capitalize “the first word and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, but generally not articles, conjunctions and short prepositions”. All this is unnecessary if title case is simply never used, as in the Unified bibstyle and (following it) the Generic Style Rules. The most international library catalogue, WorldCat, does not use title case for books either.

It should also be noted that title case is not used equally throughout the English-speaking world. In North America, it is also used in newspaper headlines (and even in public notices, e.g. “Please Do Not Stand In Door Area While Bus Is In Motion”, seen in a New York City bus), but in Britain, it is rarely used in headlines.

If one wants to create extra work for copyeditors, one can make the rules even more complex, as in the APA Style, where book titles are capitalized when they appear in the text, but not capitalized when they appear in the references, or use title case in section headings of level 1 and 2, but not from level 3 downwards.

For poor disciplines like linguistics, it seems best not to use title case ever, not even in book titles (as is done in Language Science Press books).

Another capitalization question concerns usage in subtitles, which are separated from the main title by a colon. Capitalization usage of the first word after a colon varies, but the Unified bibstyle prescribes capitalization, which is again followed by the Generic Style Rules (e.g. Language: Its nature, development and origin; cf. also Bybee (2008) above). Here I see less of a justification (and WorldCat seems to lack capitalization in subtitles), but there is no reason to reject the Unified bibstyle’s decision.

Journal titles are different from book titles – they are treated as names, with capitalization (at least in English; Russian journal titles are not capitalized, and so they should not be capitalized in English-language works either). Series titles could be seen as intermediate between book titles and journal titles, but the Unified bibstyle and the Generic Style Rules treat them like journal titles.

Now some people will raise the objection that with proper databases and software, one can easily adapt one’s references to diverse bibstyles, so there’s no need to worry. This is true for some aspects of bibstyle, but de facto it is not true for capitalization usage. Which words are capitalized is not predictable, so a very expensive coding procedure is required: The basic data have to be in special capitalization, and all names need to be specifically protected against decapitalization. In actual practice, this does not work, because authors are not willing to do this work, and in the end the references contain many noncapitalized names. Thus, unless one wants to publish in an MLA journal (or some other American literature journal that requires title-case style), it is best to keep all one’s references in a non-capitalized style.



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The new (interim) editorial board of Lingua

Lingua has a new editorial board. The journal is run by Prof. Harry Whitaker from Psychology, Northern Michigan University, Marquette, Michigan, USA. I wrote an email to him on January 9th, but he did not change his mind. To the other current members I will send the following text today:

Dear XY,

Since I used to work for Elsevier’s Lingua, Elsevier sent me an email informing me that there is a new editor running the journal now. Looking at the journal’s webpage I found your name in the editorial board. I wonder whether you know the recent history of the journal. Last year the complete editorial board contacted Elsevier and asked them to transfer the journal into Fair Open Access. One part of the definition of Fair OA is that the prices for OA publications are related to actual costs. These are estimated with 400€. Elsevier’s prices for an OA paper in Lingua are much higher (1800$ = 1600€). Since Elsevier did not agree the complete editorial board resigned and founded their own journal (Glossa).

Now, Elsevier is looking for new editorial board members and found you. By giving your name to them you support something that is harmful to science and to society. According to Wikipedia and the business report cited there, Elsevier has a revenue of £2.48 billion in 2014 and a net income of € 1,090 million. That is the profit rate is 37 %. This money is payed by research institutions or individuals who are buying subscriptions, papers or pay author processing charges. Most research institutions world wide are payed by the tax payers. So by supporting this company and this publication system in general, we give a Billion Euro to the share holders of Elsevier rather than doing science and education with it. I am not arguing that nobody should make any profits with selling goods or services, but the profits shouldn’t be 37%. The problem with Elsevier is that they own brands and misuse their power to get the most out of our budgets. Please ask your local librarian about Elsevier. The solution for the crisis in the publishing sector lies in scholar-owned brands. We as scientists are building the reputation of journals. If the brand belongs to a profit-oriented publisher, we work with the result that the fees and prices get higher. Therefore the brands should belong to societies or to groups of researchers and not to the publishers. This is one of the points of Fair OA.

I ask you to rethink your decision to work for Lingua. There is no reason left for doing so. I reviewed for Lingua two times last year, but I will not review for Lingua in the future. The prestige that was associated with Lingua was transferred to the new journal Glossa. The same applies to services on the editorial board. If you work there you are not helping the scientific community, on the contrary: you are doing harm to us. So being on the board of Lingua now actually looks bad on your CV, quite contrary to what it was a year before.

Again: Please reconsider your decision.

Friendly greetings from Berlin

Stefan Müller



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