Three scenarios for the future of linguistics publishing

The way in which scientific research results are disseminated and published has undergone major changes since the end of the 20th century, and linguistics is no exception. What changes will the future bring? What are the stakes? What should linguists do? These questions should be more actively discussed by linguists, as the ongoing revolution affects all of us. In the following, I contrast three possible scenarios as a background for further discussions. I do not hide the fact that I prefer the second scenario, but the other scenarios (especially the third one) should be taken seriously as well.

Scenario One: Continuity

It is possible (though not very likely) that the situation will remain as it is in 2014: Our journal papers and books will be published by commercial publishers like De Gruyter, Benjamins and Brill, or by academic publishers like Oxford University Press or MIT Press. Our libraries will subscribe to these journals and buy paper copies of the books, but at the same time many of us will make copies of these available on our websites or on social-publication platforms like and ResearchGate, or on subfield-specific archives like LingBuzz.

The reason why this is not likely to continue is that the trend for self-archiving (e.g. on has been growing strongly in recent years, especially among younger linguists. As more and more of the relevant papers are freely available online, more and more libraries will ask why they should continue to subscribe to the expensive journals and buy the expensive books. This will either drive the publishing companies to fight the social publication platforms (this has already started to happen, with Elsevier forcing to remove some papers), or it will threaten the companies’ business model.

Scenario Two: Scholar-owned platinum publishing

Another scenario is that publication will increasingly be in the hands of the scholars themselves, just as it was in the 19th century, when most research papers were published by the learned societies, and they only subcontracted printers to produce the physical issues and volumes. But later the printers turned into publishing companies, which used to provide some really useful services: They not only printed and shipped the journals and books, but they also provided for copy-editing, typesetting and advertising. These were things that scholars were not competent to do and didn’t want to worry about.

But with the advent of personal computers and the internet, the situation has changed dramatically: We increasingly prefer electronic versions rather than hard copies in our institutional libraries (to read on our mobile devices or to print if needed), and we do not need the publishers for typesetting and advertising. We can do the typesetting ourselves (some of us, especially the younger ones, do it with sophisticated software like LaTeX), and for advertising, we can use social networks and professional mailing lists just as easily as the publishing companies. So mostly what remains is copy-editing, but this is not done seriously by many publishers anyway.

As a result, there is now an ever increasing list of journals that are produced by the scholars and their institutions out of their usual budgets, without charging either the authors or requiring the readers to subscribe to them. This is called “platinum publishing” here. Some examples of platinum linguistics journals are:

Journal of Historical Syntax
Journal of Language Modeling
Linguistic Discovery
Linguistic Issues in Language Technology
Semantics and Pragmatics
SKY Journal of Linguistics
Studies in African Linguistics

The “Open Access Journal Search Engine” lists 63 open-access journals in linguistics, of which only one or two charge author fees and are not platinum journals. (And the Directory of Open Access Journals even has 439 linguistics journals, though this list includes many that are working papers or otherwise quite out of the way.)

Thus, linguists have a wide range of options if they want to publish their work in a way that is neither a burden on their budget nor excludes potential readers whose institutions cannot afford a subscription. It may well be that this is the way of the future, especially if the bigger scholarly associations (such as the LSA, SLE, DGfS, LAGB, LSJ) join the trend. There is now also a book publisher that uses the same model, Language Science Press.

None of these journals have a big funder behind them – they are funded by the modest budgets that linguists are used to. But these budgets are sufficient, just as our modest budgets were sufficient in the 19th century. And if our libraries don’t have to buy books and journals anymore, quite a few funds would be freed that could go into these journals. Thus, there is a good chance that this will be the primary publishing model of the future.

Scenario Three: Author fees collected by global companies

But the platinum journals do not have the same prestige as the traditional journals yet, and the traditional journals are mostly owned by global companies such as Elsevier (e.g. Lingua), Springer (e.g. NLLT), Cambridge (e.g. Journal of Linguistics), Wiley (e.g. Language & Linguistics Compass), and Taylor & Francis (e.g. Australian Journal of Linguistics). Smaller companies such as De Gruyter or Benjamins are either striving to become global companies or are candidates for being bought up by the bigger companies.

The enormous increase in journal prices charged by the global companies over the last twenty years has led to a well-known “journals crisis”, but many policy makers are advocating a solution to this crisis that would not bring publication back into the hands of the scholars, but would allow the global companies to maintain their control of the most prestigious journals and imprints: the funding of open-access journal publication by “author processing charges”. The authors would pay somewhere between EUR 400 and EUR 4000, and the publishers would publish their work as open-access papers that can be accessed without subscription. (This mode of publication funding is also sometimes called “gold open access”.)

This approach has been gradually getting stronger over the last decade, and more and more funding agencies have embraced it and expressed their willingness to cover the author fees. So far, it hardly exists in linguistics, but it may well be that it will play an increasing role also in our discipline. So far, I am aware only of three linguistics journals that charge author fees:

Open Journal of Modern Linguistics (OJML) (SCIRP, Wuhan)
Open Linguistics (De Gruyter Open, Warsaw/London)
Languages (MDPI, Beijing/Basel)

Only the first of these journals has published any articles so far, and the last one does not even have an editor yet. But all three have editorial boards with reputable names on it, so it may well be that this will be the way of the future in linguistics as well. (Although it has recently been shown that at least OJML seems not to be a serious journal, falling into the category of “predatory journals”). It is quite conceivable that over the coming years, all the current major journals will gradually turn into journals that charge author fees.

This may mean that some new players who are aspiring to become global companies (such as SCIRP and MDPI) will enter the scene, but it is more likely that the traditional global publishers will manage the transition to author-fees publishing.

Will this lead to more competition and thus lower prices for scientists than in the current system with its astronomical subscription fees? Some people are optimistic that it will (e.g. Stuart Shieber here and here), but there could be true competition only if all the journals and imprint labels were equal in terms of their value to the scientists. But it will remain the case that some journals will be more prestigious and other journals will be less prestigious, so the more prestigious journals will be able to charge higher author fees (this was noted in the editorial of a platinum law journal). Each time we publish excellent work in an author-fees journal, we make it more likely that the publishing company will raise the fees next time. Thus, the situation will not be very different from what it is now: Publishing houses can charge prices that have little relation to their actual costs, but that are primarily determined by the prestige of their labels.


Like other disciplines, linguistics is currently in the unfortunate situation that what seems the best for the discipline (namely the second scenario, scholar-owned platinum publishing) is not the best for junior scholars at the moment. Most of the prestigious labels (journal titles and book imprints) still publish in the closed-access mode, so the present system may appear stable (scenario 1).

However, there are also powerful forces that are pushing toward a change. Increasingly, funding agencies make a certain degree of “open access” mandatory, so De Gruyter has already agreed to allow authors to put their papers on their websites 12 months after publication. This looks like a significant concession, and it is difficult to see how such a system could be stable. Thus, it can be expected that publishing companies will push for scenario 3, because this is the only stable scenario that maintains a powerful role for them.

Will science organizations likewise push for scenario 2, which will presumably mean much lower costs? There already exist a large number of open-access journals that do not charge fees, but perhaps the science organizations (big universities and science funders) will have to take further initiatives to convince more scholars that scholar-owned platinum publishing is the way of the future.

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9 Responses to Three scenarios for the future of linguistics publishing

  1. Pingback: Three scenarios for the future of linguistics p...

  2. Edyta Jurkiewicz-Rohrbacher says:

    I think it would be nice to mention Computational Linguistics here, as it is one of the highly ranked journal which is OA.

  3. Martin Haspelmath says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. I noticed that “Computational Linguistics” is published by MIT Press, for the Association for Computational Linguistics. I wonder what the finding model is. Is ACL paying MIT Press to publish it? If ACL owns the title and can move the journal to another publisher easily, then I think this would be a very good model that other associations should adopt.

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