John Benjamins Publishing Company on the future of linguistics publishing

The following is an interview with John Benjamins Publishing Company (JB) concerning the future of linguistics publishing. Martin Haspelmath thanks Anke de Looper and Kees Vaes for contributing.

Question: Do you agree that the increasing trend toward self-archiving, whether on or on institutional repositories, means that the status quo is unlikely to persist for long? Is your current business model affected if the trend gets stronger?

JB: There is concern among publishers, including us, that this “green open access” – self-archiving of earlier versions of articles – may not be sustainable in the long run, because it still depends on the publishers recovering their costs by selling subscriptions to libraries. As long as there is a need for an official “version of record” in the academic process, it would continue to be important for libraries to subscribe to a journal even if the pre-final versions are accessible for free. But this may change. It may also be the case that libraries no longer subscribe to a whole journal (volume), but rather set aside budget to buy single articles if and when their researchers need them. Those changes would have a considerable impact on publishers’ earnings, but as long as we’re able to recover the costs we make in some way – which means that somewhere, someone has to pay us to enable access to content – we should be able to adapt and stay in business.

Question: Does Benjamins currently offer the option of open-access publication when the costs are covered by author-side fees? For journals and/or books?

JB: We are not advertising this option widely yet, and so far the demand has been limited, but we have published one Open Access book and another to become available very soon. Depending on the subject and the type of book, we decide whether or not we will also do a print edition for purchase.

For journals, we have an author-pays option. Here also, the demand has been limited so far – most of the requests we have had, were driven by the RCUK policy and the block grants that the UK government made available for that purpose.

So all of our journals are, effectively, hybrid; we do not see how we could make them full Open Access (OA) at this point in time, as most authors in linguistics have very little funding and would find it difficult to pay publication fees.

The “hybrid” situation is not very satisfactory, though. It increases our costs because we have to maintain two payment models and have additional administration in the production process. And libraries are – rightfully – concerned about “double-dipping” by publishers charging both author fees and subscription fees for the same content. We’re still struggling with the best solution to prevent that: with the low volume of OA articles, it is difficult to decrease the subscription rates, because in one year a journal may have one article – say, 10% of the total – with an author fee, and then the next year, it may be down to zero OA again, and libraries would not like prices to go down and up again that significantly from one year to the next. Another option we’ve seen publishers use, and one that we may consider, is to give a discount on the author fee if they are at a subscribing institution, or the other way around, reduce the subscription rate for a paying authors institution.

Question: Are there plans to expand author-fee-based open-access publication in the near future?

JB: As mentioned above, we offer the possibility of publishing author-fee-based open-access books and journal articles in all of our journals. Our policy at this moment is mainly demand-driven.

Question: Some people fear that open-access fees will correlate much more with the prestige of a publication brand rather than with the efficiency of the publisher’s operations. What is your response to this?

JB: At John Benjamins we now have one rate for all our journals. I don’t think we would differentiate by “prestige” – if we’d even figure out how to do that across the various sub-disciplines of linguistics. What we might consider are introductory discounts on fees for new journals.

In general, it is conceivable that journals with high rejection rates – usually journals with a lot of prestige – have higher costs, because of the volume of articles dealt with, and need to ask higher author fees for that reason.

How author fees will develop in the future remains to be seen. At John Benjamins, we do not think that there is a gold-mine anywhere that allows us to ask whatever we want in order to make a bigger profit; we only hope that there will not be a gap between what authors can afford to pay, and what we need to earn in order to cover our costs and keep (a specific journal) going as efficiently as possible.

From the perspective of science funders (such as governments and charities), why would you argue that scientists should publish with Benjamins or other commercial publishers? What are the advantages over the alternative of subsidizing scholar-owned publishers?

JB: Publishing takes work, and in our perception, the most efficient system is one where scientists can spend their time doing research, and outsource the work involved with the publishing to people who specialize in that. It is likely that there will be a shift in how this outsourced work is paid for: from a situation where publishers had to make sure they recovered any costs afterwards by selling enough subscriptions/copies, to a situation where – in addition or solely – authors (or their institutions or funders) pay for that work through up-front publication fees. Of course the authors/institutions/funders will look for the “best buy”, taking into account the journal(s) that they would want to publish in because that is where the colleagues in their field look for information, where they get the best exposure, the most prestige, and the best assistance in publishing their paper.

But the playing field should be level: as a commercial company, if we want to set up a server or a platform to distribute e-books, we need to pay all of those costs out of our own revenues, and if we need to take out a loan from the bank in order to do this, they want every cent back with a healthy interest; that makes it hard to compete with “not-for-profit” businesses who have received ‘free’ money from funders or governments to set up their business and as a result already start out with lower costs.

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One Response to John Benjamins Publishing Company on the future of linguistics publishing

  1. Daniel says:

    “In general, it is conceivable that journals with high rejection rates – usually journals with a lot of prestige – have higher costs, because of the volume of articles dealt with, and need to ask higher author fees for that reason.”

    Well, since the vast majority of the work — choosing reviewers, reviewing, making editorial decisions etc. — is done “for free” by the scientists themselves and not the publisher, I do not see that journal with a huge amount of submission but only few accepted articles per year have much of a higher cost, since the biggest amount of work done by the publisher — typesetting, publishing and distribution — only applies to accepted papers.

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