Are commercial interests setting our agendas?

It is often observed that there is a danger that doctors may be corrupted by the pharmaceutical industry – the interest in selling drugs may not always be in harmony with the interest in curing patients, and thus commercial interests may get in the way of efficient medicine. Is there an analogous danger for pure science, e.g. for the field of linguistics? Which commercial companies do we work with closely, perhaps so closely that they may influence our decisions?

At the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, there was a rumor that some of the nice extra features of the building (such as a sauna and a climbing wall) were paid for by the companies that sold the expensive DNA sequencing machines to the scientists. We poor linguists do not spend so much on our machinery, but we often buy books (or at least our libraries do). So not surprisingly the commercial publishers are trying to treat us well. At the linguistics conferences that I attend, it is normal to find conference bags, name tags, pens and writing pads with the names of publishers on them (Benjamins, De Gruyter, Brill), and sometimes they even sponsor entire receptions. This is nice – one gets a small glimpse of the treats that the doctors (supposedly) get from the pharmaceutical industry.

But is there an analogous danger of undue influence of publishers on our science? I think so: There is one particular development over the last 15 years that finds its primary explanation in publishers’ interests, namely the enormous expansion of handbook publications. In the 20th century, De Gruyter’s HSK series had little competition, but now there is the Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics series, the Cambridge Handbooks in Language and Linguistics, the Routledge Handbooks in Linguistics, as well as the Brill Handbooks in Linguistics. To feed this suite of handbook suites, a large proportion of the active community of linguistics researchers must be engaged in summarizing and re-summarizing research results, rather than in producing new research results.

Clearly, this development is in the publishers’ interest, because while monographs are hardly profitable anymore, handbooks still sell fairly well. Their content may not be original, but it looks so general and relevant to librarians that they are likely to order them, even if their budget does not allow them big purchases. So what do publishers do to publish a handbook? It’s really very simple: Identify a well-established scholar with a track-record of publication and perhaps some editing, and invite them to edit a handbook on some topic (of their choice – this may be a very narrow topic, such as the syllable, or tense and aspect). Being entrusted with the task of editing a handbook seems prestigious (I did it myself some time ago), and if you are a social type, also seems an interesting social activity. Then if one is invited to write an article on a special topic, one feels flattered, because it confirms one’s status as the world’s leading expert on the topic, so one accepts. Writing this article then may get a bit tedious, but in the end one does it because one does not want to hold up the publication of the article or lose one’s face before the senior colleague.

Thus, the system works well, but is this what we as scientists actually want? Did we ask for someone to make these handbooks, because we need them for our research or teaching? It seems that nobody ever asks this question, because the division of labour seems clear: Publishers publish, and scholars do research and write. But if the publishers no longer publish what we submit, but make specific proposals about what kinds of contents we should produce, we are allowing the cart to be put before the horse. We are allowing commercial interests to set our agenda.

How did it get to be like this? In the 20th century, there were not many publishers, and scholars did not have a lot of pressure to publish. At that time, a publisher who approached scholars with a certain publication idea was able to make a useful contribution, because scholars may not have been sure who to turn to for publication. But as as publication options multiplied over the last 20 years, and the internet (and more and more conferences) made it much easier to communicate, authors became a scarce commodity. While finding a publisher was sometimes difficult 30 years ago, publishers now have to make efforts to find authors. Book publication is hardly selective anymore – publisher’s representatives are actively looking for junior authors to submit their dissertations in order to acquire more books. But once a scholar has a teaching job and little time for big new research efforts, handbook articles is something that publishers can still get out of them.

So the flood of handbooks is benefitting the commercial publishers. Is it also benefitting science? Maybe, because overview articles are useful for students, and the handbooks may make it easier to get a basic understanding of an adjacent (sub)discipline if one wants to. But because of the reader-pays model that the handbooks employ, most readers of these handbooks actually read pre-publication versions on social repositories (, ResearchGate), or copies of unclear legal status. The publication system thus helps keep the commercial publishers alive, but it does not really serve the scholars’ interests.

Scholar-owned publication of reference works would take the form of scholars getting together (perhaps at the LSA or the SLE) and discussing what the needs of the field are. The commercial publishers should be our service providers, and should not set our agendas.

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One Response to Are commercial interests setting our agendas?

  1. Absolutely spot on analysis and diagnosis. I myself recently turned down Oxford, who asked me to edit a handbook for them, on precisely these grounds: who really needs another handbook? Time better spent on primary research and reviewing, etc. (Or even adding decent linguistics material to Wikipedia.)

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