Canceling the Lingua subscription

I emailed our librarian and asked them whether it would be possible to cancel the Lingua description. She informed me that they canceled the print subscription long time ago and that the online version cannot be canceled since the FU has a contract until 2017 that was set up for all Berlin universities. These bundles make individual cancellations impossible.

One option that was considered by the FU was to not enter new contracts with Elsevier at all, but the sciences rejected this option.

Conclusion: We keep Zombie Lingua in our library and have to talk to the sciences and convince them that it is worthwhile to transform their journals into fair OA.

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Time to say goodbye to Elsevier

I just checked the linguistics journals that Elsevier offers:

  • Ampersand
  • Assessing Writing
  • Computers and Composition
  • Discourse, Context and Media
  • English for Specific Purposes
  • Journal of Communication Disorders
  • Journal of English for Academic Purposes
  • Journal of Fluency Disorders
  • Journal of Neurolinguistics
  • Journal of Phonetics
  • Journal of Pragmatics
  • Journal of Second Language Writing
  • Language and Communication
  • Language Sciences
  • Lingua
  • Linguistics and Education
  • System

Three years ago I wrote a blog post asking whether we should follow the mathematicians and just stop working for the major publishers. I argued that this would be difficult since the field sort of needed the journals. Since then I reviewed for Lingua four times. With the recent developments and the complete board of Lingua stepping down and leaving Elsevier and founding the new journal Glossa, there is no reason for me left to work for Elsevier after the current editors fulfilled their duty at the end of the year.

The other journals are outside of my field of specialization and therefore I now say: Goodbye, Elsevier! and add to my signature in the Cost of Knowledge petition that I will never submit to nor review for an Elsevier journal during the rest of my life.

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The rights and permissions disaster

I want to report on my experience with getting the rights for a collection of the most important papers by Tilman Höhle, which I am coediting with Marga Reis and Frank Richter and which will appear in the Classics in Linguistics series by Language Science Press. Working on this volume is really fun, except one part: getting the rights to republish Tilman Höhle’s work. This part of the work was the largest one, extremely time consuming, extremely inefficient and extremely annoying. I want to explain why in a little more detail. Tilman Höhle published several very influential papers in the 80ies and 90ies. He published with Akademie-Verlag, Benjamins, CSLI Publications, Foris, Kluwer, Niemeyer, Stauffenburg, and Westdeutscher Verlag. With the exception of Benjamins, CSLI Publications and Stauffenburg all these publishers were bought by De Gruyter or Springer. An overview of this is presented in the following table.

original publisher now owned by
Akademie-Verlag De Gruyter
CSLI Publications
Foris De Gruyter
Kluwer Springer
Niemeyer De Gruyter
Westdeutscher Verlag Springer
Concentration in the publishing sector

The contracts that we signed in the 80ies and 90ies all included a passage saying that authors have the right to use their articles in collections of their own work or in books authored or coauthored by them. So we expected that it would not be a problem to get the permissions to put together a collection of Tilman Höhle’s most important papers. I wrote emails to the remaining publishers and got fast positive responses by CSLI Publications and by Brigitte Narr from Stauffenburg. I called Benjamins, who were a bit delayed due to the holiday season, but reacted quickly after my call. We got permission to use the papers we wanted to use with a Creative Commons CC-BY license and free of charge.

The interaction with the remaining two publishers was less pleasant. I first thought that Springer was easy, since they have a web interface for Rights & Permissions and this web interface grants you the right to use articles in other compilations and so on provided you are the author. However, the automatically generated permission letters explicitly exclude online publications without password protection and refer authors to Springer’s Rights & Permissions department for such usage.

I sent several emails to Springer and got impersonal replies without a name of the sender. I called several times and I guess I interacted with three or four employees of the rights & permissions section. The answer I got was: We cannot grant you the right to put copyrighted material on a webpage. I explained in emails and during phone calls that we did not want to upload the original articles into repositories or onto any other webpage but that we wanted to edit, reformat, and publish the papers by Tilman Höhle in a collection of his work, something that is usual and was possible up to the recent changes in the publishing world. For one paper, it turned out that the rights of the papers in the relevant publication reverted back to the authors, so we can use Verum focus in the intended way. But for Reconstruction and coordination I got the repeated reply that there is no way to use this paper in publications that are available online without a paywall. This would just not get into my head. Springer sells the open access option (CC-BY) to authors of new articles for $3.000/2.200€+VAT, but there is no way to turn a book chapter from 1991 into open access? Not even for money? The argument was: it would be unfair to readers who buy the complete book. What? I really love this appeal to fair play! What about the readers of journals that appear in print and online? Is their subscription fee of the print version lowered when the journal contains papers whose authors paid to have their content open access?

My conclusion from this was that Springer is not just a greedy company with a profit rate of more than 35 %, Springer is really an obstacle for science, their interests are fundamentally different from ours. So, I wrote a letter to Jolanda Vogt, who is responsible for linguistics at Springer, and Susanne Wurmbrand, who is the editor of the Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics, and informed them that I find Springer’s policy regarding rights unbelievable and that I would stop working for Springer immediately (I am in the board of JCGL and do a lot of reviewing for NLLT, Journal of Germanic Linguistics and Research on Language and Computation). Ms. Vogt contacted Rights & Permissions and we then got a quick reply giving us the permission to use the paper in an open access publication and with 100 printed copies (which is what we estimated when we filled in the first permissions form).

I was happy, but when reading the fine print, we discovered that the rights were not sufficient. What is needed for open access as we understand it at Language Science Press is a Creative Commons CC-BY license (Shieber, 2012). There are extensions of this license by NC and ND components. NC means that commercial use is not allowed without special permission and ND stands for no derivatives and means that third parties may not produce other compilations that include work under this license. In order to be able to print books via Print on Demand services, we have to have the right to sublicense the use of a book to a commercial enterprise. This would be made impossible by the NC clause. The same is true for uploading books on platforms like Google Books. Since Google is a commercial enterprise, we cannot sublicence our books to them if we do not have the permissions of the rights holders.

So, I went into the next round of emailing. The result now is that the Springer paper will be published under a CC-BY-NC-ND license and that we have the right to sublicnese for PoD for 100 books.

The interaction with De Gruyter was a little more pleasant, but rather chaotic. We got the offer to buy the right to republish as open access right away and the prices were … shocking. After all we are talking about papers from the 80ies and 90ies. Nobody will buy these books anymore. Contracts from Niemeyer stated that the copyrights return to the author once the work goes out of print. Nowadays nothing goes out of print since we have print on demand, but nobody will buy these books either. (The conference volume in which Höhle 1986 appeared is now sold for 119,95€ / $168.00, which definitely prevents interested readers from buying it.) The only commercial value of such old papers is bundled content and this is what the bigger commercial publishers are selling. (Höhle, 1986 is not even available as PDF from De Gruyter. The book is not listed in the directory of deliverable books and hence not available in normal bookstores. The content is simply blocked by De Gruyter until somebody pays for digitization.) After several rounds of emailing and a request to Anke Beck, the CEO of De Gryuter, we arrived at a CC-BY-NC-ND license for six papers for 1.273€ in total and De Gruyter stated that they explicitly want to exclude aggregation of text material. The negotiation process and its results are summarized in the following table. My mail folder on the rights issue contains 76 emails.

publisher email calls result price
Benjamins 1 1 CC-BY 0€
De Gruyter 15 3 CC-BY-NC-ND + Print for 500 books 1.273,30€
CSLI Publications 1 0 CC-BY 0€
Springer 12 3 CC-BY-NC-ND + Print for 100 books 0€
Stauffenburg 1 0 CC-BY 0€
Interaction with publishers and results

In hindsight I regret that I did not document the time that it took me to do all these negotiations, inform my co-editors and Language Science Press staff, discuss things and react again. The payment did not work smothely since it was individual bills for the individual papers. Some of them got stuck in the university system, which caused letters from De Gruyter and further inhouse and external emails. I am sure that the negotiations and the money transfer process wasted at least the same amount of time at the other side (Springer, De Gruyter). This is highly inefficient. The public sector pays for these publishing houses. We pay the rights and permissions departments of the publishers. This is part of the book prices that libraries and individual researchers pay. In a world of true open access all this would be unnecessary.

Due to the restrictive NC-ND license we cannot distribute all papers in the same way. We think that this is a pity and it ruins the book. We decided to publish the book nevertheless and put blank pages into versions of the book, for which we did not get the permissions we would need. So for instance, the De Gruyter and Springer papers will not be on Google Books. From the 101st printed copy onwards, the printed versions of this book will not contain Reconstruction and coordination, but blank pages with just the URL to the online version of this book. From the 500th copy onwards all De Gruyter papers will be missing.

So, the conclusion and the advice to all researchers is: do not give your copyright away. Just don’t! Commercial publishers will publish your paper anyway. Or even better, publish with true open access publishers that license the material under a CC-BY license.

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How to switch quickly to diamond open access: The best journals are free for authors and readers

The conventional wisdom among experts is that open access (OA) publication is better in all respects: Publications are not hidden behind paywalls, authors get more citations for their work, and results of publicly funded research are available to the public. This has been widely known for over 12 years, but not much has been happening. Some actors are frustrated, such as Ralf Schimmer, vice-director of the Max Planck Society’s MPDL: He notes that despite all the pro-OA activities at universities and science organizations, the open access movement is stagnating. While one sixth of all publications is open access by open access, the clear majority for subscription seems to be stable.

What explains this strange stability, which defies the politicians’ hopes and the experts’ recommendations? The OA experts do not seem to be interested in finding out.

But the explanation is easy: The main actors are not suffering, so they have no particular incentive to change it. Publishers make good profits with their subscription model, and scientists depend on the publishers for their careers, because the publishers own the prestigious labels. The scientists know that open access is better in principle, but their careers (and funding prospects) are more important, and they manage to access the most relevant research via para-publication channels (personal connections,, etc.)

Politicians would like to push scientists more, but they don’t want to damage their work, so they stop short of resorting to drastic measures (such as not counting paywalled publications for universities’ assessment). What they do instead (at least in the UK) is throw even more money at the commercial publishers, in order to foster Gold open access. Ralf Schimmer of the MPDL has examined all the figures and concludes: If the whole world switched to open access in one go, the end result would not be more expensive: “There is already enough money in the system.”

This sounds incredible – science publication is one of the most profitable businesses on earth, and we should not expect to save money by getting rid of all subscriptions?

In my view, it takes just a little economics thinking to understand why the huge costs arise: There is no market. This makes science publication similar to drug trafficking: When you depend on your dealer, he can charge you any price, and you are willing to pay. If Nature accepts an article by me and charges me €10,000 in APCs (author processing charges), I will pay, if necessary out of my own pocket. The payoff for my career is bound to be much higher. Nature has no competitor – it is a classical monopolist.

Thus, to reduce the costs, and transition to a reasonable publication system, we need to break the dependency on our dealers. We depend on them because most of the most prestigious labels (“Nature”, “Cell”, “Cognition”, “Physics Reports”) are owned by them. And if we are mid-tier scientists who publish good stuff and aim for mid-tier journals, these too are generally owned privately, or by academic societies who rely on members’ dues and struggle to make ends meet.

But we can do good science only if our funders give us freedom. They build us nice campuses and buy us good machines, they pay us decent salaries, reimburse our conference travel costs and give us freedom to choose our research topics. True scientific advances would be impossible without these privileges of scientific freedom. But there is one area where we are not free, because of a historically grown dependence on the commercial publishers: our publication outlets.

Imagine a world where most university campuses are owned by private property companies who rent them out to researchers and students. There is a limited number of prestigious campuses, and you have to be on one of them to be taken seriously by your peers. If you’re outside of the system, you don’t count. Given such a system, governments and charities would have to spend a huge amount on property, and prices would rise and rise. This would be like the Tokyo real estate market, on a global scale. Owning such a campus is like a licence to print money.

With regard to publication, we live in such dystopian world. Prices are rising and rising because there is a limited number of prestigious labels, plus a large number of labels just below them that obey the same laws.

These problems result from a basic error: Thinking that the entire publication process is a service to the researchers, whereas in fact publication is an integral part of the scientific process. It is only technical aspects such as typesetting and hosting that can be done by external service providers.

The solution is thus not that difficult: Create new prestigious labels that belong to us, the scientists, to give us freedom of publication. Publication labels are actually even more important to us than our campuses, and even more intrinsically connected to our careers and to our research environment. There are many ingredients of our research activities that could be outsourced to some private company: building a telescope, feeding the lab mice, cleaning the office. You don’t need a scientist to do these things, and if a private company offers poor service, it can easily be replaced by another company. But publication cannot be outsourced.

To change the current system, science funders would need to create a few high-prestige journals (say, 20 or 30 for a start) and pay for them just as they pay for their staff and their buildings. Readers and authors would pay nothing – these would be diamond open access journals. The funders would benefit from these expenses in the same way as they benefit now from successful research: by increasing their prestige. There could be a “Max Planck Journal of Solar Physics”, or a “Stanford Journal of Genetics”, or a “Tokyo University Journal of Asian History”, or a “Wellcome Trust Journal of Medicine”. Institutions would invest in such journals just as they invest in scientists and in longer-term projects: They would guarantee funding for a 20-year period, and then possibly close a journal if it doesn’t live up to its expectations. Thus, journal editors would have the same incentives to make their journals more prestigious, but the fruits of their efforts would remain within their academic institutions, and not reaped by private interests.

Once there are a number of well-known top-tier journals, mid-tier institutions would follow suit: There might be a “Warsaw Journal of Astrophysics”, a “Pennsylvania State Journal of Linguistics”, and a “Kwangju Journal of Computer Science”. All of these would be free of charge for authors and readers. Anyone could submit to these journals, though local authors would be discouraged from submitting papers to local journals. (Peer selection is more prestigious if your peers are further away.)

Is it ineffecient if publication is distributed in such a way across the world, rather than concentrated with a few big publishers? (As Ralf Schimmer notes: 20 big publishers account for 85% of the needs of Max Planck researchers.) No, because there is no reason why the publication-service providers should also be distributed. The universities’ publishing units (which could be housed in the library buildings, perhaps staffed by library staff) would rent the services of a service provider, who would look after technical things like servers, workflow solutions, DOIs, cross-ref services, typesetting. There need not be more than a handful of service-providing companies – as long as the publishers make sure that they can be easily replaced if the prices rise, there will not be any dependency and thus a functioning market. In fact, given their experience in this area, companies like Elsevier and Wiley may well be interested in this new market, even though it will not be nearly as profitable as the publication market.

What about the lowest tier? What about scientists whose work is not good enough to make it even into the mid-tier journals? Well, they still have the option of publishing with commercial publishers, and pay APCs. This is how it should be: Just as a scientist whose work is not good enough to get a scientist position will have to find other funding (maybe support from a spouse or a side job), an author whose publication does not find a place in a prestigious free journal will have to find extra funding for an author-pays publication (which is not as bad as a vanity publication, but simply not very good).

Since this new publication world would be market-based on the technical side, it would be far cheaper, and would free large amounts of money for research and academic teaching. And it can be created by very few actors: If Stanford, Max Planck and Tokyo University get together and start 30 journals, this should be sufficient to create the perception that the best research is free for authors and readers. In fact, a beginning has been made: The Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust have started the journal eLife. And there already exist a large number of diamond open access journals, which could be adopted by the research funders.

So this is what scholars want, and what the world needs: diamond open access for the best journals, funded in a stable way by science funders, with private companies providing lower-level technical services.

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Why “Fair Open Access” may not be good enough

The recent Ling-OA initiative, supported by the Dutch organizations NWO and VSNU, aims for “Fair Open Access”, which is defined in the following way:

* The editorial board owns the title of the journals.

* The author owns the copyright of his/her articles, and a CC-BY license applies.

* All articles are published in Full Open Access (no subscriptions, no “double dipping”).

* Article processing charges (APCs) are low (around 400 euros),
transparent, and in proportion to the work carried out by the publisher.

These are very laudable goals which I support fully. In particular the ownership of the journal title is important, because it is primarily the ownership of the labels that allows commercial publishers to charge prices that increasingly seem outrageous.

But the word “fair” appears to say that commercial publishers have in the past acted “unfairly”. But this is perhaps the wrong category for a commercial company, whose reason for existence is to make a profit. The publishers are simply using their resources (in particular, ownership of prestigious titles) to maximize their profits, which is what one expects of them in the system.

The problem (as with other trade relationships that are perceived as “unfair”) is not the behaviour of some of the actors, but the way the relationships are set up. In the 20th century, journal and book publishing primarily served the purpose of dissemination, and outsourcing this to commercial companies seemed like a good idea. Libraries would buy mostly the best journals and books, so these had high print runs and were relatively cheap to produce. So cheaper books were also better, and vice versa.

In the 21st century, electronic dissemination means that selling more copies does not reduce the production costs, so the price is primarily related to the prestige of the publication: While journals (and books) published in poorer countries are often freely available, even though they are read by few people, journals and books published in the richer countries are often very expensive, even though there is a high demand for them.

Thus what is “unfair” is the ownership of the titles by the commercial actors, and once this is addressed (as required by the Ling-OA initiative), the market should lead to a drastic reduction of the costs.

So I do not think it makes much sense to specify what level of costs per article (400 euros?) would be “fair”. In the Brazilian ScieLO journals, the APCs seem to be closer to 80 euros (see And in view of the fact that many of us now upload our articles to and ResearchGate within a few seconds, one wonders whether the costs could not be reduced even further – also depending on what is meant by “publishing costs”. If market forces can apply, it does not make much sense to require that the costs be “in proportion to the work carried out by the publisher”. Costs are generally not in proportion to “work”, but in proportion to efficiency. If the rules are set up in the right way, the profit goes to those who do the work in the most efficient way.

(In my experience, a significant cost factor is ensuring compliance with text-structure style; if the entire discipline agreed on a common style, such as the Generic Style Rules for Linguistics, this could be reduced drastically, and thus efficiency could be increased for everyone.)

In the Ling-OA model, the service provider Ubiquity Press takes care of technical aspects and gets APCs (not more than 400 euros per article), which are covered by the science funders NWO and VSNU (association of Dutch universities) for the first five years. After that, the idea is that the Open Library for the Humanities (OLH) will take over, which is funded by its Library Partnership Subsidy model.

For a transitional period, one can understand that libraries will be happy to support initiatives such as the OLH, because there is the hope that subscription costs will go down. But in the longer run, science publication needs a more secure source of funding. First of all, there is no guarantee that libraries will continue to pay. If the OLH works well and the publications are freely available, the temptation will be great to leave the responsibility to others. But second and more importantly, there is no guarantee that libraries will even exist in 20 years’ time. As scholars and students increasingly use online resources, and as the subscription model is replaced by the open access model, university administrators will increasingly ask why the university still needs a library. Library buildings will continue to occupy a prominent place on campuses, but the people inside them will no longer buy and store books and journals. So will they have budgets to subsidize initiatives like OLH?

What would a truly sustainable model look like? In my view, payment for journals (and book imprints) will have to come from funders with a stake in the labels.

The NWO’s interest is in furthering the excellence of Dutch science, for the benefit of Dutch taxpayers. Clearly, Dutch taxpayers benefit if Dutch universities and other science institutions are seen to perform well. Thus, it would be in the interest of the NWO to fund journals that have “NWO” or “Dutch/Netherlands” or some other Dutch label such as “Leiden” or “Amsterdam” in them. Thus a solution would be to guarantee indefinite funding but to require that, for instance, the “Journal for Modern Linguistics” be renamed to “Dutch Journal for Modern Linguistics”. This would then compete with the “Stanford Journal for Modern Linguistics”, the “Shanghai Journal for Modern Linguistics”, the “Max Planck Journal for Modern Linguistics”, and so on. Each would be funded by its institution, and free for authors and readers. The funders would profit because the journals associated with their names would be widely cited by the scholars, so they would have an incentive to continue the funding. Basically, they would fund journals for the same reason they are funding labs and other scientific activities.

Thus, we would no longer have to hope that the actors would be fair. Everyone would act in their own selfish interest, but we would have a very good system of dissemination and selection of the best research results.

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