What a Mass Exodus at a Linguistics Journal Means for Scholarly Publishing

November 05, 2015

Johan Rooryck, the journal's departing executive editor: "We hope that a number of other journals within the discipline will join us very soon so that open access becomes the default in academic publishing and linguistics instead of the outlier."
It was the kind of exit designed to make a statement.

Last week all six editors and all 31 editorial-board members resigned from Lingua, a prominent linguistics journal, after a disagreement with the journal’s publisher, Elsevier. The announcement re-energized concerns about the relationship between academics and for-profit companies, and the future of scholarly publishing.

Lingua’s editors were worried that some libraries could no longer afford the price of the publication. In a "renegotiation" letter they sent to Elsevier in early October, citing a "changing academic-publishing paradigm," they laid out a number of conditions. At the top of the list: Lingua would become a fully open-access publication, and Elsevier would grant the editors ownership of the journal.

But Elsevier rejected those proposals, and it plans to continue publishing Lingua under a new team.

Lingua is a hybrid open-access journal. Authors have the option of paying an $1,800 publication fee to make their articles open access, or free of charge to readers. The journal’s editors wanted to make all articles open access, to lower the publication fee to around $430, and to let authors retain copyright on their articles.

Elsevier responded in a statement on Wednesday. "Had we made the journal open access only and at the suggested price point, it would have rendered the journal no longer viable," said the statement, signed by Tom Reller, the company’s head of global corporate relations.

As for the suggestion that Elsevier hand over Lingua to its editors and allow them to shift the journal to a new publisher after six months’ notice, Mr. Reller wrote: "Elsevier cannot agree to this as we have invested considerable amount of time, money, and other resources into making it a respected journal in its field. We founded Lingua 66 years ago."

But Johan Rooryck, Lingua’s executive editor, said that the journal was originally published by a company called North Holland, and that Elsevier purchased the journal in the 1990s.

The editors, who agreed to stay at Lingua through December, plan to start their own journal, a move they see as part of a wider shift toward open-access publishing.

A ‘Fundamentally Broken’ System

On Monday the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities issued a statement in support of Lingua’s editors. Electronic publication should reduce costs, the organization argued, but subscription fees are going up.

"Publishers sell back to the universities the very content they as a group produced, and at steadily higher subscription prices," the statement said. "The system is fundamentally broken."

While the association has supported low-cost access to information in the past, its formal statement signals a new level of support. In the future, its president, M. Peter McPherson, said, the organization will continue to comment on the issue.

"This is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time," he said. "This whole question of availability of information at a reasonable cost is important to us."

Lingua’s departing staff isn’t the first to declare independence from a publisher — or even from Elsevier. The open-access advocate Peter Suber maintains a list of similar defections, which seem to happen every few years.

Academics are concerned about the high costs of subscriptions to journals. Sometimes it is a challenge for them to decipher how much the subscriptions cost because publishers have bundled them for sale as package deals or imposed complicated pricing schemes.

"That kind of intentional obfuscation on the part of the publishers has to stop," said Jenica P. Rogers, director of libraries at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

Ms. Rogers is an open-access advocate, and two years ago she spoke out against the American Chemical Society’s journal pricing. She wasn’t surprised by the conflict at Lingua, and she said that companies like Elsevier need to lower their expectations when it comes to profit margins if they expect university libraries to keep buying their products.

'More and more libraries are hitting a crisis point.'
"More and more libraries are hitting a crisis point," she said.

Even at institutions that have traditionally been able to afford expensive subscriptions, she added, libraries are being forced to make hard decisions because the ownership of journals is being concentrated in fewer hands. Early this year, for instance, Macmillan Science and Education, publisher of the journal Nature, merged with Springer Science+Business Media.

"As we consolidate the market like this," Ms. Rogers said, "I no longer have a choice."

The land-grant-university association is also concerned about the string of mergers in academic publishing. Over the years, Mr. McPherson said, smaller companies started to coalesce under larger companies, and now publishers operate without much competition.

"In a day and age when the public can get information from seemingly unlimited sources," the organization’s statement said, "the world of academic publishing has been more consolidated into a limited number of tightly controlled channels."

‘Journals Change and Editors Change’

David Clark, a senior vice president at Elsevier, said that he disagrees with the narrative that the Lingua resignations are part of a larger trend. He sees the staff departures as a routine part of the publishing world. "Journals change and editors change," Mr. Clark said. "That happens normally."

He added that Elsevier isn’t opposed to open access — the company publishes a variety of open-access journals — but that the model works better in some disciplines than in others. Because open-access journals typically rely on fees paid by the authors or their institutions, the arrangement tends to work best in the sciences, he said, where faculty members have better access to funding.

"In some countries and in some communities, open access is very popular, very successful," Mr. Clark said. "In other areas, it’s either not affordable or there’s no real appetite for it."

He said that he understands that libraries face tough choices, but he argued that Elsevier’s prices are fair and that these days "most universities have access to most journals."

Publishers like Elsevier say subscriptions are necessary to cover the cost of quality publishing. For open-access advocates, however, the pricing model is unsustainable. But what they can’t agree on is just how quickly the shift toward open access is taking place.

"The revolution might be a little bit overstated," said Peter Binfield, a co-founder of the open-access journal PeerJ. "It’s clear that the academic market is moving from subscription-based publishing to open-access publishing. But it’s not happening overnight."

Lingua’s editors plan soon to start their new journal, to be called Glossa, which they envision as a model for new open-access journals in the humanities.

"We hope that a number of other journals within the discipline will join us very soon so that open access becomes the default in academic publishing and linguistics instead of the outlier," said Mr. Rooryck, Lingua’s departing executive editor. "That is our goal."