Interview with a Lingua author

lingua-thumbNear the end of last year, the entire editorial board of Lingua, a prestigious linguistics journal published by Elsevier, resigned in protest of the publisher’s policies. This has resulted in a storm of news about the journal, including voices of support for the new journal Glossa and calls for the cancellation of Lingua. When I saw that someone I knew was an author on an article in the so-called Zombie Lingua, I had to know more about the experience of the authors while this turnover was happening.

My colleague (hereafter C), as it turned out, had no idea that the editorial board had resigned until I asked about it. C, who has asked to remain anonymous beyond the fact that they are an author currently living in Brazil, shared their responses to some of my questions. I have been given permission to reprint their responses below.


Lauren:  C, your experience with Lingua is so important. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.

C:    To be quite honest, I wasn’t aware of the editorial board’s resignation until you brought it up. I had already been feeling quite annoyed with Elsevier’s policies.

Lauren:    No kidding? This was super public, I can’t believe that Lingua didn’t at least tell you!

C: It didn’t! After you told me, of course, I looked it up and found several articles commenting on it. I immediately supported the board’s decision when I found out it was due to the absurd pricing the publishing house practices.

Lauren: When did you submit your article to them?

C:  This was a volume organized by Guest Editors. It was first submitted in mid-2014. I mostly dealt with only Guest Editors. They had the contact with the journal. I only dealt directly with Lingua for the final stages before printing.

Lauren:  What drew you to submit to Lingua specifically?

C:  So that was the Guest Editors’ decision. This is a thematic volume, and it came out after a very productive conference. It seems Lingua is quite open to publishing special issues, and I guess that’s what drove the decision to publish with them.

Lauren: You said your contact with Elsevier and Lingua was only at the final stages. When did they first contact you?

C: That was in the beginning of November 2015. (ha! quite at the hype of the whole story!)

Lauren: Wow! What were they contacting you about?

C:  About all the bureaucratic part: publishing agreement, rights and access.

Lauren: And it seems that Elsevier kept you in the dark about the editorial board.

C: Well, pretty much! This story didn’t circulate much in Brazil. But this is probably due to the fact that authors here don’t really try to publish with major international journals, except for a few researchers.

Lauren: Regarding the agreement and the access options, what was your experience like with that process?

C:  My experience until then had been mostly publishing in journals in my home country, Brazil, which are all open access. When I read the agreement and the access policy (publishing rights are held by Elsevier, access is paid for), I was displeased. I truly believe open access and widespread circulation of ideas should be the main model in the academic world. My research (and that of many colleagues) is funded with public governmental money, and that knowledge is for everyone. This is different from commercial authorship.

I was just talking to my spouse about how our work resembles 19th century factory work… We produce and don’t have access to our own production, because we’re not the factory owners, so to say!

Lauren: It’s so true! What a great metaphor!

C:  Maybe it’s not just a metaphor: this is exactly what Marx describes. All the profit goes to whoever holds the means of production – in this case, distribution. In the many articles I read about Lingua‘s editorial board, someone said that researchers write the articles, they peer-review for free, they have all the work of selecting what should be published, the whole thing, and the profit goes to the major publishing houses. But the stellar reputation of some journals comes from the researchers.

Lauren: You mentioned that authors that you know do not really try to publish with major international journals. Can you elaborate – why is that?

C: There are a number of factors, including reasons outside the editorial world. A lot don’t master English well enough to elaborate an article in that language. You can think of it as another hindrance in the article manufacturing process: having to pay for someone to translate or review your paper increases the cost of publishing, so it’s just easier to publish in journals in your own language.

There are also cultural differences in how to report the results. It’s not just about knowing English, but having the article in the correct format for publishing “outside” – the whole “Objectives-Methodology-Results-Discussion” format.

In the past decade, we have had a lot of incentive to broaden the scope of our publication. There are a lot of sides to it. On the one hand, we’ve seen a major increase in public funding for universities and increased possibilities to participate in international conferences, for instance. That type of policy enables researchers to make international contacts and thus have greater opportunities to report their results to a greater audience.

During the past decade, there has also been great effort to make the transition between paper and digital printing, and in that process, there was a great incentive to make all of the journals open access. From a colleague of mine who works at a federal funding agency, this was partially motivated to make journal articles available to undergraduate students, and to motivate them to follow an academic career.

You can imagine that, being an underdeveloped country (yea, ‘underdeveloped’ is the right word, I don’t like euphemisms…), investment on education has been historically a struggle, and only now a number of young people can have access to college education. It’s a very different reality from Europe and the US, I guess. Here, the top universities are public (and most private universities are all for profit and do practically no research). So it makes a whole lot of sense that the results of publicly funded research should be open access. That is not to say we have not gone into the whole ‘publish or perish’ craze. There’s a new academic journal every other day here. Maybe this will be a step for our researchers to also start publishing in international journals, but this other side is still shy.

Lauren: What could a new journal in this field, for instance Glossa which was started by the former editors of Lingua, do to help overcome those barriers and encourage publication from more people in situations like yours and your colleagues’?

C: There has to be some kind of policy for non-native English speakers to publish more often in international journals. Even though we’re linguists and we know there’s no such thing as “right” or “wrong” in language use, and we know language variation is part of it, a lot of papers written by non-natives end up being discriminated due to unorthodox language uses, perhaps due to simple spelling mistakes or unusual syntactic structures. Even though the paper may have a solid methodology and interesting results, it’s considered “weak” due to form and not content – pretty much the same way speakers of certain varieties are considered “ignorant”, “lazy” and the like just for not using a standard variety. I understand scientific language as a genre has its conventions (and it has different conventions in different cultures), and it takes a lot of experience in a certain milieu to really start grasping those unspoken rules.

Editors could instruct reviewers to try and focus on content, and if the article is not clear or good enough due to language issues, reviewers should point these out separately. Having more natives from underdeveloped countries in the editorial board could also help overcome such cultural barriers — and not only non-native English speakers affiliated to North American and European universities, but also affiliated to institutions in underdeveloped countries as well. And some kind of “cultural quota” would not be a bad idea, say, publishing at least two articles of researchers affiliated to a non-North American/European university per issue. I know the whole quota debate is controversial and that it is contested even by groups who would benefit from such policy, but there are a lot of studies showing that quotas in the job market and quotas regarding access to undergraduate and graduate courses in the university work! They promote diversity, they help to empower underprivileged groups and to narrow the gap between “the ones who can” and “the ones who can’t” – all of which are part of the open access philosophy.



Thank you, C, for agreeing to let me post your experience and your ideas for helping to foster publication from scholars outside of North America and Europe.