Leaves of gold: An interview with Johan Rooryck

by on November 16, 2015

Johan Rooryck has been executive editor of Lingua, one of linguistics’ foremost journals, for 17 of its 66 years of existence. He cuts a striking profile against a backdrop of his hundreds of books as I speak to him via video call in his office at Universiteit Leiden. As I take the entire scene in, he gestures wearily at the scores of print volumes of Lingua behind him, arranged neatly on a shelf within arm’s reach. Not without a certain sense of poignancy, he tells me he will not have a shelf for volumes of Glossa, the new online-only open-access linguistics journal he is founding, along with Lingua’s six other editors and 31 editorial board members.

In the last week of October, Rooryck publicly announced that the entire editorial team of Lingua had quit in unison, in protest of the pricing policies of Elsevier, the journal’s publisher with whom he had tried to negotiate to make Lingua an open-access journal. He announced that they would be jointly starting work on Glossa, an open-access academic journal to be published in January.

“I had been thinking about this for four to five years. As subscription prices continued to rise, I was confronted by the increasing unsustainability of journal publishing. A movement to boycott Elsevier and other publishers had begun, and many reviewers and authors I spoke to said they would not publish with Lingua. As a result, I began to feel like I was fighting for the enemy. Once I had decided to push for open access, it didn’t take more than a week to convince the entire editorial board. The decision was unanimous.”

In the three weeks since the announcement, this mass resignation has become the talk of the town, not only in linguistic circles but across the scientific world, with calls for academics and libraries around the world to boycott “Zombie Lingua”, as some have dubbed it, and support Glossa entirely.

“I did not expect such an overwhelming response. I thought it would capture the attention of some linguists, but I’ve been getting e-mails from mathematicians and physicists and just got off a radio programme for a local radio station in the Netherlands”, Rooryck tells me.

Rooryck’s decision came after months of attempted negotiations with Elsevier, the journal’s publisher and a behemoth in worldwide academic publishing. The editors wanted the journal to switch from subscription-based access to open-accessfrom charging libraries and the general public to read articles to making them available for free to the reader at no additional cost to the author.

“And it’s not just Elsevier. Sure, Elsevier is the publisher everyone loves to hate, but academics have had the same problems with other publishers, such as Springer and Wiley. And they’re making profits of 36%. That’s close to Apple’s margins on a good year and is in fact more than most gold mining companies.

“At the same time, some of the best-funded libraries in the world struggle to pay for subscriptions for many of the ‘top’ journals. When Harvard University, which has endowment funds larger than the gross national product of some small European countries, struggles to pay for subscription, you know that something is wrong.

With a 36% profit margin, journal publishing is more lucrative than gold mining

“What is truly disturbing is that this is being done on public money. Much of our research is done using grants from governments, funded by taxpayers. Publishers therefore have a public service to perform, and putting the results of research funded by taxpayers behind a paywall is an abuse of public money.”

The current model for academic publishing was set up well before the Internet came to be. At that time, researchers who wanted to spread their ideas did not have the resources to print and distribute their results very widely. Academic journals were set up so that researchers could outsource the editing, review, typesetting, printing, and distribution of their findings. This worked well in the past, and although scientists are often intellectuals pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, they tend to be conservative in the ways they achieve that.

In the age of the Internet and the mass digitisation that has accompanied it, most researchers do not physically flip the pages of print journals to find the information they are looking for. Yet prices have continued to rise tremendously. Journal subscription prices have outpaced inflation by over 250% in the last 30 years, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports. Yet journals do not employ the researchers that publish with them, fund the research they conduct, or employ the reviewers who ensure the quality of the piece. Moreover, their compensation for editors is minimal: Rooryck gets paid €5,000 a year for the 2–3 days he spends per week on the journal. He’d be better off going to flip burgers in that time, he tells Inside Higher Ed.

Of course, Rooryck is not suggesting that publishers do what they do for free: it costs money to employ people, print volumes, and market journals. But academic publishing needs to keep up with the times and move to an updated model—one that respects the nature of the funding and the duty to distribute and communicate scientific results more widely.

And such a model does exist, he says. Linguistics in Open Access, a non-profit foundation set up by Rooryck and others, provides five years of funding to subscription-based linguistics journals switching to open-access publishing with Ubiquity Press, after which the Open Library of the Humanities—another charitable organisation—will take over to provide long-term sustainability. This model redirects money back to taxpayers by removing the frills of journal publishing and ensuring free access to readers and authors. It gives ownership of the journal’s name to its editorial board, ensures low and transparent article processing charges, and allows the author to retain the copyright of her articles.

According to Rooryck, there’s very little downside to the move to open-access publishing, both for Lingua and for other journals. After 17 years at the helm of Lingua, Rooryck’s minimal honorarium from Elsevier has not made him rich, and he is indifferent to giving it up. Moreover, the loss of Elsevier’s editing resources will also be minimal: Linguistics in Open Access also has an editorial assistant at the disposal of the participating journals to ensure quality.

Most importantly, many in the discipline may be concerned about the loss of the name recognition and impact factor of a well-established journal like Lingua. However, Rooryck is quick to emphasise that the journal’s quality was built by the contributions of authors, reviewers, editors, and the editorial board, rather than the publisher. The new journal, Glossa, will benefit from the entire team of editors of Lingua, and, with the support of the academic community, many of the same authors and reviewers.

He also reaffirms that much of the recognition Lingua had will be transferred to Glossa thanks to the support of various institutions and programmes. For example, the European Reference Index for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (ERIH PLUS), which normally demands that a journal have been published for two years before it can be indexed, agreed to waive this requirement for Glossa after Rooryck explained the situation; they have agreed to index the first volume of Glossa as soon as it is first published, recognising that it is the people behind the journal, rather than its name or publisher, that determine the journal’s quality.

Rooryck is optimistic that other journals will follow Lingua’s lead in the near future, if not directly in its wake. “At the moment, [other journals] are waiting and watching. I think that’s normal—they’re waiting to see what happens, to see if our model is sustainable. In about 1–2 years, I think others will begin to follow.”

Why is this shift only just beginning to take place in linguistics despite the fact that other disciplines such as Mathematics have long since had strong support for open-access? “Mathematics is a more united and coherent field than linguistics”, Rooryck says. “It also has a long tradition of exchanging results on the internet, and communication of findings has therefore always happened much faster.

“However, funding for research in the humanities has been decreasing. As a result, disciplines like linguistics are beginning to become more sensitive to alternative ways of publishing, and this is what has caused the move towards open-access.”

This is not about Lingua and Elsevier. It is about public justice.

Students and the general public will play a large part in the future success of open-access academic publishing. The Lingua team’s decision is about more than just linguistics—it’s about science as a whole, and about public justice. It is about the dissemination of scientific knowledge paid for by hardworking taxpayers. “The general public needs to understand that profits of 36% are simply unacceptable for something that is completely dependent on public funding”, Rooryck says. Students can contribute by pressuring professors and researchers to favour open-access journals and by writing to journal editors and asking them what is keeping them from joining Linguistics in Open Access.”

“I want 99% of linguistics journals to eventually be published under open-access”, Rooryck says at the end of our conversation. As I thank him for his time, I can’t help but think that he would surely do everything he can to make life very hard for that remaining 1%.

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For a quick summary of the details surrounding the mass resignation, read Kai von Fintel’s blog post.

For a response from Elsevier’s VP and Global Head of Corporate Relations, read Tom Reller’s note on Elsevier Connect.

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Editor’s note: This article erroneously noted that there are 22 members of the editorial board of Lingua. There are 31 editorial board members, all of whom have resigned. The article has been updated accordingly.

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