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A behind-the-scenes look at the mass resignations at Lingua

An associate editor at the journal, from U of Alberta, explains what pushed the entire editorial board to quit.

By NATALIE SAMSON | November 24, 2015

On Oct. 27, the editors of Lingua, a highly influential journal of linguistics, resigned from their posts. The journal’s six editorial staffers and all 31 members of its editorial board quit to protest the high fees charged by Lingua’s publisher, Elsevier. The editors had previously approached Elsevier about renegotiating the publishing model to reflect a “full Open Access” model that would see the journal’s article processing fees charged to authors slashed by more than 75 percent (from €1,800 to €400, or approximately $2,550 to $567 CDN). Unsuccessful in their attempts, the scholars announced they would cut ties with the publisher at the end of December and found their own open-access journal, Glossa.

Anne-Michelle Tessier is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Alberta and has been an associate editor with Lingua since 2013. We reached her to find out more about the circumstances surrounding the resignation and the group’s forthcoming journal.

University Affairs: How long has the editorial team been considering a challenge to Elsevier’s pricing model for Lingua?
Dr. Tessier:
This move was definitely pushed by Johan Rooryck, Lingua’s executive editor. The first time I remember him floating the idea would be almost two years ago. Everybody was on board pretty much unanimously and pretty much immediately. But, there was still the daunting task of how do we go about this. A year ago, it became clear that he was willing to put the time and energy and the logistics in. It was not until very shortly before we announced the resignation that he came to us and said, “OK, here’s what we can actually do.” After that, it happened very fast – within six weeks or something.

UA: In the renegotiation letter the editors asked for “full open access.” How does that differ from Lingua’s current pricing model?
Dr. Tessier:
My understanding of the Elsevier model is that if you, as an author, want your specific article to be open access then you or someone backing you – an institution or a granting agency – has to pony up €1,800. For one article! It’s really beyond the means of almost any individual author.

What we were asking for in that renegotiation was a radical reduction in those fees, from €1,800 to €400. Is €400 something that an individual researcher can pay on their own? Probably still not, but at least we’re in the realm of being able to support it. It seems to me if you’re working for a public institution or a public university and the idea is I’m going to submit research to a journal so that the research can be available, I would like it to be available to the general public as well – that is our responsibility to some extent.

UA: Had you as editors and active researchers in the field heard any complaints from your researcher-colleagues about this problem?
Dr. Tessier:
Absolutely. You reach out to people and say, “Can you review this paper for Lingua?” Increasingly people said, “Honestly, I’m not willing to review for Lingua or submit work there anymore because I don’t think it’s reasonable to support a model where the research winds up so monetized.”

Several people had mentioned to me that their universities were considering just not buying subscriptions to Elsevier journals anymore for the same reason – that it was cost prohibitive. So, we’ve lost the plot. This is no longer a viable method for research dissemination if we have to bargain as to which of the journals we’re going to be able to subscribe to.

UA: Is it normally difficult to find peer reviewers for Lingua articles?
Dr. Tessier:
It’s hard to convince people to review because it’s unpaid work and that’s always been the case. When trying to find reviewers I usually have to ask twice as many people as I need. I need three reviewers so I send out at least six asks. I don’t know how common that is across journals.

People who exclusively said, “I can’t review for you [because of the pricing model],” has only happened in the last year. I think it’s happened probably four times.

UA: It seems much of the academic community has been publicly supportive of your decision to resign. There is, however, the occasional comment on social media that questions the intent of the renegotiation letter. It’s been called by some as a gun to Elsevier’s head. What were you hearing from Elsevier after sending that letter?
Dr. Tessier:
The response from a representative from the journal, who has been uniformly polite and pleasant about all this, was one of surprise. The response was, “I absolutely didn’t see this coming. We can’t agree to this.” Whether or not I thought this was the answer we were going to get, I say if this comes as a surprise to you, you have not been listening. You have not been paying attention.

Did I expect them to be willing to go ahead with all of those requests? Probably not. I did think it was reasonable to expect them to not be shocked. The fact that they were shocked showed me that there had been a disconnect.

UA: Was the decision to resign difficult for you to come to?
Dr. Tessier:
It wasn’t. The first time that Johan floated the idea it was difficult to imagine how it could possibly look – and of course I don’t yet know entirely what’s going to happen to the journal and to the future of this project [Glossa]. It kind of felt like it was overdue, though. It’s one of those decisions that’s been percolating in the back of your mind for so long that when the time comes, you realize you’ve already made it. I felt like I had a responsibility that I feel I had been shirking the last couple years in this job and I’m happy to be a small part in rethinking our roles as academics and the responsibilities that come with working in an environment partially paid for by government and taxpayers.

UA: Is the resignation a criticism simply targeting Elsevier or is it a broader criticism of the labour scholars often do for free under the banner of academic service?
Dr. Tessier:
I don’t think this move is actually going to be able to address that larger second point because, honestly, we’re going to wind up in a situation in this new model where we editors will wind up being paid much less than the normal amount. But that seems right in the general scheme of things in which none of our reviewers are ever being paid either. We should at least be working in this terrible model together.

UA: What can you tell us about Glossa?
Dr. Tessier: It’s a general journal of linguistics. Like Lingua it doesn’t have a particular subfield specialization. The associate editors will be the same as at Lingua, and these are people who work in all the different grammatical fields. The emphasis is on grammatical and theoretical innovations in areas of theoretical linguistics. It will also be an international journal. I don’t actually know much about the publication model yet – how many issues per year and so on. It will be published with Ubiquity Press and their model is one of full open access. There is a certain amount of money that has been put up by a couple of different organizations to get that going. It’s mostly Dutch money, but I don’t know the full details. Other people are getting it started for us because we’re still employed by Lingua until December 31, but as of January 1 we’ll be taking over. I’m a little uncertain about what the ultimate look of this new journal is going to be but I’m 100 percent confident that it’s going to be in the better interest of the research community that I work in.

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  1. Sumit Guha / November 25, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    I am a historian and history journals are a little less expensive. But it never occurred to me that we academics have leverage by way of declining to referee. I do a lot of reviewing of articles. I will seriously consider this strategy.
    My thanks to the editors of Lingua for this initiative.

  2. Richard MacKenzie / November 28, 2015 at 7:06 am

    As a member of my department’s library committee, I will soon be meeting with staff from the library for our more-or-less-annual discussion on the stranglehold the for-profit mega-publishers (including Elsevier) have on us and indeed on all universities. The discussion will undoubtedly be steered towards identifying a sufficient number of subscriptions that can be cut so that the library can stay afloat. In other words, we will be raising the bar of what constitutes a “keeper” journal so that those near the cutoff last time are dropped this time. With far-beyond-inflation subscription increases and stagnant-at-best university budgets, the situation is only getting grimmer. Kudos to the Lingua editorial board for their actions. Hopefully this will gain the attention of all mega-publishers.

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