Free and open

In commenting on a recent blog post of mine about SOAS publication plans, Nick Thieberger raises a number of relevant and important issues for anyone publishing in our field. Getting comments like this is manna to me as a blog author since so many of my posts go uncommented upon (I know people are reading them because I can track redirects from Facebook and my home page via, and just occasionally someone references the content of a blog post, as in the recently published Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork by Shobhana L. Chelliah and William J. De Reuse). It is also good to be challenged to clarify one’s own thinking about issues, so thanks for the feedback, Nick.
I identified the following main four points in Nick’s comments:

  • 1. LDD should “move to an Open Access model for [its] content in the future”
  • 2. content should be free and online because that makes it available to people who cannot pay and who would otherwise not be able to access it
  • 3. having content online means you can measure downloads and the number of downloads measures impact
  • 4. the current LDD business model should be replaced

I will respond to each of these points in turn.

  • 1. LDD should “move to an Open Access model for [its] content in the future”

    The term “Open Access” is not a simple one and there are many different models that have been developed under that name. Open Access (OA) publication, according to Peter Suber “is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions”. As Suber and Wikipedia note: “Open Access comes in two forms, Gratis versus Libre: Gratis OA is no-cost online access, while Libre OA offers some additional usage rights”. There are also two ways that OA can be provided: “Green OA is provided by authors publishing in any journal and then self-archiving their postprints in their institutional repository or on some other OA website” while “Gold OA is provided by authors publishing in an open access journal that provides immediate OA to all of its articles on the publisher’s website”. The journal Nick is associated with is Gold OA. At the moment LDD is not open access however individual authors are free to post pdfs of their articles on their own websites (and we at SOAS in fact do this for some of our training courses). The model of OA an organisation selects will reflect its business model (for suggestions see here), on which more below.

    Actually HRELP has adopted a Gold OA model for publishing our Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory conference proceedings (see 2009 here and 2007 here). As Nick notes, online access can result in lots of downloads — just this year the 31 papers from our 2007 conference have been downloaded 5,896 times (with 633 downloads in the month of November 2010 alone). We can have Gold OA for the LDLT proceedings because the costs are covered by the conference income.

  • 2. content should be free and online because that makes it available to people who cannot pay and who would otherwise not be able to access it

    Nick says:

    “While there is always a cost to pay for administering, editing, proof-reading, organising peer-review and so on, there is also a cost to not getting the information out to the target audience who cannot afford to buy the content, a cost that is created by using traditional publication models.

    It is true that, as Suber says: “OA removes price barriers (subscriptions, licensing fees, pay-per-view fees)” but there are still barriers in terms of affordable internet access with sufficient bandwidth and data volume allowance, of course. It is important to distinguish between “free” and “online”. While we have a free and online Gold OA model for the LDLT proceedings, for LDD we provide copies free to researchers in countries where even the low GBP 10.00 price is not affordable (indeed we sent a full set of Volumes 1 to 8 to Ethiopia just this month, and to Nigeria a few months earlier). For many of these colleagues online access would either not be possible or it would not be free.

  • 3. having content online means you can measure downloads and the number of downloads measures impact

    Nick says:

    “And, while 2,000 copies is a good outcome, imagine what the impact of the same content would have been if it was freely downloadable Being online means we can count the downloads (6,623 articles in 2009 and 6,064 so far in 2010) and see where they originate from”

    Firstly, this is a comparison of apples and oranges — each copy of LDD contains on average 12 articles so 2,000 copies means 24,000 articles since December 1983. Currently there are 100 individual article pdfs up on the Language Documentation and Conservation website (plus assorted Table of Contents and other files) so dividing Nick’s figures by 11 (100 divided by 9 “numbers” to give the average in each number) gives a result very close to our 500 annual sales of volumes. In addition, LDD is bought by libraries and lent out among friends who buy one copy to share. So 2,000 copies sold doesn’t mean only 2,000 users. The evidence for this is in fact readily available on the website of the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity (RNLD) that Nick runs — for the Linguists in the Pub meeting held on 12th October 2010 there is a downloadable pdf of my paper on ethics from LDD 7 that was scanned from the library of the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology (an RCLT Library stamp is clearly visible on one of the pages). So, more people get to read the LDD chapters than simply those who buy copies of the volumes.

    The issue of “impact” for publications is of course not simply a matter of counting downloads or copies sold — it is surely a complex issue involving use of and reference to the content of publications, and the influence they have on how people think about and respond to issues and analyses in a given field. All of this is extremely difficult to quantify, even though our bureaucratic masters wish us to do so in their Assessment Exercises/Frameworks.

  • 4. the current LDD business model should be replaced

    Nick says:

    “I would like to be able to download the content, even if I had to pay for it, so I look forward to your online store. You note that the income from sales covers design and layout, but, at 2,000 copies over 8 years your income averages 2,500 pa, surely easily found from other sources?”

    Well, as any business person knows, over several years a successful business builds up an array of products; in 1983 we had one volume to sell, two in 1984, and now eight. So sales volumes increase arithmetically over time, and averaging doesn’t tell what our real current income is. In fact, finding “other sources” in the current financial situation to replace this stream of income would be no mean feat. We, like every other higher education institution in the UK, are looking at so-called “third strand income sources” right now, but in the near term immediately replacing our mixed model of part Gold OA and part non-OA is not going to work for us.

As I wrote in my earlier post, we are working on developing an online store for LDD in 2011 and are also looking at developing a new series of e-publications that will include articles published in the journal, as well as other new materials. More news as it happens.

Note: Thanks to David Nathan for discussion of several of the issues covered above. I alone am responsible for the content of this blog post.

1 thought on “Free and open”

  1. If hard copies of LDD are provided for free to researchers who cannot afford to buy copies, then this should be noted on the website and order form. (It is not.) Evaluating requests for free copies, however, could prove tricky.

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