David Nathan on EL Publishing’s first month, about Open Access, and being Open about Access

David Nathan writes

EL Publishing is a new online publisher which was launched on 18th July and which will publish a journal, multimedia, and monographs, focussing on documentation and description of endangered languages. EL Publishing has an international editorial board and operates a fully double-blind peer-review process for all submitted materials.

EL Publishing is best known for the journal Language Documentation and Description (LDD) which has been published annually since 2003. Until July 2014, LDD was produced in printed form only, but the launch of EL Publishing saw it become an online and Open Access journal as well. In conjunction with the launch, all 110 previously published papers plus LDD volume 12 (a thematic issue on language documentation and archiving) were released; LDD 12 is the first volume to undergo the full review process.

Access statistics for the first month

In its first month, the EL Publishing website had about 4,000 visits and nearly 15,000 pages were viewed. Site visitors downloaded 3,162 papers – an average of 100 per day, suggesting that the majority of visitors downloaded a paper. On the EL Publishing statistics page, you can see a list of the most-downloaded papers. These were, as one would expect, heavily skewed (seven out of the top ten downloaded papers) to those appearing in the newly released volume (which is also featured on the front page of the website). Excluding these LDD 12 papers, the top ten accessed papers were from volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 – an excellent spread indicating that the papers and the topics they address have remained relevant. For the full statistical report, see the EL Publishing statistics page.

On Open Access

Access is a widely-discussed topic at the moment, both from an openness perspective and in relation to data protection and privacy. The openness perspective recognises that much research and other knowledge is publicly funded and/or a public/shared asset. The privacy perspective recognises that individuals have a right to own and control their personal information and performances.

EL Publishing has adopted an Open Access (OA) policy in support of broad access to the results of research across the field. We have embraced OA in its strongest form, currently (but unofficially) known as Platinum OA. Platinum OA means that authors are not forced (unlike in most versions of the ‘Gold model’) to pay the publisher to ensure free access to their work. EL Publishing is proud to join other Platinum OA publishers on languages, including Language Documentation and Conservation, and Language Science Press.

Presumably the category Platinum OA is not officially recognised because it is more genuinely disruptive of established power and commercial paradigms in academic publishing than the widely-advocated ‘Gold’ and ‘Green’ models. Recently, the ‘Gold’ model has come under criticism because of the "many categories of authors likely to be disadvantaged", including those from less wealthy countries, those without appropriate (and wealthy) affiliations, and those without suitable grants or access to funds (which will often mean humanities/social science and early-career researchers and postgraduates). In other words, the model skews publishing towards areas where payment can be more easily raised. A second problem with ‘Gold OA’ , less widely noted but rapidly escalating, is that while it shifts the (often exorbitant) payment burden from libraries and readers to authors/funders, by leaving financial gain in the mix it provides a range of "business opportunities" to a wider and less principled array of web-based entrepreneurs who can exploit academic desperation. Jeffrey Beale lists over 600 of these "predatory publishers" and argues that they corrupt open access. By distilling the OA agenda into 3 ingredients – academics’ need to publish, web dissemination, and financial gain, then sugar-coating these with free access rhetoric – mainstream OA proponents invite such developments and might be throwing many authors to the wolves both financially and academically. Even when run by reputable publishers, ‘Gold’ OA will encourage publishers to find new kinds of enticements to make authors pay ("three for the price of two", or frequent author points, perhaps), which may or may not represent value for authors but maintain publishers’ control over the dissemination process.

So it is worth asking if those who advocate (or enforce) OA are acting responsibly. This question is particularly relevant for language documentation, where virtually every practitioner and archive recognises that that documentation material potentially contains knowledge and performances that are personal, secret, sacred, or even dangerous. Keren Rice (2006), for example, notes:

Studies of a human language … must be conducted with respect for those who participate, with sensitivity as to their well-being, and with concern for consequences of publication or sharing of results (p. 134)

I suspect that there would likewise be general agreement among field linguists about texts that were given to them – material that individuals or the community desire to have kept private must be kept so (p. 147).

(See also my previous blog post on the topic and this one on ‘Open access and intimate fieldwork‘.)

And it may be a concern that the largest repository of endangered languages documentation, ELAR, is now subject to a funder’s OA policy requiring "free, online, open access" to all to "digital documentation of near-extinct languages … and endangered cultural practices". Ruth Singer notes the following regarding the imposition of a blanket rule for open access:

community members and linguists may not always be in favour [of] this solution. ELAR is currently insisting on this approach for all recipients of its current round of grants. For data that has not yet been recorded, such an approach is possible, yet it may exclude a number of communities from depositing anything and will certainly restrict the kind and amount of linguistic data that is deposited [DN: note that grants are given by ELDP, rather than ELAR] (Singer 2014).

On being Open About Access

Even ignoring the abovementioned academic, financial, methodological and ethical issues, simplistic versions of OA can easily fail to provide effective access to those who are least advantaged (whether authors, researchers, documenters, performers or readers/users). For example, our 12 years of experience with LDD has shown that there is a significant number of people who prefer to receive printed materials (over 2,500 copies of LDD volumes have been sold, and indeed we have already received orders for the printed version of the new LDD 12 via the SOAS online bookstore despite its free availability online). Reasons include lack of access to or skills with computers or internet, remoteness from or unreliability of supporting infrastructures, lack of means of onward distribution to students (e.g. where only photocopying is available), as well as diverse personal styles of reading, learning and curation of knowledge and resources. In other words, in such cases, only printed materials offer any kind of access to knowledge. Five hundred years of book-based practices (and the associated capabilities and infrastructure) cannot be replaced overnight. Print-on-demand services offer one part of loosening monolithic publishers’ control but they still involve costs (which can remain prohibitive, or require credit card transactions which are typically refused from some countries). Thus, several hundred copies of LDD volumes have been directly donated to various departments in African and Asian universities. Donation-funded book distribution offers an appropriate way of providing access in such cases and can be made sustainable through raising financial contributions to support further book printing and postage. This example drawn from LDD experience exposes simplistic OA agendas to the accusation of largely being ethical-flavoured rhetoric to support a shift to electronic dissemination with its very low distribution costs (see also Singer 2014 for the use of OA to reduce workloads).

Further, OA can be used to hide the true cost or value of resources. OA alone is no guarantee of either delivery or efficiency, even with cheap online distribution. If an online OA resource actually receives few or no accesses then its actual marginal cost per usage – for authoring, processing, cataloguing hosting etc. – is very high.

This brings me to the main point of this post. A comprehensive OA policy would not only provide free open access, but also openness about access. If materials are not actually being delivered to those who will most benefit from them, OA might be just a hollow slogan, a sleight of hand to protect invested parties and existing practices, without transparency and accountability for actually providing open access!

Discussing OA problems in an article celebrating one month of successful dissemination of Language Documentation and Description is not a contradiction. Linguists know that languages and their users have mechanisms for managing public vs private information. There is no reason why publishers and archives cannot respect, and indeed support, a diversity of access models to suit the nature of the materials and the needs of knowledge providers. EL Publishing values being transparent about the actual rates of access/downloads of its academic papers (just as ELAR was transparent about restrictions on access to protected materials and the process of negotiating access to them). Ideally we would also like to measure and report on the qualitative value of materials accessed by users, but this is a relatively unexplored territory.

David Nathan thanks Peter Austin and Jane Simpson for helpful comments on this post.

Note: the views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of EL Publishing.


Beale, Jeffrey. nd. Scholarly Open Access: Critical analysis of scholarly open-access publishing. Blogging website and resources. http://scholarlyoa.com/ [accessed 3 Sept 2014]

Rice, Keren. 2006. Ethical Issues in Fieldwork: An overview. In Journal of Academic Ethics (2006)
4: 123-155

Singer 2014. Sharing the load? Problems with the "lone depositor" model for the archiving of materials in endangered language archives. Blog post at Endangered Languages and Cultures blog, 6th August 2014. http://www.paradisec.org.au/blog/2014/08/sharing-the-load-problems-with-the-lone-depositor-model-for-the-archiving-of-materials-in-endangered-language-archives/

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