Whose Journal is This, Anyway?

If an editorial board abandons a journal, is it still the journal it was, or is it a zombie journal?

November 13, 2015

Last week, the editors and editorial board of Lingua, a long-established linguistics journal, resigned to found a new open access journal, Glossa. One of the questions raised in the ensuing conversation is “wait, who really owns this thing?”

From an intellectual property standpoint, Elsevier owns the journal – not just the brand, but also the copyright of most of the content that has been published under its name. A commentary from the company suggests that it’s pretty cheeky to ask it to transfer ownership of a journal they founded to the journal’s editors and board. Critics quickly pointed out that Elsevier didn’t found Lingua, it acquired the journal when it bought out North Holland in the 1990s. They weren’t persuaded  by Elsevier’s claim that “when we acquire a publishing company, we embrace and adopt its history.”

Timothy Gower, who kicked off the Elsevier boycott, calls the Elsevier statement “facepalmish,” but regardless of who founded the journal, it’s pretty indisputable that the publisher requires authors to transfer copyright to Elsevier unless the author pays $1,800 to make their work open access. In that case, the author retains the copyright, paired with a Creative Commons license.

So okay, Elsevier owns both the brand and copyright to most of the articles. So it owns the journal, right?

Well . . . a linguist who cheers the insurrection describes the situation differently. He says that as the scholars whose editorial work guided the journal depart, Elsevier will start a new Lingua, recruiting an entirely new team to run it. He calls this a Zombie Lingua and argues that the real journal will carry on the tradition. In his view, if you are looking for Lingua, don’t turn to Elsevier, as their version will be a hollow husk of a brand name. He’s not alone. A number of scholars writing about this controversy say Elsevier will start a new journal that happens to be named Lingua. In this view, it’s the people involved in the editorial work of the journal who own it regardless of any picayune legal claims.

These dueling definitions of ownership reminded me of the furor back in 2012 when publishers testified at a Congressional hearing on the Research Works Act. This bill, if passed, would have prohibited the federal government from requiring grant recipients to deposit an open access copy of their published research with the granting agency. The bill described publications as “private-sector research,” implying that they were responsible for the research in a way that shocked scholar-authors. Wait, what? That’s my research,  my work! Suddenly, the agreements that authors had considered merely some fine print became a much more expansive claim. All of your research are belong to publishers.

I’m also reminded of the way SAGE decided to dramatically change the focus of the journal Organization and Environment, from critical theory and environmental sociology to all things sustainability, including business strategy, over the fierce objections of the journal’s editors. They resigned in protest, calling it an editorial coup that seized power from academics using the blunt instrument of ownership rights. SAGE may have had the legal right to redefine the mission of the journal, but it was quite a profound change. Recent issues of the journal show it’s no longer about sociology at all, it’s all business.

Thinking about this, I found myself connecting these ownership claims to the ways other highly-profitable businesses today operate – practices that have been given the misleading name “sharing economy.” You can make some money signing up with a company that connects drivers and their cars with people who want to pay for a ride somewhere and want to do it cheaper and faster than by calling a cab. Who gets rich? The owners of the app, who avoid the burdens of hiring a large staff of drivers, buying a fleet of cars, paying for insurance, or being regulated. Likewise, publishers don’t have to hire scholars, pay for the content academics produce, or assume the burden of running labs or funding research. That cost is largely born by the public through tuition, taxation, and the forgiveness of tax revenue from non-profit institutions - or by the authors themselves, if they are not working for an employer who supports research activities. Yet major publishers, who assert their ownership of the research they publish and are concentrating ownership of journals through acquisitions, make lots of money. Elsevier’s profit margin in 2014 was 37 percent. The Big Five are shifting into open access publishing, but they are only doing if it’s profitable, with most of the money coming from the same institutional sources.

Who owns a journal is not a simple question. Asserting some sort of moral claim based on the intellectual labor involved and the guiding vision of a community of scholars won’t get us very far when push comes to shove, as it does. In which case, we may just have to start over, as the editors of Lingua (soon to be the editors of Glossa) have done. It’s a good example to follow.


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