Elsevier Battle Escalates

Did the publishing giant found the journal whose editors have resigned in protest?

November 6, 2015

Elsevier doesn't always respond in detail to criticism that advocates for open access direct at the journal publishing giant. Open-access supporters say publishing can have high academic quality and be free online without the high subscription prices Elsevier charges. The company says its critics underestimate the true costs of publishing.

But this week, with Elsevier facing intense scrutiny over the resignation of all the editors and editorial board members of the journal Lingua, the company answered back with some specifics. But the answer -- and especially the claim that Elsevier founded the journal -- appears to have only intensified the criticism. While Elsevier has faced protest resignations in the past, this one has people talking, including people in the corporate world, not just the academic world. Fortune wrote of a "mutiny" as evidence that "cracks are widening in the fortress of academic publishing."

The editors of Lingua, one of the leading journals in linguistics, had asked Elsevier to turn over control of the journal to a collective of editors and to operate the journal under the principles of open access. In the response detailing why it would not do so, Elsevier gave this as one reason: "Elsevier cannot agree to this as we have invested considerable amount of time, money and other resources into making it a respected journal in its field. We founded Lingua 66 years ago."

To Elsevier's critics, that answer distorted history.

In a widely circulated email, Johan Rooryck, executive editor of the journal and professor of French linguistics at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, said the claim was false. "Lingua was founded in 1949 by Albert Willem de Groot (1892-1963) and Anton Reichling (1898-1986), two Dutch structuralist linguists. It was originally published by North Holland, a Dutch publishing house, that was purchased by Elsevier …. Elsevier didn't build that." (The purchase was in the 1980s.)

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Rooryck supplied pages from Lingua, prior to the Elsevier purchase, that noted North Holland as the publisher.

Others took issue with the Elsevier statement that it could not afford to charge low-cost fees to authors who wanted to publish in Lingua and also make their work available free online. (Elsevier does allow such publication for fees many consider high.) Elsevier said the prices desired by open-access advocates were impossible to meet. But Martin Paul Eve, senior lecturer in literature, technology and publishing at the University of London, published a critique of that statement, arguing that plenty of journals charge lower fees.

"What is 'sustainable' for Elsevier is unsustainable for universities," Eve wrote.

Midday Thursday, Elsevier published a response (in comments to the original post) to the criticisms and said this on the question of whether it founded Lingua.

"This seems nuanced as well, it may come down to what one thinks 'we' means," the statement said. "When we acquire a publishing company, we embrace and adopt its history. To us, North Holland is Elsevier. Its staff became Elsevier employees. In any case, in talking about our long engagement with Lingua, or any other journal, we fully understand and recognize the invaluable contribution of generations of scholars whom we support and whose work we aim to facilitate and enhance both financially and logistically."

Rooryck said in an interview that the fight over who founded the journal reinforces his views on the importance of scholars insisting on new publishing models. He said "legally," Elsevier did buy North Holland, but "intellectually" it was wrong to claim that Elsevier created the journal, just as it's wrong for the company to have so much control over how knowledge is distributed.

"They cannot claim that they have founded the journal at all," he said. "The idea was entirely that of the two linguists …. The larger issue here of course is that they seem to claim intellectual ownership of achievements that they facilitated at best."


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