Leveraging 'Lingua'

Open-access advocates see an opportunity to capitalize on the Lingua controversy, but outcomes of previous mass resignations at scholarly journals paint an unclear picture of the impact of "editorial mutinies."

November 11, 2015

The editors and editorial board members of the linguistics journal Lingua have stoked antipublisher sentiment with their highly publicized protest against Elsevier. But judging by past revolts, turning their popularity into editorial success for their new journal, Glossa, could be a challenge. Open-access advocates, meanwhile, see the conflict as an opportunity to further their cause.

Mass resignations are not a new phenomenon in scholarly publishing. The Open Access Directory, a collaborative website that compiles open-access news, has traced the trend back to 1989. Since the late ’90s, the scholarly publishing world has seen an average of about one such event a year.

“This is yet another tempest in a teapot,” Joseph J. Esposito, a digital media, software and publishing consultant, said about the Lingua case. “The upshot is this is not the last one of these we’re going to see.”

Perhaps as an indication of how commonplace mass resignations have become, The Scholarly Kitchen, a blog about scholarly publishing and communication to which Esposito contributes, covered the Lingua conflict only indirectly. It pushed back to the front page a 2013 post in which Todd A. Carpenter, executive director of the National Information Standards Organization, tracked the aftermath of 12 other “editorial mutinies.” He concluded mass resignations rarely cause long-term damage to the boycotted journal.

“Sweeping proclamations about some movements can get a lot of attention for the participants. But this is often the flash of light, not the shock wave of the explosion -- bright but not anywhere near as impactful,” Carpenter wrote. “Despite the coverage these ‘declarations of independence’ garner, their impact on the scholarly communications ecosystem seems quite muted.”

Carpenter’s post was inspired by a situation not too different from the Lingua case. In 2013, the editor and the editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration all resigned in protest, saying publisher Taylor & Francis Group’s copyright policies were “too restrictive and out of step with the expectations of authors.”

In order to determine the effect of mass resignations, Carpenter looked at 10 cases where editors resigned from a journal and went on to found a comparable one. By impact factor, a measurement of how often articles in a journal are cited, six of the new journals did better than the old ones, while the remaining four did worse. Carpenter used Thomson Reuters’s method of calculating an impact factor, which looks at citations of articles published in the previous two years.

The Journal of Medical Internet Research, for example, in 2010 reached an impact factor five times that of Medical Informatics & Internet in Medicine (now known as Informatics for Health and Social Care) at the time of the mass resignation. On the other end of the spectrum is Evolutionary Ecology Research, which reached an impact factor only about half that of Evolutionary Ecology.

Carpenter also charted the old journals’ impact factors over a five-year period (two years before and three years after the split) to see how the they fared with a new team of editors at the helm. Although impact factors tend to fluctuate, Carpenter found “significant drops” among five of the old journals. Of course, that means more than half of the old journals continued to do well.

Peter Suber, who maintains the Open Access Directory’s list of journal declarations of independence, said in an email that analyzing impact factors is not a perfect way of evaluating how the journals have performed after the split. Suber, director of the Harvard University Office for Scholarly Communication and Open Access Project, added that he still welcomed Carpenter’s analysis.

The fact that the new journals did not put the old ones out of business also creates a new problem -- at least for university librarians. “From the perspective of a librarian who needs to hold a comprehensive collection, both titles are likely acquired, if budgets permit,” Carpenter wrote.

In a follow-up email, Carpenter said the Lingua case likely won’t lead to any significant changes in the publishing market. Editorial boards of other journals may resign to capitalize on the attention, he predicted. The launch of Glossa will create another outlet for linguistics research, but at the same time, Lingua will continue to attract submissions from researchers who may feel pressured to published in a high-prestige journal, he said.

“As a result, very little will change, because the reward structure around publication isn’t changing,” Carpenter said in the email.

Open-access advocates, however, see the Lingua case as an opportunity to break that cycle by getting more researchers to publish their work outside of high-prestige journals.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an offshoot of the Association of Research Libraries, has for more than a decade offered a guide for editors considering “declaring independence.” The guide includes tips on how to diagnose a journal’s finances and reach, among other resources, in order to determine if it can survive a move to a new publisher.

In light of the Lingua case, SPARC is planning to revise the guide with a focus on open access, Heather Joseph, the organization’s executive director, said in an interview. The case, she said, marks the first time a team of editors has resigned specifically to create an open-access journal.

Mass resignations are rarely clean breaks, but the Lingua case is perhaps a particularly messy example. The back-and-forth between Elsevier and the editors kept the story in the news, while the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ statement in support of the editors helped expand the debate beyond bickering between a publisher and one of its journals.

“It signals a real shift in understanding of why editorial boards get so frustrated,” Joseph said about the APLU’s involvement. “It opens the door to having the conversation about breaking that reliance on high-impact commercial journals as the be-all and end-all for promotion and tenure.”

Others, such as Esposito, saw the request to turn Lingua into an open-access journal as a calculated move. Even Joseph said it would be difficult for Elsevier to agree to the editors’ terms without then triggering similar requests from other journals.

Esposito had criticism for both sides of the dispute. “The notion that Elsevier should just give [the editors] the journal for free is so fatuous that it’s almost unbelievable they came up with the idea,” he said. Assessing Elsevier’s handling of the situation, he added, “It’s unfortunately keeping with their poor brand management that they seem to lose even when they’re right.”


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