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Last week, the editors for the linguistics journal Lingua had finally had enough. Elsevier, a major academic publishing house, has put out the highly regarded journal for decades. But on October 27, the journal’s six editors and 31 members of its editorial board quit. Their beef? The high fees Elsevier charges authors and academic institutions to see the journal.

The mutiny of Lingua’s editors is another battle in the long-running war over whether academic research should be sold by publishers as part of often costly subscriptions or whether it should be free to all. Lingua’s executive editor Johan Rooryck says that the journal’s editors had asked Elsevier to convert the journal to be fully open access, but when the company declined, they set out to launch their own open access journal, Glossa. It’s supposed to start publishing next year, and the editors’ move may provide a model for other journals to do the same. “We are aiming to find a path from subscription based publishing to an open access one,” Rooryck says. “This has been a long time coming.”

The debate over open access is more complicated than free versus paid. Academics—who often conduct research with public grants or within public institutions—have long been at odds with corporate publishers like Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley. Publishers can charge authors high processing fees to publish an article within its journal, while also charging high journal subscription fees to institutions for bundles of journals. But, both practically and philosophically, the tension goes far beyond Lingua and Elsevier’s dispute. Costly subscriptions limit the accessibility of scientific research, and that research can inform medical practices and policy decisions that affect all of us.

“Everyone’s frustrated, but no one does anything about it,” Rooryck says. “We believe it’s the editorial board and editors and reviewers and authors that provide the prestige of the journals, not the publisher. We think existing journals can survive just as well under an open access system.”

Academics and critics argue that corporations profit from research not just once but twice, and keep potential beneficiaries of the research from seeing it, especially as subscription costs increase. Publishers like Elsevier, meanwhile, have maintained that collecting journal articles, supporting the peer review process, copy-editing, publishing, and archiving, costs, well, money.

Of course, the business-side argument was much truer before the Internet. Today it’s significantly easier for researchers to communicate, coordinate peer review, and share their work. So they question the need for the exorbitant costs that come with middlemen. Groups encouraging researchers to boycott Elsevier, like the Cost of Knowledge launched in 2012, have cropped up. Meanwhile, newer open access journals, like PeerJ and PLOS ONE, have grown to offer an alternative. Digital archives like arXiv flourish as well.

A Profitable Business

Elsevier, as you might expect, says that publishing with them comes with real benefits. With more than 2,500 journals, Elsevier claims that it provides the highest quality articles at the most efficient costs. Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of access and policy, says that the fees charged pay for everything from supporting the peer review process to formatting articles. The company, after all, is a business.

“We are a profitable company, but that’s not because our approach to pricing has changed either in the subscription world or in the open access publishing world,” Wise says. “It’s because we have a very disciplined approach to controlling costs. We’ve become more profitable over time by doing our job well and leveraging efficiencies of scale.”

Wise also insists that the company is already involved in open access publishing. The company even released a statement yesterday to reinforce its commitment to the open access model despite the departure of Lingua’s editorial board.

Elsevier publishes journals that operate on a few different kinds of open models. Some require the author to pay publishing fees, but make the paper freely available after publication. Others remain dependent on subscription fees, but release their articles freely to the public after a certain time passes. Hybrid journals, which Elsevier says Lingua is, exist as well: A journal can operate on a subscription model, while individual authors can choose to pay the processing fees to have certain articles offered freely.

“We’re the world’s third largest open access publisher,” Wise says of Elsevier. “We’re totally open to open access publishing.”

For Lingua’s editorial board, however, Elsevier is not cost efficient or open enough. In fact, as part of the board’s demands to the publisher, they requested editorial ownership of the title. Rooryck says the board has found a new publisher for Glossa that will support its online-only journal for a little more than $400 per article, which will be paid for with funding partners. Elsevier, on the other hand, charges authors whose articles are accepted into Lingua around $1,800 for their article to be freely available. Anything less would not be sustainable, the company said in its statement.

“Scholarly publishing is an expensive proposition. Any journal that is only taking, say, 400 euros per article is going to be a shabby journal, it’s not enough to pay for the journal,” says Jeffrey Beall, a longtime academic librarian and researcher at the University of Colorado, Denver who blogs about open access. “You have to pay copy editors. You have to pay for the web publication. You have to pay for digital web preservation to make sure the content is safely backed up.”

Beall adds that Lingua’s board is not the first of its kind to resign publicly, nor is it the first group of academics to call for open access reform. But he insists that Elsevier is one of the world’s largest open access publishers, and that the subscription costs of its journals do improve the quality of the publications. “There’s a collective fetish among many people to topple Elsevier,” he explains. “They want to be open access heroes.”

‘The Dream’

For his part, Rooryck says he has gotten a lot of support from other researchers. An editor from a different journal got in touch to ask about the process of converting to a fully open access journal, because he was considering doing the same. Rooryck says he’s also seen an outpouring of support from colleagues who say they will submit to the new journal once its established.

Of course, Glossa will still have to figure out a long lasting business model that doesn’t involve subscriptions and fees. For its first five years, the new journal will be completely free for both authors and readers thanks to funding from the Association of Dutch Universities and The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. The Open Libraries of the Humanities will take over the funding afterwards.

It’s no surprise that funding for Glossa will come at first from organizations in the Netherlands. Dutch universities have been in the midst of negotiations with Elsevier for the past year, arguing for all research from the country to be widely available through the open access model. Calls for research to be more accessible extend beyond the Netherlands as well. Last month, the League of European Research Universities urged the European Commission to ensure that a transition to open access for research publications happens soon.

“They’re heroes to do this,” says Heather Joseph, the executive director of SPARC, a coalition of international academic and research libraries that’s trying to come up with ideas for making digital publication into a business. “It’s the dream to return the control of academic output of the researchers to the academy.”

So, how does Elsevier feel about Lingua’s board jumping ship? “We’ll continue to publish Lingua and we’ll move forward,” Wise says. “We’re just wishing Lingua’s board the best.” That first part might be a little tough, though; on social media, at least, the linguistics community has been urging its own members not to take over the now vacant editorial jobs—doing the exact work that Elsevier argues makes their journals worth the money.

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Editors of the Journal Lingua Protest-Quit in Battle for Open Access