Getting your book depublished

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Two comments on the strange business of how we academics work for almost nothing doing our academic writing, and even do our own typesetting, and get our colleagues to do unpaid editing and quality reviewing of what we have written, so that publishers who have contributed almost no value added can then charge you readers huge sums of money for looking at the finished product. First, Stefan Müller in the preface to a new book he has just published in draft through the open-access organization Language Science Press (the emphasis in this quote is mine):

I started to work on my dissertation in 1994 and defended it in 1997. During the whole time the manuscript was available on my web page. After the defense I had to look for a publisher. I was quite happy to be accepted in the series Linguistische Arbeiten by Niemeyer, but at the same time I was shocked about the price, which was 186,00 DM for a paper back book that was written and typeset by me without any help by the publisher (twenty times the price of a paperback novel). This basically meant that my book was depublished: until 1998 it was available from my web page and after this it was available in libraries only.

The other comment you can see in its original habitat on Twitter at "Shit Academics Say":

I'm opening an academic-publishing-themed restaurant. You bring the ingredients & get volunteers to cook & serve. Now pay me $10,000.

You might also like this tweet, which alludes to the famously rapacious and expensive international academic publisher Elsevier:

How do I love thee
Let me count the
[To purchase full text click below]

[You can comment below, but I will own the copyright to whatever you say, and you have to give me $10,000.]


  1. S Frankel said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 10:22 am

    Publishers have a cynical term: "Library pricing."

  2. GeorgeW said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    I wish I had the $10K, I have something really interesting to say. Oh well.

  3. leoboiko said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 11:32 am

    This otherwise harmless editing error unfortunately stands out due to being in the first line of the Preface:

    This book is an introduces briefly various grammatical theories […]

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

    I know we like to think of linguistics as a "science" rather than some sort of unrigorous discipline that might as well be lumped in with the humanities. But I wonder if it's an undesirable side-effect of that characterization that interesting new books in linguistics seem more likely to be published by one of these European for-profit outfits whereas the recycled-dissertation books in the humanities are more likely to be published by a break-even-at-best American university press that have different approaches to pricing. So, just looking at some catchy-sounding forthcoming titles, The Emergence of Creole Syllable Structures is offered by de Gruyter at $140 (pretty moderate by the standards of that sort of place), whereas Columbia University Press is pricing Regimes of Historicity at $35 and The Homoerotics of Orientalism at a bargain-basement $30.

  5. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    'Publishers have a cynical term: "Library pricing."'

    At least at one time they also had library binding with high quality paper, designed to hold up over decades of use. Now they just seem to have the price.

  6. Martin Haspelmath said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

    Stefan's book is not quite published yet (it says "draft" quite clearly) – but the pre-publication version can already be downloaded from his webpage. Since the book will not be sold anyway, there's no reason to hide earlier versions.

    [I altered the post to mention that it's a draft version. —GKP]

    Thanks for writing about this on Language Log, but I wonder whether the humorous mode is appropriate.

    [Aww, c'mon! Give me a break. There's a lot of things in life about which I find you have to either laugh or cry. Don't tell me I can't be humorous. I may have to tell you a few cancer jokes. —GKP]

    I see this as a scandal that needs to be addressed by science policymakers: Just as research activities and conference organization are funded directly by research organizations, publishing should be funded directly, rather than via for-profit commercial companies that restrict access or that exploit a reputation that was created by scientists.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

    See "Echoes from the Dance of the Elephants", 8/9/2007:

    A few days ago, I learned that I'm co-author of a chapter in a book whose existence I had previously not suspected, and that as a result, a medium-sized European publishing conglomerate has paid a not-entirely-trivial sum of money to a much larger European publishing conglomerate. This makes me feel, in a small way, like an athlete who learns that he has been traded from one team to another. Except that I don't have to move.

    Here are the details, as revealed in an email to me from my (article's) new owner:

    I am delighted to inform you that the 6-volume collection "Corpus Linguistics: Critical Concepts in Linguistics" edited by Wolfgang Teubert and Ramesh Krishnamurthy was published by Routledge in June this year. The publication contains the following article of yours: Steven Bird and Mark Liberman, ‘A formal framework for linguistic annotation’, Speech Communication, 33, 1-2, 2001, pp. 23-60.

    In many cases, Routledge contacted only the previous publishers of the article with regard to copyright permission, and the editors are therefore aware that the authors did not receive any royalties from this. In this connection, the editors would just like to inform you that the original publisher of your article [i.e. Elsevier] received 646 pounds for the article from Routledge.

    You will be happy to hear that we have managed to persuade Routledge to offer a discount of 40% to the authors of the articles in the 6-volume collection "Corpus Linguistics: Critical Concepts in Linguistics" edited by Wolfgang Teubert and Ramesh Krishnamurthy. You will need to order the collection through Routledge customer services team. The person to contact is Kerry Tobin at XXX@XXX. You need to state that they you were a contributor to The Corpus Linguistics: Critical Concepts set, and mention Simon Alexander (Senior Development Editor, Major Works) as having authorised the discount.

    According to my calculations at the time,

    I believe this means that instead of paying $1,395 for this work, we're entitled to buy it for a mere $837. […] Before considering the offer further, though, I'll need to find out about taxes and shipping, since I can buy the same work from Amazon for $878.85 with free 2nd-day delivery.

    Wikipedia tells us that "In 2010, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 36% on revenues of US$3.2 billion". Routledge is considerably smaller: apparently in 2013 its parent company Informa earned $215 million profit on $600 million in revenue.

    Meanwhile, you can read the original article in several places, e.g. here.

  8. Stefan Müller said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 3:48 pm

    > This otherwise harmless editing error unfortunately stands out due to being in the first line of the Preface:

    Thanks for pointing this out. I fixed this, a new version is online. As Martin said, it is a draft. There are 40 pages on phrasal vs. lexical analyses missing. The translation is done, it is proof read right now, I will read it again and augment it by stuff from work I did in the meantime (Target Article in Theoretical Linguistics). After this I will sent it to the community proofreaders. In parallel it will be subject to an open review process. (I will write a blog post on this open reviewing process in the Language Science Press blog tomorrow or next week)

    The final book will hopefully have very few typos.

    I also will improve some of the trees.

    By the way: I now also bought the translation rights for other languages back (all rights in fact), so that there can be a Chinese translation. This book was the most expensive book, I ever bought. My own book. It is truly mine now and I will never make such a mistake again.

  9. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    @Mark Liberman:
    Is that even legal? I don't know how academic publishers operate, but when I sell an article to a magazine, I sell First North American Serial rights only, and all other rights revert back to me immediately after that first publication. If the work is to appear in an anthology, or any other publication, the publisher has to negotiate for rights. That's the case even if the original publisher wants to publish it again, e.g., in a "Best of" type of anthology.

  10. Chris C. said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

    @Ralph — Obviously, academic publishers expect to be granted all rights, not just some species of First Rights. "Sell" is the wrong word here; there's no consideration given. Why academics have been putting up with this nonsense, I have no idea.

    Now that I think about it, if some academic had the wherewithal — and could tolerate a probable blackball from the publishing community — I wonder if they might be able re-acquire their copyrights. My layman's-level understanding of contract law, gleaned in part from Judge Judy, is that a valid contract requires an exchange of consideration. Since academic writers don't get paid for their articles they receive no explicit consideration, not even services an ordinary fiction writer might expect such as typesetting. Is it possible there are no valid contracts? If not, my equally-layman's-level-except-for-being-married-to-a-writer understanding of copyright law says that copyright remains with the author.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

    Ralph Hickok: I'll be surprised if there's a law requiring academic publishers to offer contracts with some degree of human decency like the ones your publishers use.

    Martin Haspelmath: I agree that it's a scandal, as are page charges (as far as I know), but humor might be an effective way to encourage policy change and the unofficial method of making one's papers available for free in one way or another.

    MYL: Telling you how much your article made for Elsevier is just a thing of beauty. Is it possible that Routledge thought you might be able to recover some of that 646 quid?

  12. D.O. said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

    Prof. Liberman and Prof. Pullum are very high on the professional ladder in their field. If they (and a bunch of others) will announce that self-published academic books will get as much consideration from them for hiring/tenure/promotion decisions as Elsevier-published books, it might make a difference. Blogposts? Less likely.

  13. CNH said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

    I've had 2 books published by academic publishers, and each time I insisted on keeping the copyright. They were surprised by this, but agreed. The first book priced at what you might call a 'popular' level, but the second at 'library' level. Not surprisingly, the first book has sold very well, and the second hardly at all. I think someone needs to introduce publishers to the Laffer curve.

  14. Gordon Campbell said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 7:13 pm

    I've got no intelligent comment to make, but this garden has been closed so long and I just want to run around in here. Weeeeeeeeeeeee!

    [Now this is just the sort of undisciplined crazy-dog behavior that gives Internet comments a bad name. (disapproving face: :-{) —GKP]

  15. Chris Kern said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 7:57 pm

    I wish I could typeset my own work, but at least in my humanities field nobody accepts anything but Microsoft Word files. I'd love to submit a LaTeX file.

  16. John Coleman said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 8:49 pm

    Time to just put our own shit on the web and let the publishers go screw themselves?

  17. John Maline said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 9:34 pm

    Woo! A parenthetical (square bracketal?) comment-related addendum. I've missed them.

    The $10K is in the mail.

  18. Francis Bond said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 9:44 pm

    Sometimes if you ask nicely, they will let you write them a style file and then submit LaTeX. We recently did this for NUSA: Linguistic studies of languages in and around Indonesia.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

    D.O.: Whatever serious things Profs. Pullum and Liberman have done against the racket model of academic publishing, humorous blog posts may encourage others to get involved.

  20. Stefan Müller said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 3:34 am

    @Chris Kern Some publishers accept PDFs. So you do anything to make your LaTeX book look like the ones the publisher produces and they take it and print it. This was the case with all of the books I did so far (CSLI Publications with their LaTeX style, Niemeyer and Stauffenburg with my styles). The alternative is of course to dump these publishers, keep the copyright and publish with new publishers like Language Scinece Press:

    @D.O. Self publishing is probably dangerous, as you point out. But researchers can organize the publishing business themselves (we do not need the restaurant, but can do the part in my flat). Take a look at the language science press web page. Check out the advisory board and the editors of the series we have. Check out the list of supporters.

    This is the who is who of linguistics (Steven Pinker, Luc Steels, Adele Goldberg, Gereon Müller, Wolfgang Klein, Steve Abney, Charles Fillmore, Ivan Sag, Christiane Fellbaum, Stuart Shieber, Nikolaus Himmelmann, Geert Booij to give some of the names). So we are building the necessary reputation that will get you the jobs. If you think this is the right way to go, you may register with Language Science Press as a supporter at the page given above.

    Thanks for joining!

    PS: There is also a twitter account you may follow:

  21. Martin Haspelmath said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 5:52 am

    @D.O. "Prof. Liberman and Prof. Pullum are very high on the professional ladder in their field. If they (and a bunch of others) will announce that self-published academic books will get as much consideration from them for hiring/tenure/promotion decisions as Elsevier-published books, it might make a difference."

    Unfortunately, this would not be sufficient – and they could hardly say that self-publishing is equivalent to proper publishing. What we need is cheap scholar-owned publication:

    But in addition, for scholar-owned labels to become prestigious, famous scholars like Prof. Pullum and Prof. Liberman should publish their books and journals with these labels.

  22. champacs said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 6:41 am

    On the subject of academic publishing, this recent article by "No Peanuts! for Translators" identifies 7 university presses (Duke University Press, Fordham University Press, Harvard University Press, Princeton University Press, Stanford University Press, SUNY Press, and University of Toronto Press) that have not recognised translators’ copyrights in their translated books published in 2014.

  23. D.O. said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

    Stefan Müller and Martin Haspelmath. Thank you for thoughtful replies. I do not work in linguistics and am not pursuing an academic career. That was just an outsider's suggestion on my part. The fact however is that no matter the price, very specialized monographs of the type you can turn a dissertation into is never going to sell a lot of copies. There should be some mechanism to referee such books and then publish them on the Internet. As said many times, publisher costs and profits are covered by libraries with government or benefactors' money, there simply should be a way to pay for the same product and then allow a free access to it. Scholar-owned press seems like a decent idea, but it really mixes up two worlds — doing science and business.

  24. Martin Haspelmath said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    Yes, D.O., that's why I've argued that science publication should be done like science itself – not in a profit-oriented way. There is no market for basic scientific discoveries (hence university research cannot be traded on a stock exchange), and likewise there is no functioning market for science publication. Just as we write our own papers, we should publish them ourselves (though of course low-level technical services can be outsourced to external companies). See this post:

  25. Piyush said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    In areas at the intersection of Theoretical Computer Science and Mathematics, Now Publishers has emerged as a formidable contender to traditional publishing houses in the area of publishing research monographs, via its Foundations and Trends series. The books are reasonable prized, and some of the most useful and influential monographs and long surveys in the area in recent years have appeared there. Their webpage lists their advantages for authors very near the top: the first of these being that authors retain copyrights.

    Perhaps linguists could also start a Foundations and Trends series?

  26. Nick Thieberger said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

    There are also open access publishers like Language Documentation & Conservation that produce books (eight so far: as well as the journal (in its ninth year). Rights belong to authors and no fees are charged to authors or readers. As pointed out in the above post and comments, we do all the work anyway so we can bypass book companies completely.

  27. David Shorter said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

    Great post and comments. I am happy to see more people talk about the ridiculousness that is academic publishing. I made some inquiries into this a year or so ago:


  28. Chris Kern said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 10:12 pm

    I am in literature, not linguistics, and I'm not sure those journals are as open to PDF or LaTeX files.

    Academic publishing is a strange beast. Although I have no proof to back this up, my feeling is that most of us who write academic books and articles do so primarily to fulfill the requirements of the tenure system, and perhaps with the knowledge that there are a handful of people who may find our work interesting or useful. I don't think most of us write with any expectation of making money or reaching a wide/general audience. I enjoy research, and writing (to a certain extent), but I would just as soon have my work up for free on a web page than actually published in book or journal form and sold for money.

  29. Chris Kern said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

    Sorry, I should make it more clear what I'm saying above because there was a break between the two parts. I don't think it's necessarily a good thing that people are writing and researching primarily to fulfill their tenure requirements, and I wasn't trying to say that people don't have the right to get money for their articles/books, but most people probably don't expect it anyway.

  30. I. M. Flaud said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

    It is not enough to deplore the parasitic business practices of the for-profit academic publishers, or even to resolve not to publish with them. Stop citing publications ransomed behind the paywalls of the intellectual monopolists.

  31. Stefan Müller said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    Dear David Shorter,

    I am sorry to hear about your financial situation. To me it seems that you just made a mistake in your contract with the publisher. The contract should state that you get your share from money that is generated via digital channels. Making mistakes in contracts happens and it is annoying (see my earlier comment: I also made a mistake to give the rights for other languages away. I just cared for the German rights but could not imagine something like Language Science Press in 2006 and 2009). But there are other issues in your blog post that I want to comment on:

    1) You say books should not be free for students.

    You state in your blog post that "UCLA libraries paid a one-time fee of $67.80 for their user license" and this entitles the students to read your book.

    This means that this digital package is not free for the students. They pay tuition fees or the university is financed by tax payers. Since students are tax payers as well, they pay for the books.

    You say that you bought books during your study and you worked with them and still have them. But students can buy printed books as well and you will get your royalties for the printed copies.

    2) You argue that academic writers should make profit with their books

    I really believe that if you are in indigenous studies and you want to make profits from that you are in the wrong profession or at least in the wrong field. You should try computer science or get a job in finances, law, or industry. But let's assume you love your job and want to continue. If we play this game and think in terms of money (which is entirely wrong, I believe), even then you get profits from your books, if you publish them free for readers: People read your books, they may cite them and they may love them. You will have a much bigger audience than with depublished books. This will have an impact on your academic reputation and finally help you with promotion after tenure (depending on country and university system). So the profit will be indirect, but it will be there.

    You say that your work should be compensated. I guess you are already payed by your institution (UCLA). I think they do not pay you badly. If readers pay for your books, they pay you twice: once via taxes and/or tuition fees and once the book price.

    3) You say that you are in "eternal indebtedness" since you had to pay high tuition fees but that tuition fees are right.

    This seems to be paradox. Isn't something wrong in the system if even professors cannot pay back their loans. This seems to me to indicate that tuition fees are too high. In any case expensive teaching material adds to the costs of studying. 55% of the price of a printed book are due to storage, distribution, and selling. On top of this you get taxes. If students can save this money they are helped a lot.

    And apart from this wouldn't a world in which everybody even students from China or Indonesia or Africa could access your work be a better place?

    Finally, we at Language Science Press are considering ways for authors to earn some money. One is via micro payment. Each published book will be associated with two links, one for flattring Language Scinece Press and one for flattering the author (flattr is the micro payment service). So people who really like a book and like the way it is published can voluntarily pay the publisher and/or author. In addition we are working on models to let authors participate in book sales of printed copies. However, to set this up properly is not trivial …

    Best wishes


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