How to be ignored (?)

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Last year, Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin published a book under the title Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus. The background of the book was a course on "The Poverty of the Stimulus, Machine Learning, and Language Acquisition", which the authors gave at the LSA Summer Institute at Stanford in 2007. In the preface, the authors thank an impressive collection of linguists, computer scientists, psychologists, and philosophers "for helpful discussion of many of the issues that we address in this monograph".

An hour-long discussion between the authors and Chris Cummins was just released as a podcast in the New Books in Language section of the New Books Network. Cummins' online intro to the podcast opens with this bit of snark:

In linguistics, if a book is ever described as a “must read for X”, it generally means that (i) it is trenchantly opposed to whatever X does and (ii) X will completely ignore it. Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin, Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) is described, on its dust-jacket, as a “must read for generative linguists”.  Apparently generative linguists have so far taken the hint.  This is a great pity, as this book is not only very pertinent, but also succeeds in eschewing most of the polemical excess that tends to engulf us all in this field.

Richard Sproat, who contributed the cited jacket blurb, quipped in an email that "Apparently I did you a disservice by saying it was a must read".

In the first place, I don't believe that this book has been ignored — for example, Nick Moore contributed a thoughtful 3/4/2012 review on linguistlist.  But to the extent that the book has had less impact than it should, the fault is not Richard Sproat's, but rather Wiley-Blackwell's. If you want to read this book, you'll have to shell out $104.95.   You can get it in ebook form from publisher for $84.99, or from amazon for $79.99. That's a lot for a 216-page monograph.

In comparison, the other dozen books featured so far in the New Books in Language series have an average price in paper form of $30.43, or $19.65 as ebooks. Those prices are still on the high side, but they're well within the range of what a non-specialist might pay for a book of likely interest, and they're also reasonable prices for a book to be assigned as part of the reading list for a university seminar.

The business model of many European publishers who specialize in scholarly or scientific books seems to be to enlist eminent authors to produce intellectually serious and even important books, and to depend on the fact that a world-wide collection of about 500 research libraries will buy one each of everything they publish, sight unseen. Then a price of $100-$200 brings in $50-100K per title. The authors get nothing, of course, except another item for their bibliography; and the world gets a "must read" book that almost no one reads.

This has always been a morally dubious enterprise, in my opinion. In the days when typesetting and printing were expensive, and other ways to circulate such content didn't exist or were of markedly inferior quality, it made some sense; though even then, the various lower-priced alternatives were often used as they became available — ditto copies in the middle of the 20th century, and xerox copies later on.

But today, this model doesn't facilitate scholarly and scientific communication in any way — it purely retards it. Isn't it past time for a prestigious scholarly press or scientific society to experiment with an Open Access digital monograph series?

And yes, I know that there would be real costs associated with such an enterprise, and that a way would have to be found for them to be paid. But in the world as it exists today, the present way of handling the publication of scholarly and scientific books and monographs strikes me as pretty nearly the worst method that could possibly be invented. Authors are paid (essentially) nothing and get fewer and fewer readers; interested readers are asked to pay so much that they are forced to ignore most offerings; academic disciplines are encouraged to become more and more ingrown; and libraries' hard-pressed budgets are required to subsidize the whole charade.

One alternative solution would be a monograph series sponsored by a scholarly and scientific society — the Association for Computational Linguistics already sponsors a prestigious Open-Access journal. A slightly more conventional alternative would be a series that made an honest attempt to calculate non-volunteer publication costs, and set prices accordingly.

I've contributed chapters to a number of high-priced edited volumes in the past — sometimes without intending to, as documented in "Echoes from the Dance of the Elephants", 8/19/2007 — but I try not to do so any more.


  1. GeorgeW said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    I am reminded of the story years ago about the guy who invented a printer with a nine-foot carriage. His friend asked, How much are you going to charge for it? He said, $5 million. His friend asked, So how many do you expect to sell? He said, I only need to sell one.

  2. dporpentine said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    Of course, they don't sell 500 copies anymore. More like 100-200. Slowly. Over the course of about three years as reviews trickle in.

    For example: the Worldcat count for that book in particular comes up with only 116 libraries having any of its six editions.

    [(myl) I see 141 libraries for the most populous Worldcat entry for the Clark/Lappin book, though I'm puzzled what is meant by "six editions". I have a feeling that this is not a complete list — though Alexander and Shalom could tell us what sales figures Wiley-Blackwell reported to them. In any case, you're probably right that the research-library market for such things is drying up.]

    Does that somehow against the kind of monograph series you're proposing? No. It's an argument for it, really. But you won't see Wiley-Blackwell being the one to start it–and they're not exactly the Elsevier journal program for failing to do so, either.

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    The authors get nothing?

    [(myl) Sometimes literally nothing, as noted here. Sometimes they get royalties, which (for books of this kind) don't amount to enough to constitute any sort of incentive.]

  4. John said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    How many non-institutional buyers are there, willing to shell out $100 for a book? I've bitten the bullet a few times to go over a hundred, but resentfully. Of course, if I can get somebody else (or an institutional "nobody's money" well, then sure… But a generalist reader can usually find something better to do with the cash, no matter the topic.

    [(myl) It's not uncommon, alas, for college courses to require textbooks that cost well over $100. But it's not so common for a monograph of this kind to be assigned as a course text, though (in the olden days at least) it might be put on reserve, or a chapter or two might be copied in a course pack.]

  5. D.O. said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    (myl) Sometimes literally nothing, as noted here. Sometimes they get royalties, which (for books of this kind) don't amount to enough to constitute any sort of incentive.

    It may be worth to think about why academic researches keep writing these books. Maybe it is something in the incentive structure in the field, for example, "I have a book to my credit! Give me less classes, better times, more salary etc." Or maybe it is just bragging rights, "I published a book, you lesser mortals." I would leave a room for altruism if it were not clear that such books are not being actually read. Another hypo, authors have much higher hopes when they write.

  6. Andy Averill said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    Since most scholarly books are read only by other scholars, who in turn have books of their own they plan to publish, why not band together and leave out the middleman? Get all your colleagues together and agree to publish online, and give people an option to pay for a hard copy if they want one. There are lots of people doing this on Amazon already. Or is the fear that you won't be taken seriously if you're not published by one of the majors?

    [(myl) There is certainly an issue of credit (for promotion or hiring) being dependent on the prestige of book publishing venues.]

  7. John Lawler said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    This reminds one of the item in Jim McCawley's "Dates in the Month of May that are of Interest to Linguists":

    May 3, 1955

    Mouton & Co. discover how American libraries order books and scheme to cash in by starting several series of books on limericks. The person given charge of this project mishears and starts several series of books on linguistics. No one ever notices the mistake.

  8. Yuval said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    Typo typo: "seems to be to to enlist eminent authors"

  9. Lane said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    How much editorial improvement do the publishers give? Organizational guidance, text punch-up and suggestions? Or are we talking about literally just a very light halfway-decent copy edit and typesetting? Every mortal's writing can be improved by editing, if it is engaged and serious. If the presses are not even offering that, this really is a scandal.

    [(myl) In at least some cases, there isn't even any typesetting, since the articles are supplied (via LaTeX or whatever) in camera-ready form.

    I don't know how much editing, design, and typesetting might have gone into the book under discussion here.]

    We took a stab at the subject here,

    noting that in journals if not books, some authors are indeed beginning a boycott (of Elsevier). We took another look at Elsevier here,

    But in general, academic publishing doesn't get a lot of mainstream press, which makes consciousness-raising (and so boycotts and such) harder and slower to organize.

    [(myl) There's a lot of discussion and action around these issues these days in the case of periodicals, and some (I think somewhat less) in the case of textbooks. I see very little if any discussion of the analogous issues in the case of books and monographs.]

  10. Howard Oakley said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    Sadly, there are as many vested interests here as there are in publishing journals independently of the controlling academic presses.

    Authors can already publish at low cost, simultaneously electronically and on paper. Rather than citing Amazon (which is really only interested in how much money it can make from selling such products), look at – hardbacks from around $20 per printed copy for low print-on-demand (PoD) runs, modest charges, flexible formats, and sold via Amazon and others.

    However you have to do your own design, your own proof-reading and checking, own indexing… indeed your own marketing too, which means sending free copies out to reviewers. I also doubt whether a book published by Lulu has the same cachet as one from a long-established University Press.

    It would be wonderful if LSA or another learned society were to take this on, but they would need staff to handle it, and it would compromise the often cosy relationship with the same publishers who happen to sponsor societies (and the Linguist List, of course), and make more money from publishing academic journals.

    It is also worth bearing in mind that the same publishers that charge thousands of dollars a year for some journal subscriptions (to institutions) and hundreds for books, also are the prime publishers of textbooks. Textbooks of course are not without reward to their authors, who are often the same who strive to sell their monographs of more limited appeal.

    Apple has made a bold move to try to bring many academic textbooks onto its iOS devices, without seeming too interested in making money from those electronic publications, presumably because it wants to own the academic book-reading market. Unfortunately, unlike Lulu, there is no automatic PoD option.

    There are a lot of hands in different pockets, so I don't see anything dramatic happening unless a large society decides to go it alone, and take the many risks.


  11. Rod Johnson said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

    Charlie Stross did a nice job of laying out what takes place in the post-authoring publishing process here. He's talking about mass marketed fiction, so a lot of the economic assumptions are different, but it's an eye-opener about what the kind of disintermediation people imagine would actually entail.

    There's also an interesting book called One Book—Five Ways that demonstrates how five different university presses would approach the publishing of a(n imaginary) book.

    Both of these do a pretty good job of suggesting where publishers add value. That's not to say it's a net positive, but it's nontrivial.

    [(myl) I don't think that Stross's discussion is very relevant to the case of scholarly and scientific monographs and the like — very little of the process he discusses happens to them.

    One Book Five Ways seems more relevant — but I notice that the cost is only $23, even though five university presses went through the complete editorial process! If the Clark & Lappin book had been priced at $23, this discussion would not be taking place.]

  12. Charlie Martin said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

    It really is a scandal. Many years ago, I reviewed a book on the "reification problem in formal methods", which is to say, how do you make a real computer execute a program for which you've constructed a proof?

    I don't remember the exact numbers, except for one: the book cost 65 cents a page. It was, as was common even that that time, printed from camera ready copy printed onto offset page plates by the authors. No editorial input whatsoever — the individual chapters were in fact in radically different formats: single or paired columns, different fonts, sizes, and copy standards. The binding, while in boards, was the inexpensive and short-lived mylar-coated paper. The cover was livened by the use to two, count'em, two colors.

    At roughly the same time, academic publishers were suing Kinkos for their "course packs" of reprinted papers.

    [(myl) In fairness to Wiley-Blackwell with respect to this particular book, the Preface includes the sentence "Danielle Descoteaux, our editor at Wiley-Blackwell, has been a source of constant encouragement and expert editorial advice".]

  13. Renato Montes said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 1:03 am

    [(myl) In fairness to Wiley-Blackwell with respect to this particular book, the Preface includes the sentence "Danielle Descoteaux, our editor at Wiley-Blackwell, has been a source of constant encouragement and expert editorial advice".]

    …Actually, I think your adding that part of the Preface only made it sound worse after Charlie Martin's comment implying this "expert editorial advice" ended up with a book where every chapter has different fonts, sizes and copy standards…

    [(myl) No, Charlie Martin was talking about his experience with a different book, presumably an edited volume in which the different chapters were submitted as camera-ready copy by different authors without any common template. This is not at all typical of how things are done in recent times.]

  14. Julian Bradfield said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 1:38 am

    College Publications is a publishing house run by academics for academics, as it says. It publishes in logic, mathematics and computer science. Physical books are sold more or less at cost via print-on-demand, and authors retain all rights and can publish electronically however they wish. All it would take to do the same in Linguistics is some department (or group of departments) willing to contribute the relatively small admin and IT resource required, and a supply of academics willing to do the editorial parts of the job.I'd be happy to try to get Edinburgh involved in such an enterprise!

    [(myl) The problem is that many academics, especially younger ones, want/need the "gold star" associated with publication by a prestigious publisher or series. There is also the small but perhaps meaningful distribution associated with automatic purchase by a (shrinking) list of research libraries, with display at publishers' tables at conferences, and with advertisements in some journals.

    I'm not entirely sure where Wiley-Blackwell stands in the ecosystem of scholarly and scientific book publishing. According to their self-description, "Wiley-Blackwell publishes nearly 1,500 peer-reviewed journals and 1,500+ new books annually in print and online, as well as databases, major reference works and laboratory protocols." I would guess that Clark and Lappin chose them — or perhaps were recruited by them — to publish this book as a result of the connection established by Clark, Fox, and Lappin, The Handbook of Computational Linguistics and Natural Language Processing, 2010. Wiley-Blackwell has been very active in organizing the production of Handbooks in various areas, including in several subfields of linguistics. Their handbooks in various areas of linguistics are well regarded and widely cited.

    Do these benefits to authors (and perhaps to readers) correspond to a price of $104 for a monograph with 216 pages of text, no plates or figures, and no other special production costs? I'm not sure. But I'm quite sure that the overall impact of such prices is to shrink audiences and slow down intellectual communication.]

  15. Chris Cummins said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    I should apologise for giving way to snark too early in my posting on the interview. But I must stress that I didn't intend either to have a pop at any group of linguists or to defend the pricing of the book! Nor do I blame Richard Sproat for anything. (I thought I was quoting Ivan Sag, but my memory may be at fault.) I was, quite sincerely, gratified not to find the book polemical, and sincerely concerned that people might avoid it on the basis of an expectation to the contrary.

    As for the New Books Network, my understanding of the founder's intentions is that he is keen to 'unlock the ideas' in books, making those ideas available in a freely accessible medium. Ideally, I think he would like the podcasts to cover everything of interest in the respective book, but of course this isn't possible, and I dare say the publishers would object to that even if we were to succeed…

  16. Eric Baković said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    Taking advantage of my privileged position of access, I checked out my library's online copy of the book — to find that the "must read for generative linguists" blurb is from Ivan Sag, not Richard Sproat. Sproat's blurb does paraphrase this, however; he says that that book "should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand the most fundamental question in linguistics".

    As an aside, I do hope that Sproat intended the double entendre in the following part of his blurb:

    For fifty years, the "poverty of the stimulus" has driven "nativist" linguistics. Clark and Lappin challenge the POS and develop a formal foundation for language learning.

  17. Richard Sproat said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

    True: I didn't say "a must read for generative linguists" verbatim (I would never say it in such terms), but my intent was the same. But in any event so far I am the only one to have owned up to my role in decreasing the book's sales.

  18. Andy Averill said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    Incidentally, the issue of academic publishers making big profits for very little value added is not a new one. I have on my shelf Paul Cohen's classic Set Theory and the Continuum Hypothesis, which physically is nothing but a photo-reproduction of typed pages with a few special symbols written in by hand (by the author, no doubt). The price of the fifth edition, printed in 1980, was $31 for a 154-page book. Probably with inflation that would be over $100 today.

    [(myl) The sad thing is that for a book of that kind, a classic though it may be, I suspect that the total take was not in fact very large. It's a bit like a holdup in which someone gets shot over a matter of a few hundred dollars — the harm is considerable, and no one is really getting rich.

    It's true that Elsevier's total revenues are 3-4 billion dollars a year, but most of that is from periodicals, I believe. Textbooks may also be a good business for some publishers. But I don't think that the business of low-volume scholarly and scientific monographs is especially lucrative for anyone.]

  19. leoboiko said,

    June 12, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    > How many non-institutional buyers are there, willing to shell out $100 for a book?

    And how many non-institutional buyers, despite being general readers, would be curious enough to try a book like this, if only it was priced reasonably?

    Let me rephrase this: How much does the overpricing of academic books/journals contribute to excessive specialization and the formation of intellectual cliques? And how much does it contribute to restrict third-world and lower-class access to (publicly funded!) knowledge, even to discourage an intellectual life for the poor? (I admit the answer could well be "not that much", but even then…)

    [(myl) In the case of journals, there are quite a few studies attempting to quantify the effects of Open Access on citations. I don't know of any similar attempts in the case of books and monographs.

    One reason for the focus on periodicals is that their costs rose much more steeply — this study cites a report from the Association of Research Libraries to the effect that expenditure on periodicals rose by 321% from 1986 to 2006, while monographs rose by 82% (where the CPI rose by 86% over the same 20-year period). Of course, monographs were in general already expensive in the 1980s (as Andy Averill observes above), or for that matter in the 1950s.]

  20. Chad Nilep said,

    June 12, 2012 @ 10:24 pm

    Chris Kelty at the anthropology blog Savage Minds has recently tried to estimate how much the value added by publishers (of journals, not monographs, but many issues overlap) should cost.

    He doesn't suggest a hard number, but does suggest that much of the 'cost' of publishing journals is in fact costs of selling journals to libraries. Like scholarly monographs, journals are mostly bought by university or research libraries. Like monographs, the writing, editing, and peer reviewing of journals is done by non-paid (actually, paid by their universities or research institutions) scholars, while publishers pay for copy editing, type setting, design, etc.

    Kelty concludes that prices based on production costs as opposed to whatever the library market will bear would be significantly lower. I suspect the same is true of monographs; they probably could be sold for $20-50 rather than the current $100-500. But as scholars we gain credibility (and tenure) based on publishing in "prestigious" handbook or monograph series.

  21. Nelson said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    What about a book like Indo-European Language and Culture by Benjamin Fortson IV as a contrast. It's in the 'Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics' series, is over 500 pages long, and has a large number of special characters and fonts, tables, and sketch illustrations. It is very well edited, which I'm sure is in large part because of the carefulness of the author and the many pre-readers involved, but also surely because of the editors (who are thanked, of course) and the typesetters (apparently a separate company; also thanked). The (paperback) book has a cover price of $60 (slightly high), and sells on Amazon for $40 (not too bad, given what the book is), with a Kindle edition for $30.

    The cover price is a bit expensive for a paperback, but really this doesn't seem too extreme given the complexity of a book like that. I personally feel this is an example of a traditional academic book working more or less right, and not hiking the price too exceptionally high (especially if you look at the availability from Amazon).

  22. Nelson said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    Of course, it is a textbook rather than a monograph, so that does change the dynamics somewhat.

    [(myl) Still, the price is not bad. Compare Fromkin, Rodman, and Hyams, "Introduction to Language", list price $156.95 in paperback, on sale on amazon for $122.32. Published by Wadsworth (which is owned by Thompson-Reuters). ]

  23. Fraud in science, and the more widespread impact of the incentives that beget it (Nicholas McGinnis) | Rotman Institute of Philosophy said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    […] established networks of scholars), but the writing of scholarly books and monographs too, a "morally dubious enterprise" that is too often taken to be a necessary part of evaluation of scholarly output. The push […]

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