Martin Haspelmath on “The Mess that Open Access has become”

Julia Rehfeldt —  October 7, 2014 — Leave a comment

Martin Haspelmath is an expert on open access, and a senior scientist at the linguistics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA). He studied linguistics in Vienna, Cologne, Buffalo and Moscow, and received his Ph.D. and habilitation degrees from the Freie Universität Berlin. Before moving to Leipzig in 1998, he worked at the Otto-Friedrichs-Universität Bamberg and the Università degli Studi di Pavia.

Hybrid Publishing Lab:  You argue that science publications should be seen as a public service. Could you explain to our readers what your argument is?

Martin Haspelmath: Science publication is all too often treated like other kinds of publication. For examples, I get royalties for books that I write as part of my scientific research. This makes no sense, because I publish for the same reason that I do research: in order to advance our understanding of the world, not in order to make a living. Science publication is therefore entirely different from journalism, art or entertainment. It should not be separated from science itself and should be funded in the same way, i.e. by governments and charities. While journalists, artists and entertainers compete for readers, so that the price can be regulated by market forces, there is no similar competition in science publication. The main competition is that scientists compete with each other for jobs and grants. But science publishers do not compete with each other in the sense of a market economy, just as research institutions do not compete with each other via the price. So just as governments do not entrust cancer research or historical research to private companies, they should not put their faith in private companies for the publication of scientific research results.

HPL: What are currently the biggest obstacles for open access?

Haspelmath: What I observe in my field (language sciences) is that there is an ever-growing use of “grey open access” (especially via social networks of science), but most of my colleagues are still working with the traditional publishers as in the 20th century, although their services are less and less needed. It seems to me that what we need most about the traditional book imprints and journal titles is the reputation that they give us. By publishing a paper in an expensive journal, or a book on paper, authors make their work less accessible to potential readers, but they enhance their career prospects. This is quite harmful to science as a whole, of course: What advances individual careers does not advance science. This is a problem that I don’t see as being addressed seriously by anyone.

HPL: Do you think open access is a chance for new publishers, or will old presses adapt?

Haspelmath: I fear that the old commercial publishers will adapt to the demands for open access by charging authors. Labels with more prestige will be able to charge higher fees, so even though electronic publication is much cheaper than paper publication, the prices will remain high. When there is no competition via the price, there is no mechanism for keeping the price low. But I hope that some organizations will establish themselves as “platinum open-access” publishers that publish books and journals for free, at no cost to either the author or the reader. After all, governments and charities fund research to benefit humankind, so why wouldn’t they provide direct funding for the publication of the research results? It’s relatively easy to create new prestigious labels. That’s what we are trying to do at Language Science Press for the field of linguistics.

HPL:  Which book will you always have as an analogue copy in your bookshelf?

Haspelmath: I don’t know. Just as we don’t have clay tablets or Super 8 films anymore, we may not have any printed books at some point in the not too distant future. I will always cherish my father’s handwritten diary, but it may be safer if I make a digital copy of it and keep it in multiple places.

Our upcoming Conference on Publishing between Open Access, Piracy and Public Spheres is up for registration now. You can read all Interviews here.

Read on Thursday the introduction interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick the director of scholarly communication of the Modern Language Association

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