Against electronifying academic literature


Geoffrey Sampson


A piece which I was asked in 2009 to write for the “Last Words” section of the journal Computational Linguistics, but which was not printed there.



The point when CL has gone “open access” and electronic-only might not seem the obvious moment to write a Last Words column about why these are bad things to do.  Left to myself, my instinct would have been to note sadly that another bastion had fallen, and shrug at a fait accompli.  But our Editor has asked me for a piece on the case against open access, so who am I to turn him down?  I certainly believe in the case against.


Making the contents of academic journals instantly and freely available to anyone with an internet connexion sounds so delightfully democratic.  Patet omnibus veritas, “truth lies open to all”, as Seneca and the Lancaster University motto have it.  The trouble is, once reading a journal article no longer implies getting hold of the physical journal issue printed on paper, in practice the central function served by learned journals for centuries past is undermined.  Rather than a community with shared assumptions and background knowledge, and shared or at least heavily overlapping goals, a discipline fragments into a sea of individuals and tiny coteries largely talking past one another.


While journals were paper-only, the usual thing was for an individual academic to identify the one or two or three journals which were central to his interests, and to make it his regular business, quarter by quarter, to read most of the contents of most or all issues.  Having one’s own copies at home was so much more convenient than relying on a library that a serious academic would find the money for a personal subscription or two – and, after he had paid, he wasn’t going to waste his money by ignoring all but the minority of articles which spoke to him most directly.  Almost everything was briefly scanned, at least; sometimes items that initially looked unpromising would turn out to be more valuable than first supposed.


Everyone sometimes needed to consult one-off items in journals not regularly read, and that is where libraries came in.  But, for many of us, our little stable of “regular” journals accounted for quite a large proportion of our total consumption of academic papers.


Of course, nothing stops one using open-access electronic journals in exactly the same way.  But, of course, people won’t.  Under the new régime, the default mode is to download and read individual articles from this, that, and the other source, as they come to one’s attention, and there is no reason for people to have “regular journals” any more.  Reading off a screen is trying to the eyes, so one needs to put effort into printing an item out before reading it; even if the journal website offers further articles right there next to the piece one was looking for, who is going to bother to print those other items out if they look prima facie unpromising?


The reason why all this matters is that successful scholarship is by nature a communal enterprise.  Contributing to a mature academic discipline involves an apprenticeship of learning the existing state of play – familiarizing oneself with what is currently believed to be solidly established and where problems are known to lie, learning what kind of discourses might be regarded as acceptable solutions to the problems, and so forth.  Having a bright idea may feel good but it is useless, unless you can manage to carry others with you to follow it up.  It is not enough for an original insight to be clear in one’s own mind; one needs a sense of how others might be led to share it.  All these things depend on long-term immersion alongside other long-term participants in a continuing stream of academic discourse – a sort of standing conversation.  Historically, the vehicle for these standing academic conversations has been the learned journal.  Journal subscriptions have been the tax which individual scholars and institutions pay as the cost of maintaining a flourishing infrastructure of academic conversation, rather as we pay taxes in ordinary life in order to maintain the roads and other infrastructure that our individual lives each depend on.


Under open access, we cease to pay the tax; but we shan’t get the standing conversations, either.  I might as an individual decide, quixotically, to read CL and one or two other journals as regularly and fully as I did when I paid for a subscription – but I can’t make others follow suit, and a conversation with one continuing participant is not a conversation.


All this might be recognized more widely, were it not for the way that, for twenty years or more now, academics have been adapting to novel values imposed on academic life by managers who have no knowledge of (or interest in) what makes for healthy scholarship.  In an academic manager’s eyes, scholarship is not about participating in a standing conversation.  It is about getting large numbers of research articles from one’s own team over the hurdle of publication in high-prestige journals.  Other guys’ publications are not the essential precondition for one’s own contributions to have value; they are merely competition, eating into market share which, in a managerially-ideal world, would be monopolized entirely by the home team.


This may sound like caricature.  In Britain, at least, it has been impossible to dismiss it so lightly ever since the 1985 Jarratt Report on university governance.  This enquiry into university management, whose findings broadly set the framework under which British academe has been operating ever since, noted that it had encountered two kinds of professional academic:  for some, their primary loyalty was to their subject, for others it was to their employing institution.  Jarratt laid down that the former attitude was wrong and the latter correct.  Universities should be reorganized so as to ensure that academics understood their job as being to advance the welfare of their employer in competition with other universities.  And that is what happened.


When I first encountered this pronouncement by Jarratt, I expected an outcry.  Surely it is obvious that universities, or any other institutions, are no more than tools which a society creates in order to advance its real goals – individual universities are tools created to serve the goal of developing and sharing knowledge and understanding, they are not ends in themselves.  Of course our primary loyalty must be to our subjects, or to intellectual life generally irrespective of artificial discipline boundaries.  Perhaps it is acceptable for a middle manager in a commercial firm to think of himself as working purely for the benefit of his firm, without looking further and recognizing that firms and the rest of the panoply of a market economy are only a toolkit evolved by society to serve the needs of its members.  But we academics are supposed to be people of penetrating intellect, who look beyond superficial appearances to grasp what is really going on underneath.  If we thought of our employing institutions as ends in themselves, we would be too stupid to be entrusted with academic posts.


People who joined the profession recently may not appreciate how greatly the attitude to the research function has changed over the past forty years.  My first job was at Oxford University.  Plenty of people there had highly-admired careers, which led eventually to respectful obituaries in the national press, without ever doing much in the way of original research.  They kept up with developments in their field, introduced these to their brighter pupils, perhaps put effort into research administration or editorial activities, but their main career focus was on teaching and no-one thought the less of them for that.  Probably the majority of Oxford staff even then did publish original research, but they did so because they wanted to – not because anyone was demanding an accounting of their output.  If one is deeply interested in an intellectual enterprise it is natural to want to make one’s own contributions to it.  (Certainly people were not judged in terms of the research grants they won; only a minority had any interest in applying.)


It is only human, not just to want to contribute to one’s discipline, but to hope that one’s contributions will be admired.  But that does not prevent one seeing the enterprise as a whole as a communal activity.  Forty years ago the natural attitude for an academic to adopt was to see oneself as part of a team stretching far beyond one’s local institution, which was playing a match (Knowledge v. Ignorance) before an audience including the educated public at large, not just fellow specialists.  Of course one hoped to be a goal-scorer, but if someone elsewhere scored that was good too.  The results that really mattered were attributable to the team as a whole.


I remember as an undergraduate at Cambridge University in the early 1960s being told by one of my senior mentors about the “publish or perish” syndrome that was coming in across the Atlantic, whereby individual academics’ careers were made to depend on their research output, and as a result they developed ever-narrower specialisms within which they could be unchallenged leaders, irrespective of whether the public at large saw any value in them.  He told me about it, so that we could have a good laugh about it:  it so obviously flew in the face of what the academic life is meant to be about.  I could not have guessed that, by the time I reached my sixties, the publish-or-perish ethos would be, I would judge, more fully developed in Britain than in the USA.


When I was a graduate student in the USA in the late 1960s and attended Summer and Winter Meetings of the Linguistic Society of America, there were no parallel sessions; the reason, I was told, was that Archibald Hill (one of the leaders of the LSA) insisted that he wanted to listen to every paper.  That seemed right:  we ought to want to keep up with everything happening in our discipline, even if we can hope to contribute only to small parts of it.  But A.A. Hill is no longer with us, and LSA conferences, I believe, long ago shifted to many parallel streams.  That would be just an organizational triviality, of course, if it were not a symptom of an intellectual compartmentalization that is doing real, non-trivial damage to the advance of knowledge and understanding (and which moving journals online exacerbates).


Take an example from my recent experience.  When I first studied linguistics, I learned that it was an accepted truth that all human languages are equally complex.  Charles Hockett’s influential introductory textbook stated “the total grammatical complexity of any language … is about the same as that of any other” (Hockett 1958: 180).  The UK Higher Education Academy website promulgates Richard Hudson’s list of issues on which linguists agree (Hudson 1981), including (2.2d) “There is no evidence that normal human languages differ greatly in the complexity of their rules” – and many linguistics teachers phrase it less cautiously than Hudson, asserting that languages are indeed all alike in structural complexity, perhaps because they all share the same biologically-inherited framework of Universal Grammar.


For many years I felt sceptical.  By the turn of the millennium I noticed that a number of other individual linguists round the world were querying various specific facets of the equal-complexity axiom; together with David Gil I arranged in 2007 to bring these people together in a workshop at Leipzig (see Sampson, Gil, and Trudgill 2009) in order to examine the axiom in depth.  I came away from Leipzig convinced that the axiom was just wrong, which was no great surprise; but I was surprised by what I learned about the range of current attitudes towards the axiom.  It turned out that there are plenty of linguists nowadays whose work simply takes its wrongness for granted; they do not spend time debating the axiom, they are doing much more refined research on the different ways in which complexity varies, how complexity variation correlates with different social variables, and so forth.  Yet at the same time the principle of equal language complexity, Universal Grammar, and related ideas continue to be widely taught by other linguists (the Higher Education Academy website displays Richard Hudson’s statement today).  These people cannot all be right, surely, yet many of them evidently do not see it as a priority to thrash the issue out.


The example is merely anecdotal, of course – but will anyone argue that it is unrepresentative?  Avoidance of open conflict about basics has become part of the tacit training that present-day academic conditions impose on recruits to the profession.  Stick to your comfort zone; read the publications produced by your coterie of like-minded researchers, they will read yours, and with luck your research proposals will be given to one another for review (after all, you are the experts in your narrow speciality).  Don’t engage with people who disagree on fundamentals – if you do, one side might lose the argument (and prospects of future funding), and it could be yours. 


Those of us who entered the profession forty years ago know that there is a better way.  For recent recruits it must be hard to grasp that things could be different – and certainly the managers who nowadays control academic career structures give them no encouragement to grasp that.


Readers may object that I have wandered a long way from “open access”.  What about the principle of “truth lying open to all”?


It is a noble principle, but it has little or nothing to do with the reasons why learned journals in the traditional sense are being undermined by moving them online.  To see that, consider that recent journal articles are only one small part of the panoply of academic literature to which a scholar worth his salt needs access.  The remainder is going electronic too – but in a way that limits access rather than widening it.  No university library can hold everything, but they can afford to subscribe to electronic libraries such as the holdings of JSTOR; increasingly, JSTOR and its sister organizations are the standard avenue by which academics get hold of out-of-the-way publications.  To do that, though, you have to be affiliated to a subscribing institution.  Even if one were willing to pay, JSTOR for one simply has no category of individual subscriptions.  And “affiliated” is defined very tightly.  As an MA of Cambridge University, like my predecessors down the centuries I have a lifetime entitlement to use the outstanding collections of its University Library in person, and even to borrow them and take them home – but now that Cambridge subscribes to electronic collections, I cannot use those, because the terms of the subscription do not allow Cambridge to extend access to its non-resident MAs.


This is not a personal gripe.  As it happens, after I retired from my last post at Sussex University they made me an emeritus prof, which keeps me within the charmed circle of individuals allowed to use the electronic subscriptions of that institution.  But what about people who, with plenty of intellectual energy left, retire from lower academic ranks?  What about the many people who choose other professions but find time to pursue an interest in intellectual topics? – they sometimes make particularly valuable contributions, not being blinkered by fashionable academic trends.  Benjamin Lee Whorf worked in insurance; would we not want him to have had a chance to develop the hypothesis for which he is famous?  One of the most fascinating intellectual surprises of the last few years has been the new take on the beginnings of European literature implied by the businessman Robert Bittlestone’s claims about Odysseus’s homeland (Bittlestone 2005).  As it happens I am convinced that Bittlestone is wrong (see <>), but I am quite sure that his idea was more worth exploring than a great deal of research done by professional academics. 


Perhaps most important:  when academic research has significant practical consequences for the lives of the public at large, how can they be expected to trust us if they have no opportunity to look for themselves at the material on which policies are being based?  Think for instance of the “global warming” scare, where immense  disruptions to everyday life are being advocated or even enforced by politicians on the basis of alleged scientific findings which, looked at with an open mind, seem deeply questionable if not downright dishonest (e.g. Booker 2009).  If science is actually closed to monitoring by the public at large, they will assume it’s all like that.


“But we are computational linguists”, the reader might respond; “non-professionals cannot hope to understand our work”.  Not all the internal details, perhaps; but educated outsiders ought to be able to follow the passages where we say what we are trying to do and what we claim to have achieved.  If they cannot, why are we doing it?  It is a besetting sin of computer scientists to think of their work as self-validating; if it seems worthwhile to fellow specialists, it must be worthwhile, full stop.  But computer science is one of the last subjects with the right to make a claim like that.  Mathematicians perhaps can.  The Riemann Hypothesis concerns matters which are true (or false) independently of humanity, they would have been true (or false) if our planet had never existed; so we can admire the few individuals capable of climbing to the rarefied heights where the Hypothesis is studied, even though most of us have no chance of accompanying them or understanding what they are doing.  But computers are just mechanisms built by human beings to have the behaviours that their designers chose to give them – there is no value in studying or working with them, unless one can use them to do things or find out things which are significant outside the domain of computer science itself.


When I first realized how universities were shifting towards a system which limits access to non-core literature to professionals, I was genuinely shocked; again I expected an outcry.  There has been scarcely a peep.  This destroys any suggestion that university moves towards “electronification” of literature are motivated by lofty principle.  It may be that those responsible for the recent CL decisions did have noble motives, and if so I applaud them; but in general the electronification of academic literature is being driven by purely managerial considerations.  (In Britain this came out clearly at a 2005 meeting that I have described in print elsewhere (Sampson 2006), when the publishers of scholarly journals tried to defend their corner against State research councils bent on using their control over the conditions of research grants to destroy the journals’ business model.)


It will seem paradoxical to link criticism of “open access” with objections to electronic libraries reducing access.  Paradoxical or not, these are two sides of one coin; in both cases managerial values are being allowed to defeat academic goals.  Moving current journals online undermines the community relationships which nourish the health of a discipline.  Replacing past literature holdings on paper with proprietary electronic repositories cuts professional research off from the public it purports to serve.  In both cases, what is presented to academics as a practical move to make their work more efficient, seen in a wider perspective, is a retreat from Enlightenment principles which universities used to take for granted.  It was because of those principles that the public used to be willing to support our work.





Bittlestone, Robert.  2005.  Odysseus Unbound:  the search for Homer’s Ithaca.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Booker, Christopher.  2009.  The Real Global Warming Disaster.  Continuum, London.

Hockett, Charles F.  1958.  A Course in Modern Linguistics.  Macmillan, New York.

Hudson, Richard A.  1981.  “83 things linguists can agree about”.  Journal of Linguistics 17.333–44.

Sampson, Geoffrey R.  2006.  “The death of learned journals”.  Learned Publishing 19.234–5, and at <>.

Sampson, Geoffrey R., David Gil, and Peter Trudgill, eds.  2009.  Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable.  Oxford University Press, Oxford.