Open Source Linguistics

Marc van Oostendorp

(This appeared in GLOT, October 2001 (only accessible for members))

One of the pleasures of being a scholar is that one does not need to keep secrets. Working in the academia means being free to communicate to your collaborators, your colleagues, and possibly, even the general public what your ideas are. Most of us do not have to live on the revenues from our books and articles. We get a salary, and therefore we can give everything away for free.

So that is what most of us do. We invest many hours of our time in writing articles and books, and in reviewing and editing the work of our peers. After this, we give the results of all this hard work away, to commercial publishers who put a cover around the book or journal and sell it to our libraries.

Everybody in the field knows that books get more and more expensive. Everybody has signed contracts in which they basically give away their copyrights to a publisher. All of this happens while an alternative has been around for a while - in the form of electronic publishing, in particular via the Internet. But this alternative has hardly been used until now.

In this article I discuss a few examples of what has been done, and of what remains to be done.

Linguist List

Of course, we have the Linguist List, probably the most widely read publication in the field. The Linguist List sets a paradigm in that it is open to every linguist in the world in two ways. In the first place, it is free - everybody with a connection to either e-mail or the web, can read it. Every once in a while, readers are asked to donate some money to the list, and fortunately, many of them do so. In this way the editorial assistants get paid for their work. In the second place, it is used by linguists within virtually all possible subdisciplines and theoretical paradigms to announce conferences, ask questions, and advertise job openings.

It is important that such an open-minded journal exists, if only because many linguists are interested in more than just one subdiscipline. Such a forum could only exist on the Internet. Nobody would bother to subscribe to a paper journal of which he or she reads five percent at most. This is no problem for the readers of a website of the e-mail list. You only need to read the jobs section if you are looking for a new job, or have students who are looking for a new job.

I think all linguistic publications should be free, as far as this is possible. We all know that the work we are doing may not be of direct practical use, but the work has a cultural value. In every civilization there ought to be people thinking about something as fundamental as human language - and share their thoughts with others.

Preprint archives

The Linguist List is an indispensible tool for researchers, but it is not a scientific journal. The results of linguistic inquiries are hardly ever published in it. The most well-known place where this is done, mostly for phonology, is the Rutgers Optimality Archive. This archive - which opened in 1994 - now contains hundreds of manuscripts of articles and books (mostly doctoral dissertations) on linguistics. As a matter of course, it is restricted to one theoretical paradigm, Optimality Theory. It is a pity that equivalents to ROA for, say, minimalism, or even better, general archives without any specific theoretical focus, are still missing.

This is apparently very different in the natural sciences; it seems to be the case that almost every physical paper is available in some electronic archive long before it is published in a journal (see e.g. the Mathematical Physics Preprint Archive at the University of Texas; this is only one among the many online archives in that field).


It is even harder to find peer-reviewed journals in online editions. As a matter of fact, they do not seem to exist at all in the public domain. All of the most well-known journals appear in a printed edition. Some of them have a few sample articles for public consumption; some of them are accessible in electronic version for subscribers who have a password. But there are no peer reviewed journals which are available for free, as far as I know.

There are a few exceptions. Led Edizioni publishes the journal Snippets, which only appears online, is edited by Carla Cecchetto, Caterina Donati and Orin Percus, and contains short pieces with unobserved and unsolved puzzles for generative syntax and formal semantics, and which should be compared to `the earliest Linguistic Inquiry squibs', according to the editors.

The general quality of the contributions is quite high and I think the issues which appeared so far (the journal started in January 2000 and appears twice a year) live up to the standards the editors set themselves. Still, this can be in no way compared to the state of the field in the natural sciences, where electronic publications abound.

Festschrift for Chomsky

Another good example of an electronic collection of research papers is the festschrift for Chomsky which appeared in December 1998, with over 200 contributions, from linguists all over the world. The book was not reviewed, and everybody who wished to do so was free to contribute. The fact that so many people found their way to this site, shows that it is possible to set up such a book, and attract people to it. It is a pity that not more books of this type have appeared since then. (It should be added that this festschrift appeared on the web server of The MIT Press.)

Another initiative which looked very promising was the online conference on Geometric and Thematic Structure in Binding, which took place in October 1996, and which contained papers and discussion by many outstanding scholars. It was organized by the LINGUIST List, and announced as the `1st Online LINGUIST Conference', but a second conference has not seen the light of day until now.

Information for a larger audience

Most linguists would probably agree that we have a task towards the general audience as well. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few talented writers among linguists - people like Steven Pinker and Neil Smith who have written bestselling books on formal linguistics. It is a pity that there are no real introductions at this level to be found on the web. Just like it is a pity that there are no good international journals on the web in which the interested reader can get acquainted with the results of and ideas in linguistic research.

There are several arguments not to publish an electronic journal, and none of them holds true. One of them is that electronic publications enjoy a lower status than paper publications. The problem with this argument is that the status of a form of publication is a social factor that can be changed by the community, if the community wishes to do that. Another argument against publication of electronic journals is that commercial publishers would not be very happy when their material is given away for free. The problem with this argument is that there is no real reason why the linguistic community would need commercial publishers to communicate among themselves. Most of the work on editing the journal is done by researchers; the example of the Linguist List showed that a commercial editor is not really necessary for `distribution' or `marketing' of journals.

We have lots of valuable materials to offer, and most of us are in a position in which we could offer them. I think this is what we should do.

I may be too pessimistic. My ideal is that linguistic information at all levels would be available online; that somebody could start out on the web as an interested outsider, and would find enough material online that, if he or she was sufficiently persistent and talented, could end up publishing an article in Linguistic Inquiry. And that this article would be freely accessible to everybody who might want to read it. My ideal is one of Open Source Linguistics: all relevant information is available for free for everyone who is interested. We are still very far away from that ideal. On the other hand, many things are happening. I have not mentioned the many projects for putting databases on the web; I will return to these in a separate contribution to the Goodies section. I also know that there are lots of plans for projects, which I have not mentioned in this article, because they have not materialized yet. (I will mention just one example: the Syntactic Companion (SynCom), edited by Martin Everaert and Henk van Riemsdijk, an encyclopedia in which case studies on virtually all topics in syntactic theory are covered by specialists.) Also, I have not gone into all the efforts that many people take in making class notes, etc. available on their websites. Many things are happening - but more could be happening still.