publishing typological databases

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Fri Apr 13 14:21:54 UTC 2007

Dear typologists,

Last week at an informal meeting of the European Typology Network in 
Leipzig, we discussed the issue of publishing typological databases. In 
the past, this was a practical problem, because journals and book 
publishers were reluctant to print many pages of tabular data. The basic 
practical problem has disappeared with modern information technology, 
but many problems remain, and it would be good if typologists made a 
joint effort to address them.

Traditional paper publication simultaneously fulfills at least four 
distinct functions:

(i) giving *recognition* (or even prestige) to a researcher's work, so 
that they can list it on their CV as the visible outcome of their work

(ii) *citability*, i.e. allowing users of published work to build on 
this work without having to vouch for it personally, without having to 
mention all the details, etc.

(iii) *accessibility*, i.e. allowing users in many different places (in 
principle, at any institution devoted to research, and beyond) to access 
the results of the work

(iv) *standardization*, i.e. things like uniform glossing, 
bibliographical references, section organization, or even uniform 
terminology (in some particular context, e.g. an edited volume)

All of these functions are important also for typological databases, but 
while some progress has been made with regard to (iii) (accessibility), 
the other requirements (recognition, citability, and standardization) 
still need a lot of thinking and work on our part. You can access some 
typological databases such as the Surrey morphology databases 
(, the Berlin-Utrecht Reciprocals Survey 
(, the Graz Reduplication 
database (, but these websites 
generally don't say how to cite data from these databases, so they do 
not give enough recognition to the authors.

Standardization has been addressed by the Typological Database System 
(, and this project additionally aims 
for a fifth function, *cross-searchability*, that was not possible with 
traditional paper publication at all.

Another problem is how to divide databases into units: Some databases 
(such as the database of the World Atlas of Language Structures, which 
will become available on the web in 2008) are aggregates of datasets 
contributed by many different authors, which should be citable 
separately. Also for the databases created by a smaller team, it may be 
desirable to specifiy more precisely which author did what. In 
traditional paper publications, we had two kinds of units, articles and 
books, which could be single-authored or multi-authored (occasionally 
with some ranking of the authors). Maybe it would be desirable to allow 
more different units, and more different roles (e.g. content provider 
vs. database designer?).

Any ideas how typologists should go about solving these problems?


Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6	
D-04103 Leipzig      
Tel. (MPI) +49-341-3550 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616

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