ALT Grammar Incubator

Marie-Stephan Spronck stephan.spronck at ANU.EDU.AU
Wed Nov 16 03:47:58 UTC 2011

Hi Sebastian,

Just a few quick comments on the idea of an 'ALT Grammar Incubator'.

Think this is an interesting idea and this type of repository would be perfect for at least one type of descriptive grammars; shelved grammar projects. It would be interesting to see how many sketch grammars and unfinished descriptive grammars are sitting in drawers of senior academics that for lack of time or funding never reached publication. Putting these up in an online repository would both be valuable for researchers interested in working on the respective language and for cross-linguistic comparison.

But given that many (possibly even a majority?) of descriptive grammars are now being written by early career academics, I think there are a number of issues with publishing ongoing research in the way you proposed: 

- publication and copyright issues; this is probably the most obvious one: given the pressure on junior academics to publish as much as possible on the basis of their PhD-thesis (i.e. the grammar), I think it would take a lot of courage and nobility to publically post drafts of the very basis of future papers. Writing on a single specific language for a general linguistic audience can be problematic as it is. Of course this could be remedied by strict citation guidelines, but I'm not so sure that a look-don't-touch policy would be effective.

-  too many doctors speeding up 'incubation' can produce unhealthy growth; apologies for the slightly disgusting metaphor, but I think 'incubation' is actually a really important part of the grammar writing process. Writing a grammar is the gargantuan task of trying to comprehensively describe every single aspect of a language and this means constantly revisiting and revising analyses in the light of new discoveries. The final grammar is the best attempt of the grammar writer to cope with all the problems the language poses and opening up preliminary analyses for discussion before the grammar writer has fully formed proposals and hypotheses is, I think, not necessarily beneficial to either the writing process or information sharing. Publishing pre-final analyses can easily lead to the distibution of misinformation, so that preliminary publication would be detrimental to the quality of the data rather than raising it. 

- sharing data with a third party before the directly involved parties; the communities in which descriptive work is taking place are increasingly an active part of the documentation process. Certainly here in Australia it would be unthinkable to do recording and elicitation in an Aboriginal community without properly paying language consultants, being open about how you are using the data and thinking about how the language description and documentation project will benefit the local community. This generally also involves clear agreements about how the researcher is going to publish the data and publication of data in an unexpected place can lead to explosive breaches of trust. Another major party is, of course, the funding body, which is often an external organisation. Distributing data is conditioned by their terms.

That said, I think that any attempt to encourage ever more interaction between typologists and fieldworkers is positive, but for a truly bi-directional interaction it would probably more have to take the form of e.g. a problem posting 'typologist-seeks-fieldworker'/'fieldworker-seeks-typologist' type of notice board. But then again, I think this list is already an excellent platform for that purpose.


----- Original Message -----
From: Sebastian Nordhoff <sebastian_nordhoff at EVA.MPG.DE>
Date: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 3:39 am
Subject: ALT Grammar Incubator

> Dear all,
> just copying the structure of a publisher of manuscript 
> acquisition, evaluation, and distribution will probably not 
> work. There is a reason why Mouton employs a full time editor 
> for linguistics, several secretaries etc. The reason is that it 
> is a hell lot of work to do all those things. If we try to set 
> up Yet Another Publishing House, we are likely to a) be less 
> professional and b) have *higher* running costs than Mouton with 
> their centuries of know-how.
> Basically, when the manuscript is ready for top quality 
> publication, it is too late. Chances are very low that 
> researchers will forgo the chance of getting a prestige 
> publication in return for good karma alone when the camera-ready 
> copy is there. Fortunately for us, it can take forever to get 
> your grammar out (writing, revising, formatting), and this is 
> what ALT can use as a starting point. Speed of dissemination can 
> be the USP (Unique Selling Proposition)  of an ALT Grammar 
> Repository.
> This means that we have to get the manuscripts earlier, i.e. in 
> early draft stage.
> One such possibility would be the "ALT Grammar Incubator". This 
> would be a place where grammar writers can deposit preliminary 
> versions of their grammars and publish revisions as their 
> analyses gain maturity. This incubator would have feedback 
> mechanisms where readers can suggest alternative analyses or new 
> directions of research. This is a win-win situation for readers 
> and writers: readers get to see bleeding edge data of the 
> languages being worked on, and authors get invaluable feedback 
> from expert readers.
> Best
> Sebastian
> On Tue, 15 Nov 2011 12:18:36 +0100, Christian Lehmann 
> <christian.lehmann at> wrote:
> >Dear Nigel and everybody,
> >
> >that is exactly the proposal that I have been waiting for and 
> would have made myself. I am willing to cooperate in your 
> working group.
> >
> >Just a few thoughts:
> >
> >1) Apart from a few idealists, most of those colleagues who 
> have the necessary standing to draw prestige to the online 
> linguistics publishing facility and are "prepared to be tough in 
> terms of peer review and quality selection" would want some kind 
> of remuneration for their service. That's the way this world is; 
> we know it from experience with people who are on editorial or 
> advisory boards of journals and series. That remuneration is not 
> necessarily money, although that option would always work if 
> money is available. The problem is that it detracts from the 
> outspoken goal of making such publications freely available.
> >
> >2) One might therefore think of a model where a member of that 
> online publishing board takes on the duty of reviewing one book 
> or two articles every two years and gets some (immaterial) 
> benefit in return. (Ideas wanted of what that might be.)
> >
> >3) Since your idea in itself is exactly what is needed, I 
> assume that there will be, in the mid-run, more than one such 
> online linguistics publishing facility. In order to get the idea 
> running, it might be useful to allocate it rather highly. I 
> offer to submit it to the CIPL Executive Committee, if that 
> seems reasonable to members of your working group. CIPL fulfills 
> a couple of presuppositions for that role:
> >- It is international and, indeed, in charge of a couple of 
> permanent agenda on behalf of linguists worldwide.
> >- It has a certain prestige (although not quite the prestige 
> that it ought to have).
> >- It has a certain infrastructure (although, again, that aspect 
> remains improvable).
> >- It disposes of some money (although, again, ...) and might 
> have the possibility to raise some more.
> >
> >Best,
> >Christian

Stef Spronck
PhD Scholar

Linguistics, School of Culture, History and Language,
College of Asia and the Pacific, Coombs Building  #9 ,
The Australian National University,
Canberra, ACT 0200 Australia
t: + 61 2 6125 3288
f: + 61 2 6125 1463

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