Crowdsourcing grammars, or the death of the (grammar) book. WAS: Publishing; Mouton "discounts" for ALT members

Nigel Vincent nigel.vincent at MANCHESTER.AC.UK
Wed Nov 16 08:45:34 UTC 2011

I would certainly second David's expression of gratitude to Harry for his very lucid and helpful analysis of the situation, but I would also second David's own remarks about the continuing need for books, to which I would add articles. There was a discussion a few years ago on this list that arose because of different practices in research assessment in different countries. I had at the time just been a member of a panel assessing humanities research in a number of Dutch universities and our guidance told us to concentrate on the published outputs and not on the support materials (databases, digitised manuscript collections, video material, etc). This was in direct contrast to the procedures operative in the UK's research assessment exercises which admit not just publications but all kinds of digital, video and audio material as primary outputs which can be directly assessed rather than evaluated indirectly through the publications they generate.
Things have moved on since then - in Harry's terms we are a bit further away from 1492 (with time, I assume, being measured on a logarithmic scale!). Nonetheless, there is a strong view amongst many of my colleagues in natural sciences that what count are still papers in refereed, high impact factor journals - to which in our case we can add books published by well-reputed publishing houses. What has changed however is that an increasing use is made of the web as the place to locate the datasets or other material on which the analyses are based, so that a paper will commonly have its own internal weblink, to which I as a reader and fellow researcher can have access if I wish to check the underlying data and the calculations. In short we need both data (whether in the form of databases or descriptive materials such as grammars) and analyses of data (i.e. books and articles). And for both what we need is some kitemark of quality both to secure the foundations of the scientific endeavour and also for more worldly considerations of promotion and professional advancement. The challenge remains to achieve this in a relatively cost-free way.  For, as Lindsay and others rightly remind us, there are always some costs and we have to work out how to meet those if we are to proceed with an online, open access but quality controlled venture of the kind that it seems several of us think would be worthwhile.


Professor Nigel Vincent, FBA
Honorary Professor of General & Romance Linguistics
The University of Manchester

Vice-President for Research & HE Policy, The British Academy

School of Languages, Linguistics & Cultures
The University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL

(+ 44) (0)161 275 3194

From: Discussion List for ALT [LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG] on behalf of David Gil [gil at EVA.MPG.DE]
Sent: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 7:40 AM
Subject: Re: Crowdsourcing grammars, or the death of the (grammar) book. WAS: Publishing; Mouton "discounts" for ALT members

Dear all,

I'm sure I speak for many of us in expressing my gratitude to Harry
Howard for presenting an illuminating and well-thought-through
outsider's perspective on the issues facing us all.

I have just one comment on one passage from his message:
> Let us move along to #3. Is a printed book really an easily accessible
> form? Maybe in 1492, but not today. "Accessible" can be understood as
> meaning two things here: making the work easy for many people to
> access, and making the information that it contains easy to access.
> Certainly the distributed networking that I mentioned in #2 makes it
> easier for people to access the work than having a printed book
> sitting on a shelf somewhere. But it also makes the information more
> easily accessible, especially is the information is entered into a
> database, as in the Romani Database that Yaron Matras mentioned. Such
> information is almost infinitely rearrangeable and thus lends itself
> to finding new patterns which may have never even been imagined when
> the database was designed. Have you tried to rearrange the lines of
> text on a printed page recently, to suit your needs? Or done a keyword
> search on it? Thus I don't even advocate the pdf/ebook solution that
> some have argued for as the next step in the evolution of the grammar
> book. The next step isn't a book; it is to record the linguistic facts
> in the most flexible format possible (a database) and let the user
> choose the display of the data that best fits her needs. In an app on
> her laptop or mobile phone.
I think many linguists are by now completely convinced that databases
are a wonderful tool that can be used in many ways that would have been
completely inconceivable just a few short decades ago.  (Personally
speaking, I think it would be fair to say that FileMaker Pro is perhaps
my favourite application these days.)

Nevertheless, I would disagree that databases can or should replace a
narrative text such as a grammar book whose most appropriate
representation is (to the best of my knowledge) still in formats such as
Word and Pdf.  What we do, as linguists, is not just collecting and
organizing linguistic data, but also constructing generalizations and
theorizing on the basis of such data.  Spinning a story, if you will.
This is how our minds work, this is how we think.  And the stories that
we spin necessarily assume the form of a text, written in a language
that we assume our prospective addressees will be able to read.  To
which other linguists respond with other texts.

Now clearly, there will be, and in fact already are, new developments in
how such texts are represented.  For example, moving from dead trees to
silicon enables us to create and consume hypertext, in which the
narrative is no longer embedded in a single linear progression.  (This
is what footnotes do in a rudimentary fashion, but hypertext will do
this much better.)   But as I see it, such hypertexts will still be more
like today's books than today's (or tomorrow's) databases.

So to conclude, databases are wonderful, but we'll still continue to
need books.  Almost certainly our books will evolve, both in material
form and internal structure; but some descendant of today's books will
continue to be around, and to be used, by linguists (and presumably
other scientists) alongside our databases.

In particular, if I wish, at some point in the future, to get a quick
(or not so quick) picture of some unfamiliar language, I would still
like to have at my disposal not just a database to work with, but also
an introduction to the language, in text form, produced by a linguist
who has already invested time and energy into thinking about how the
language works — in other words, a 21st century version of a grammar by
Mouton or some other publisher.


> So #1 is still preserved, but what about #4? What role does a
> grammarian play in a crowd-sourced grammar app with a database
> backend? Well, there's a buzzword for that, too – it's (digital)
> curation. From Wikipedia, "Digital curation is the selection,
> preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital
> assets. Digital curation is generally referred to the process of
> establishing and developing long term repositories of digital assets
> for current and future reference by researchers, scientists,
> historians, and scholars." Isn't that what you are working to achieve?
> You will have to learn some new skills, but they are very marketable
> skills.
> Where my clairvoyance fails me is in the second half of #4. How will
> resources be marshalled to supply a cadre of experts who will anoint
> your efforts at digital grammatical curation as being worthy of
> institutional recognition and advancement? I don't really know. The
> analogy to the situation in print is to sell access to the database.
> Perhaps on a sliding scale. I don't know.
> What I do know is that curating a crowd-sourced grammar app with a
> database backend may sound like exotic science fiction to people like
> me in their fifties. But if you ask a twenty-something how to do
> create a grammar, she will respond by saying, how else would you do
> it? You wouldn't have a single person try to write it down on paper,
> would you? That's so 1492.
> Un servidor,
> Harry
> On Nov 15, 2011, at 11:37 AM, Don Killian wrote:
>> Hi all,
>> In about 3 years time, I'll be one of those documentary linguists, so
>> this question is very pertinent for me.  I don't necessarily have to
>> publish my grammar in a place which is prestigious, particularly if
>> it limits access of my work only to individuals working in wealthy
>> institutions, but I would like to have it published in a place which
>> is peer-reviewed and respected.  If I were to publish with Mouton,
>> the current prices may mean that my grammar would be read by very few
>> people, or pirated instead.  This is not to disparage Mouton; I hold
>> Uri in the highest regard, and when I've interacted with Mouton
>> before they've always been helpful and courteous, even when I've
>> brought up the subject of prices directly to the company.
>> Furthermore, there are some excellent grammars published in the MGL
>> series... classics which have been cited or quoted thousands of times.
>> However, my linguistic consultants have already expressed interest in
>> a copy of my grammar when it's finished, and they unfortunately would
>> not have the financial means to legally purchase the book at current
>> prices.. even with free author copies, my consultants would more than
>> likely not be the only interested members of the community unable to
>> afford it.  People in Sudan and Ethiopia can afford books at 10-20
>> USD, but not 200, and I don't want to have to make a choice between
>> my career and the language community I worked with.
>> These are fairly weighty topics we're discussing, and I'd like to
>> hear more opinions from the famous/well-respected linguists about
>> this subject, as they will be the ones to make the most difference in
>> terms of publishing outlets.  I realize that they also tend to be the
>> busiest, but this discussion impacts our entire field in a rather
>> significant way.  No matter how excited, hard-working, and organized
>> young linguists are, we simply won't be able to break through the
>> tradition enough to create online publishing resources without the
>> help of established scholars.
>> Some have already made suggestions, but many others have remained
>> quiet, such as Ian Maddieson and Matthew Dryer.  I hope it's not rude
>> to ask people so directly involved, but I'd really like to hear your
>> opinions. And Frans, since you are involved with Linguistic Typology,
>> I'd like to hear your thoughts as well about quality publishing at
>> more affordable costs?  Do people like Martin's ALT champions league,
>> or are there alternate views?
>> Bill mentioned being pessimistic about breaking tradition, but I
>> don't see it as necessarily breaking tradition.  If the
>> tradition-establishers voice their opinions and become involved,
>> change could happen more quickly, yet peacefully, than could
>> otherwise be expected.
>> Best,
>> Don
>> On 11/15/2011 06:24 PM, Bill Croft wrote:
>>> Nigel's proposal is what will eventually have to happen. It happened in
>>> physics, quite rapidly in fact; but that is a different field. (And
>>> <> has submitted papers, not accepted
>>> ones; so you still have to
>>> plough through the chaff as well as the wheat to keep current.) It is
>>> happening painfully slowly in the humanities. Print journals still
>>> dominate - "Linguistic Discovery" and "Constructions" are pretty
>>> moribund. Consider the documentary linguist wanting to publish a
>>> grammar: given her/his need to have a good publication venue to get
>>> tenure, will s/he publish with a long-established prestigious publisher
>>> whose grammar series is edited by Bernard Comrie, Georg Bossong and
>>> Matthew Dryer, or will s/he go to an untested online publisher whose
>>> editors are not the very top typologists in the field? The same goes
>>> with other linguistics subfields and publishers (it's going to be hard
>>> to match the cachet of OUP and CUP, and the editors they are able to
>>> attract).
>>> Sorry to be pessimistic, but it's going to be hard to break tradition. I
>>> fear things will get worse before they get better. I personally don't
>>> want to see hardcopy publishing of scholarly research go away, and would
>>> like to see it made somehow more affordable (e.g. print on demand in a
>>> paperback format, as CUP has done for its out of print titles). I will
>>> support or join efforts to move to a better publication model than the
>>> current one for individual scholars. But it will take time, maybe a long
>>> time.
> ***************************************************************
> Harry Howard, Associate Professor
> Dept. of Spanish & Portuguese
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> "Skeptics are neither cynics nor spoilsports. They do not carry
> stunted genes for wonder and awe. We are awash in wonder and awe. It
> is just that we prefer being awed by the truly awesome and to wonder
> at the truly wonderful. We aren't interested in wasting our time on
> the artificial, the phony, and the illusory. The defining
> characteristic of skeptics, the diagnostic field mark, is not the
> absence of wonder and awe, it is the refusal to go off half-cocked."
> Eirik A.T. Blom, Seeking the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-3550321 Fax: 49-341-3550119
Email: gil at

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