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  • Language and the LSA: A reappraisal
  • Brian D. Joseph

As a longtime member, since 1976, of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), and having a firm belief in the value of the LSA, I of course find it disconcerting to hear that any member is dissatisfied with the Society. Thus I was distressed to read the letter by Sean Fulop that was recently published in this journal (Fulop 2010), since not only does he levy criticism at the LSA and at its journal, Language, but he also states that he is giving up his LSA membership. I feel compelled to respond in some way, especially since the issues raised by this letter merit the attention of all members of the LSA.

It is probably inevitable that some members will become disaffected with any society’s policies and workings, so that the adage that ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’ surely applies to the LSA and, realistically, to any such body. Yet it is to be hoped that each new generation of linguists will recognize the tangible benefits of LSA membership, such as participation in the annual meeting and the biennial Linguistic Institute, as well as the intangible benefits, such as professional identification. And, among the benefits, one needs to count the Society’s journal, despite Dr. Fulop’s very pointed criticisms of it.

In his critique, Dr. Fulop compared Language, and by extension its sponsoring society, the LSA, to (among others) Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (JASA), associated with the Acoustical Society of America, and Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal, associated with the Cognitive Science Society, and drew attention especially to the number of articles in a typical volume of Language and the number found in those other journals, and to the criteria by which articles are selected for publication.

With regard to the former, he noted that members of the LSA ‘are treated to perhaps two dozen research papers per year’, while each of the other journals in his comparison set publishes ‘many dozens of papers per year’. His interpretation of those numbers casts a highly negative light on Language, as, in his estimation, the ratio of the cost of the journal through LSA membership to the benefits of being a member is to Language’s disadvantage compared to the other societies and their associated journals.

Those criticisms deserve a response for several reasons, not the least of which is that the negative view that they offer of Language’s ‘numbers’ is not as justified as it might at first seem. Further, though, they raise broader issues about the nature and value of a scientific journal’s contents and of membership in scholarly societies more generally.

My response is based in part on aspects of the inner workings of the journal that would undoubtedly be useful for all members to know about before they engage in their own similar sort of comparative exercise. As with the comparative method in historical linguistics, about which my mentor Calvert Watkins said that the first and most crucial step is knowing what to compare, some of the comparisons made here are not as cogent as one might think.

First, the economic side of producing the journal must be considered. The LSA, based on its budget, allocates to Language the wherewithal to publish approximately 950 pages densely packed with linguistic content each year, and pages cost money to produce, from paying copyeditors to ensure that the journal’s material has a consistent and professional look to the cost of paper and shipping and such. The number of pages [End Page 906] is thus in part a function of the LSA’s resources and has to be measured against other demands on the society’s budget (the LSA Institute, for instance). There may well be ways of cutting Language-specific costs that could in principle allow for more pages and more articles, and the LSA leadership has made many steps in that direction, including this year’s ‘transition from Maryland Composition to Dartmouth Journal Services’ in regard to actual production of each issue (referred to in Carlson 2010). One means that was often mentioned when I was...


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