Asleep at the wheel at Zombie Lingua?

[This post is co-authored by Eric Bakovic and me, cross-posted from Language Log.]

We have been following an ongoing story involving Zombie Lingua with great interest. For those unaware of it, and perhaps for those with only some awareness of it, here is what we currently know.

It will help to start by identifying the main characters in this story:

OK, here we go.

On Sept. 1, Youssef shared via Facebook his strong suspicions that an article-in-press at Zombie Lingua (“Monophthongization in Bedouin Jordanian Arabic: A unified analysis of Metrical model and Optimality theory“), authored by Mashaqba & Huneety, significantly plagiarizes Youssef’s own work; specifically, a 2010 article published in Zeitschrift für Arabische Linguistik (“Against Underlying Mid Vowels in Cairene Arabic“, a revised version of which appeared in his 2013 University of Tromsø PhD dissertation (“Place Assimilation in Arabic: Contrasts, Features, and Constraints“).

On Sept. 17, Youssef shared via Facebook a 13-page plagiarism complaint that he had submitted to Zombie Lingua’s editorial office a week earlier, with a copy of the message sent to the editor’s personal email address. Youssef notes in this post that he had yet to receive any kind of response, and that he had finally reached someone at Elsevier via their support center live chat. In a comment on the post, Youssef reports that the editor finally responded with a message saying that they take plagiarism “very seriously” and that they would investigate, very soon after which they sent Youssef’s complaint directly to Mashaqba & Huneety, giving them 30 days to respond to it.

Even though Youssef appears to be, quite understandably, rattled by this whole situation, he reports that he is cautiously optimistic about this most recent development. On the other hand, Youssef has very legitimate concerns about the extent of the problem that he has uncovered here. In a later comment on the Sept. 17 Facebook post, he reports with dismay his finding that Mashaqba & Huneety have published another article this month (“Emphatic segments and emphasis spread in rural Jordanian Arabic“, Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 7(5), pp. 294-298) that may also involve some plagiarism of Youssef’s dissertation. Youssef appears to us to be taking appropriate steps to handle this larger problem, and we support him in his efforts. In the case of the ultimate resolution with Zombie Lingua and Mashaqba & Huneety, we share his optimism, and equally cautiously.

So, that’s where we’re currently at.

Our main concern here is with the conditions at Zombie Lingua that we believe have also significantly contributed to this particular situation. In a post just last month, one of us (Kai) went through the peer-reviewed articles that Zombie Lingua had published since January 2016 up to that point, and based on their submission receipt, revision receipt, and acceptance dates, concluded there is probably not much if any editorial oversight going on over at Zombie Lingua. This is not terribly surprising, given the make-up of the interim editorial board that Elsevier has cobbled together: it is quite simply not representative of the breadth of the field, which stands in sharp contrast with the stated mission of the journal.

The journal is devoted to the problems of general linguistics. Its aim is to present work of current interest in all areas of linguistics. Contributions are required to contain such general theoretical implications as to be of interest to any linguist, whatever their own specialisation.

[Side-note, perhaps for another time: several of the articles now appearing in Zombie Lingua seem to us to be quite outside the scope of this mission.]

Which brings us to Mashaqba & Huneety’s article-in-press. The original submission was received on November 16, 2015, revisions were received on May 14, 2016, and it was accepted on July 7, 2016. Lingua‘s prior (and Glossa‘s current) editor-in-chief, Johan Rooryck, has stated for the record that his editorial team did not handle this submission. Rooryck has further explained to us that unsolicited manuscripts submitted in mid-November 2015 and later were left for the new team to handle, to ensure some continuity in the review process. (Rooryck’s editorial team had officially announced its imminent departure in October 2015.)

So, the new editorial team sent Mashaqba & Huneety’s submission out for review, shepherded it through revisions, and accepted it. How was the plagiarism not detected at any point in this process? A big part of the answer to this question, we believe, is the lack of a proper phonology editor. Not one of the members of the current board can be described as someone who is current in phonology, someone who would know (or know of) the right people to ask to review any submission — reviewers who would be in the best possible position to ferret these problems out before they reach this stage (in case the editors themselves are not).

[Update, 9/30/2016: Thanks to Philip Spaelti and Wataru Uegaki for noting that Haruo Kubozono is a phonologist now on Zombie Lingua‘s board. We believe that Kubozono was quite likely not on the board when this paper would have first been sent out for review; one of us (Eric) has checked the editorial board page intermittently since January, and didn’t notice Kubozono’s name on the list until July. It’s of course possible that Kubozono was on the board earlier than that.]

The conclusion we draw from this fiasco is that Zombie Lingua is limping blindly along, and that linguists with the right (that is, wrong) incentives may feel reasonably justified in thinking that their submissions to Zombie Lingua will receive little if any thoughtful review or editorial push-back. This has long been the accusation hurled at so-called “predatory journals”, and it is clearly now available for hurling at a high-cost subscription journal brought to you by a “reputable” publisher.

However, so long as there are sharp eyes and brave souls like Islam Youssef in our community — and so long as Zombie Lingua‘s editorial team and Elsevier do the right thing in response to complaints like his — the push-back needed in cases like this one at least stands a small chance of being successful.

Written on Permanent link to this article.