It was 2015 when Gary Simons knew that something had to change. That was the year spare funds started to dry up at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a Bible translation group that helped revolutionize the documentation of endangered languages in the mid–20th century. SIL’s budget had long supported Simons’s passion project: Ethnologue—or “the Ethnologue” as many researchers call it—a massive online database considered by many to be the definitive source for information on the world’s languages.
But for Simons, a computational linguist who has run Ethnologue for almost 20 years, it’s been a growing heartache. To help cover its nearly $1 million in annual operating costs, Ethnologue got its first paywall in late 2015; most nonpaying visitors were turned away after several pages. Since October 2019, the paywall has taken a new form: It lets visitors access every page, but it blots out information on how many speakers a language has and where they live. Subscriptions now start at $480 per person per year.
To pay for all that, SIL is counting on institutions, not individual subscribers. Some 40% of the world’s top 1400 schools already have subscribed, [SIL Chief Innovation Development Officer Stephen] Moitozo says, and sales teams are after the remaining 60%. SIL is also planning to sell tailored access to corporations, including business intelligence firms and Fortune 500 companies.
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