Saying the right things, then doing them

It is a sign of how behind I am in my reading that over lunch last week I finally got around to reading the speech/blog post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick about “Giving it Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communications.”  It is an  eloquent statement about how open access and the sharing of scholarship is really simply an extension of the core values of academia.  In the process of making that point, however, Fitzpatrick, who is Director of Scholarly Communications for the Modern Language Association, covers a lot of very practical ground, and the speech brims with passages that elegantly express what many of us wish we had said.

There are three points I want to pull out from Fitzpatrick’s talk, because they are relevant to what else I want to talk about:

First, she very neatly expresses the key point about dissemination of scholarship in a digital age when she writes that “Open access … is the cornerstone of the scholarly project: scholarship is written to be read and to influence more new writing.”  She goes on to quote the Budapest Open Access Initiative to the effect that the very old tradition of scholars sharing the fruits of their research without payment has now converged with a new technology, the Internet, to permit much greater impact at lower cost.  Access barriers that were necessary in the age of printed works simply are not needed any longer, and it is now more possible than ever to “share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich.”

Second, Fitzpatrick makes a powerful argument that open access is not a threat to the humanities, but may be their best hope.  She directly addresses the fear of a public who are often scornful of much of humanistic scholarship, which sometimes leads scholars to think about their audience as only a select group of fellow specialists.  To this reaction she replies,

 Closing our work away from non-scholarly readers, and keeping our conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it can’t protect us from public apathy, a condition that is, in the current economy, far more dangerous.

Improved access and impact, in short, are  good things for both individual scholars and, ultimately, their disciplines.

Finally, Fitzpatrick also addresses the complaint that open access business models are not sustainable.  She returns, by way of a response, to the argument Larry Lessig made some time ago that in the digital age it is not content that will be marketable as such, but services created around content that will be freely available.  Since Lessig outlined this “freemium” model, its success has been underscored many times, by companies like Red Hat, Dropbox and WordPress.

This last point in particular was in my mind when I heard, shortly after reading the speech, that the MLA was planning to change its publication agreement with authors in order to allow them to retain their copyright and to self-archive their final manuscripts in open access repositories.  It is great to see the largest of scholarly societies not only say the right things, but to put the values they espouse, which are, as Fitzpatrick reminds us, the basic values of the scholarly endeavor, into practice.  According to this article about the announcement in Inside Higher Ed, the immediate response to this change from literary scholars has been very positive.  And my favorite quote from that article reinforces Fitzpatrick’s discussion of providing services rather than trying to monopolize content.  In response to fears that self-archiving would undermine journal subscriptions, the MLA’s Executive Director said this:

We believe the value of PMLA is not just the individual article, but the curation of the issue. PMLA regularly includes thematic issues or issues where articles relate to one another. While there will be value in reading individual articles, that does not replace the journal. Further, the individual articles posted elsewhere could attract interest to the journal.

The MLA’s announcement, I think, poses important propositions that the scholarly world should consider.  Time will tell how the move plays out, and, as a lawyer, I would like to see the text of the new agreement.  But at least we can consider these three positive statements, rather than their negative counterparts that we so often hear, as the foundation of conversation going forward:

  1. Open access is not only possible, but is even vitally important, in the humanities.
  2. Open access, especially in its “green” form of author self-archiving, is not a threat to scholarly societies.
  3. The value of organized publishing efforts is in the services they provide around the content, not in the content itself (which, of course, the publishers do not create).

In regard to the scholarly content created by academics, Fitzpatrick’s speech is a reminder that closed-access publishing actually diminishes the value of such works, because that value depends on more readers and greater impact.  Scholarship no one can read has no value at all, obviously.  With their new publication agreement, the MLA is launching an experiment in increasing the value of literary scholarship by returning control over it to the authors.  They, after all, are in the best position to make decisions about what forms of dissemination best serve their own interests and those of humanistic studies in general.