Statement on Public Access to Federally Funded Research

On 14 and 15 May 2013, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a public comment meeting concerning public access to federally supported research-based publications. Kathleen Fitzpatrick presented the following statement on behalf of the Modern Language Association.

Since the Royal Society of London, learned and professional societies have been founded precisely in order to help facilitate communication among members and between their members and the broader public. That communication developed into the form of the scholarly journal, which accrued a number of formal publishing processes, including editing and peer review, that marked it as an authoritative resource for knowledge in its field. Such resources came to be valued not only by the members of the society but also by a broader range of scholars, researchers, and students; as a result, research libraries collected these journals and made them available to their patrons.

This system was stable for some time: scholars joined societies in order to access those societies’ resources; societies were supported in their work not only by their members but also by libraries, whose subscriptions extended the reach of those resources. Funds generated through membership dues and subscriptions enabled societies not only to fulfill their mission of facilitating scholarly communication but also to support members in developing professional practices and standards, to advocate on behalf of the field within institutions and on the national and international scene, and so on.

Things have changed in recent years, however, and the development of new communication technologies is only one of those changes. Scholars’ professional lives have become increasingly precarious as employment conditions in colleges and universities have dramatically worsened; as a result, many scholars are unable to commit resources to membership in professional societies. University and research libraries’ budgets have been strained by often exorbitant subscriptions to commercially produced journals; as a result, those libraries are decreasingly able to help support the not-for-profit societies to which the scholars at their institutions belong. Societies are faced with declining memberships, increasing publishing costs, and diminishing subscription revenue; as a result, many societies have turned to larger publishers as a means of sustaining their communication programs and supporting their other functions.

Into this already complex set of competing interests and needs, enter the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web. The web was, like scholarly societies, invented for the express purpose of supporting communication amongst researchers. The difference, of course, is that the web permits any individual scholar with server access and a little bit of technical ability to share his or her work directly with the world, seemingly reducing the need for the collectives historically provided by scholarly societies. Moreover, the web reduces the reproduction costs – if not the production costs – of scholarship to near zero, further diminishing everyone’s willingness to pay for such work. And polarization sets in: the Internet wants all information to be freely and openly available; scholarly societies, needing membership and subscription revenue to survive, want to control access to the work they produce.

These constituencies in scholarly communication have largely talked past one another in recent days, but we at the MLA strongly believe that this need not be so. We all – scholars, libraries, and societies – share the goal of increasing the wealth of knowledge that we hold in common. And if we focus on that collective goal, a viable path forward can be forged.

There is still reason for some benefits of membership in a scholarly society to be exclusive to members if we rethink the role of the scholarly society in the digital age. The shifts that I have described require us to consider the possibility that the locus of a society’s value in the process of knowledge creation may be moving from providing closed access to certain research products to instead facilitating the broadest possible distribution of the work done by its members. This is a profound change, and not just for societies but for their members: we may in coming years operate under a model in which, rather than joining in order to receive the society’s journal, one instead joins a society in order to get one’s own work out to the world, surrounded by and associated with the other work done by experts in the field.

The value of joining a scholarly society in the age of open, public web-based communication, then, may be in participation. At the MLA, we have developed a platform through which our members can collaborate with one another, conduct group discussions, and share their work freely with the world. We are working with our members to develop a set of new professional practices and standards for such open, publicly accessible communication – new modes of editing, new forms of peer review – and we are committed to the idea that the role of the society in the years ahead will be to support those new practices, to promote the work done by our members, and to create the broadest possible public understanding of the importance of such work for our collective future. For this reason, we are happy to support the National Endowment for the Humanities in its work to meet the goals of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s public access directive, and we look forward to collaborating with the NEH in building a robust, open infrastructure for publicly accessible scholarship.