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.


  1. I agree with a great deal in this statement, and as a long-time member of the MLA, I appreciate it.

    Given the context, I wonder if it might not have been, and might not be in similar contexts in the future, worth pointing out that “federally-funded research” is, bizarrely, understood by the same public that has withdrawn nearly all public funding of higher education, nevertheless to apply to all the work done by professors (even at private institutions); that, but for a very tiny number of projects supported by the NEH, almost no research done by MLA members could be accurately described as “federally-funded,” and that this is true of many if not most other Humanities professions; and that in MLA fields journal and even monograph costs are much lower (often by many orders of magnitude) than in many others.

    Finally, I’d really want to trouble the rhetoric in the statement you make–though it’s rhetoric we hear very commonly today–that humanities scholars should be be aiming away from “providing closed access to certain research products to instead facilitating the broadest possible distribution of the work done by its members.” This is unfortunately close to business-speak (of the anti-copyright businesses like Google), despite embracing “open,” a particular concern of mine. Publishing is not “closed-access” and has never, until today, been thought of that way. Publishing is what created the discipline of literary studies–it is a means for distributing, not closing off, access to work. Many MLA members publish books in the mass market. Arguably, these publishers even now provide a more permanent form of access to work than do digital distributors, for whom persistence is nowhere near as certain as printed books, even given the limited life of paper and glue. Most MLA research products are widely and “openly” available via printed materials, libraries (public and university), online, and more. I’m not saying that online distribution might not be valuable, or in many cases wider than print; I’m suggesting that we resist the rhetoric of the “traditional” and “closed” world of publishing, versus the “open” and “free” world of the internet. As you point out in several other places here, the facts are much more complex than that, and surely MLA members are in a unique position to appreciate the “open” flow of information that has been created and maintained through printing.

    1. Access might never be totally open or fully free, but there are such things as more open access and freer culture. I heed David Golumbia’s warning about leveraging (heh) corporate discourse. Publishing is indeed always public, in some sense of the word. And it is true, the old economic regime (e.g. Elsevier) is just being replaced by the new (e.g. Google). We should not, as David warns us, jump out of the fire and into another mode of economic exploitation. Fine.

      But the current system is also untenable. David, your recent (and excellent) article in Langauge Sciences is available a la carte from Elsevier for $31.50. That is an insane price, particularly when we consider that the journal is based in Cape Town, and has a strong African following. As a special bonus of crazy, Elsevier allows Language Science authors to publish open access for $USD 1100. These imbalances are easy to overlook from within a university system that expends millions to make rich resources available to its members. Meanwhile, and despite the “crisis” in academic publishing, Elsevier posted record profits in 2012, and that is in a recession year. Their stock almost doubled in the last year alone.

      Someone is getting very rich on our work, and it is not the researcher, the reviewer, or the journal editor–all of whom are working for goat droppings. This is a classic case of being alienated from one’s labor. Ten-twenty years ago middlemen like Elsevier may have had a case for some “value added” services. But today, they are not needed. The costs of publication and distribution are low enough for us to reclaim the publishing ecosystem and to experiment with fair pricing, licensing, and access schemas. Our libraries and professional organizations are close allies and natural laboratories for such efforts.

      Yes, it is true that open access, so envisioned, is uniquely suited to Google’s business model. But having control of the publishing and distribution channels means also negotiating with automated content aggregators directly. And in the best case scenario, it means generating revenues that flow back into the ecosystem, rather than out of it. You see, I am not afraid of a little corporate speak. I read Kathleen’s piece as a call to action: we must reclaim the business of scholarly communication. What we say depends on the economic conditions of how we say it.

      1. What concerns me about this reply is that it is not responsive either to the issues in Kathleen’s original post, or in my reply to it. I have a lot to say about these matters, but I don’t want to complicate issues, and I think getting too deeply into the issues raised by this reply risks that. The questions on the table are mandates, federal funding, and the notion that (non-OA) publishing is “closed.”

        I will say briefly that I disagree with your empirical assertions that online publishing costs substantially less than print does; as some other posters mention below, studies are showing that is simply untrue, for a variety of reasons, and that many non-profit and even commercial providers do add a great deal of value to their online offerings. Further, almost none of them police the distribution practices of individual professors.

        As for my Language Sciences article “Minimalism Is Functionalism,” like almost all my other publications–although it’s my only piece published by an Elsevier journal, and thus fits into my general point that that one highly profitable for-profit publisher is a serious outlier when it comes to the typical venues in which MLA authors publish–iit is available 100% free of charge through my own voluntary open access archives at my own website ( and on (, and has been downloaded from these sites many times by people all over the world, and it’s easily accessible via search engine. If my institution had a repository I’d put it there too. I am a strong supporter of voluntary open access and have long provided as much free access to my work as possible. But this is, to my mind, a different question than the mandating of open access, the disparagement of non-OA publishing as “closed,” and the insistence that MLA authors not publish in non-OA journals, all of which I think will have distinctly detrimental effects on the health of the profession in which we are engaged.

        1. Thank you for the response, David. I don’t think you need to defend your decision to publish with Language Sciences. The brunt of my message is leveled against the traditional publishing model, which is quite literally closed to most of the world, and has been thought so by many for a long time. That is explicitly contrary to some of the language in your response, and there is also no need to be coy about that.

          My worry is that in making a few finer, subtle correctives to the conversation, your comments can be misconstrued as simply advocating against reform, in support for the existing state of affairs–which I do not think is your intent. There is of course much more to say about the relationship between public funds and academic output, particularly in the humanities, and I am looking forward to having that conversation. In the meanwhile, my point stands: closed and open access are located along a spectrum of conditions that either impede or facilitate access to information. The traditional academic publishing model has tended towards the former, despite some public features (as you rightly point out, these things are not binary).

          For a nuanced discussion of publishing costs, I refer you and the readers to John Willinsky’s “Scholarly Associations and the Economic Viability of Open Access Publishing.” The overall picture is complicated, but there are obvious local efficiencies (like hosting one’s PDFs online on the cheap, for example).

          Your own practices in this regard are exemplary, but not those of Elsevier (to pick an easy target). All they’ve done is repackage your work and sell it back to your own library at a profitable markup. What exactly is the value added in that? What are these “distinctly detrimental effects on the health of the profession” that come with MLA’s support of OA publishing?

  2. Thanks you for this important statement, Kathleen. One key point needed in the discussion is that, as we all know, the work of producing research and scholarship is subsidized by tenured positions in universities which are rapidly declining and will likely continue to do so with the development of MOOCs, etc. Do we want only this group to have “publishing rights” in what MLA and other large scholarly organizations offer digitally? We need to find ways to bring the “have-nots” who can’t afford the hefty membership (even the discounted one) into these new publishing arrangements to democratize the process. Maybe membership fees should be charged for the many other services the organization provides, but not for the right to publish in the new digital resource.

  3. While I very much appreciate the dilemma in which the entire print-based publishing world finds itself, I see at least two fallacies contributing to the dilemma:

    1) “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.” The initial production costs of scholarship cannot be reduced by the Web as they consist of time and effort spent by scholars in researching and writing/packaging the results of their research. Nor is the Web free. Access to the Web costs money, which we pay personally in terms of internet access charges to Verizon, Brighthouse, etc. Businesses also pay access fees and they pay website hosting fees — cyberspace rent to house their corporate Web sites. Businesses consider these costs part of the “overhead” of doing business, which means consumers pay for the fees everytime they make a purchase. Universities pay subscription fees to databases that hire people to write algorithms that manage all the academic papers and other resources so we can easily find just the right bit of information. Students and employees of universities pay for these charges in activity and other fees, in costs of tuition, and in lower salaries. Even social media sites cost money — think of the people who develop the program and work out the bugs. See the ads on the right rail? Those are paid advertisements and are the reason most social media is still “free” to users. But all of those games are another way for SM to raise revenue…and Facebook now charges $1 to send a message to someone who is not yet your friend.

    2) “…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…” If, in order to get one’s work out to the world, organizations such as MLA must support other organizations as they seek to “meet the goals” of a government office, where does that government’s control over what work gets “out to the world” begin and end? Does this not raise the possibility of an insidious form of government censorship? How open will such access really be if the stream is dammed?

    What can we do?

    Promulgate the truth: There is no such thing as open access or free information.

    In how many different ways can we get this message out?

  4. This is an important statement coming from one of the largest scholarly societies in the humanities and the social sciences. The current academic publishing model is broken in many ways: academics provide unpaid labor to corporate for-profit publishers in the form of research (frequently publicly funded) and as reviewers, editors, advisers, and so on. We give away our authors’ rights to these publishers who then turn around and sell the products of our labor back to us (often at exorbitant prices) by way of university libraries, which are in turn required to restrict access to the publications. As a scholar at a public university whose salary is directly paid for by taxpayers, I find it especially troubling that the fruits of my labor are not publicly and universally accessible. It is therefore encouraging to see associations like the MLA take a position against this unsustainable publishing model and make a commitment to open access and to a non-profit publishing model.

  5. As a recent Comparative Literature Ph. D. who has followed an “alt-ac” career path and seen first-hand the positive impact of open access to research, I whole-heartedly support this statement.

    As it recognizes, the true history of scholarly communication is one of innovation; thus, creating a thriving future for the MLA and its members will require the kind of experimentation and adaptation it advocates, rather than conservative and fearful “hunkering down” one catches hints of in some of the previous comments.

    The original, print academic journals were delivered by horse: when cars and trucks came along, the mode of delivery switched, why shouldn’t it do so again now when the Internet gives us the possibility of reaching a potential audience of billions without anything near the distribution costs of print?

    To borrow a tweaking of that hackneyed phrase, “the Internet is not just a faster horse” (h/t Jason Priem). It is a platform that enables all manner of radical and transformative research to be created and communicated in ways that could never be captured on the printed page. But so long as we adhere to a production and access model designed for a different era and a different technology then we reduce it to being a faster horse and nothing more.

  6. > we are happy to support the NEH in its work to meet the goals of the
    > White House OSTP’s public access directive

    that’s good to hear; however it really is just compliance with the new government policy. MLA Commons seems like an interesting project in progress, but it’s somewhat auxiliary to the main point of the OSTP directive and the Open Access movement, which is move towards immediate public access for all published work.

    MLA’s policy on its publications (not MediaCommons), as I understand it currently, is to permit author self-archiving of final versions, one year after publication. The publisher version, e.g. at PMLA, is not made open, and various factors such as the lack of an established disciplinary repository mean that access to self-archived versions is likely to be patchy. This is more or less the minimal possible level of compliance with OSTP for journals.

    I would also raise the question of access to other scholarly products, such as MLA International Bibliography, a subscription product and (I understand) major revenue source for MLA. The OSTP directive’s implication for such works may be ambiguous, but it’s clear that a permanently paywalled scholarly work like this is not consistent with principles of public and shared scholarship, or open access.

    When MLA, one of the largest and apparently best-funded scholarly societies, does not commit to open access to its publications and products, it sets an example to numerous other smaller societies that they can’t or needn’t consider it either.

    Of course, I realize that organizations have budgets, supported by legacy revenue flows, and these things aren’t changed by waving of a magic wand. However, what distinguishes leaders and survivors from the many declining incumbents of the world is how readily and innovatively they adapt to change and move from endangered to growing revenue sources.

    In my view, what would show great leadership would be for MLA to establish a concrete goal of moving away from all embargoes and paywalls on all of its journals and products, show that it is vigorously exploring alternatives to the subscription access model to support them, and provide full transparency into costs and revenues so that others might study and assist the innovation/evolution. For example, many Open Access projects are looking at membership models where institutions pay to support the publishing operation, but access to the results is not restricted to members. Perhaps MLA has thoroughly explored many such options, I don’t know, but it would be good to show that access restriction is done temporarily and as a last resort, not just because it’s how it’s always been done.

    As to where the innovative new directions are, I think that discovering new ways for membership to help members network and collaborate, as you describe, is eminently promising. In fact, it sounds exactly like the presumed original function of societies, which perhaps needs to be periodically excavated from the more off-mission functions that grow up around them, such as self-preservation, status bestowal, or creation of artificial scarcity or monopoly position.

    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick Palo Alto, CA

    1. This is a remarkable response given what others have written above. The White House OSTP directive is aimed at (1) science and technology research, of which the MLA is neither, under formal, informal, disciplinary, and governmental definitions; (2) federally-funded research, which as I’ve already noted above, covers almost no research by MLA members: I can find no remarks anywhere in the OSTP directive suggesting that “immediate public access for all published work” is a goal anywhere, and to the degree that the Open Access movement supports it, the MLA should resist, not encourage it.

      As I’ve said above but would be happy to document, the number of MLA members who routinely publish in paying public venues from which they earn significant revenue is much larger than one might imagine off the top of one’s head. Doing anything to discourage or prohibit MLA members from publishing in these venues and earning income from their work can only have seriously negative effects on the profession. And suggesting that we have somehow “closed” access to the work of bestselling MLA-field authors like Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Anne Tyler, and many, many others is to ignore a reality that is staring one right in the face. If your goal truly is “immediate public access for all published work,” and by public you mean “free,” MLA members should subject that goal to serious and sustained examination before they even consider endorsing it, because it’s one of the best ways I can imagine both to defund our profession and to discourage some of the most important writers from wanting to join it.

      1. > The White House OSTP directive is aimed at (1) science and
        > technology research, of which the MLA is neither

        The descriptive language references science and technology, reflecting its origin in the OSTP office, but the concrete terms apply to “each Federal agency with over $100M in annual conduct of R&D expenditures,” which apparently includes NEH, IMLS, & Smithsonian.

        > I can find no remarks anywhere in the OSTP directive suggesting
        > that “immediate public access for all published work”

        The core principle stated in the 1st sentence is “ensuring that, to the greatest extent and with the fewest constraints possible…direct results of federally funded…research are made available to and useful for the public.” Non-immediate, i.e. embargoed access, is a constraint upon public access.

        > “[many] MLA members…routinely publish in paying
        > public venues from which they earn significant revenue….
        > Doing anything to discourage or prohibit MLA members
        > from publishing in these venues and earning income from
        > their work can only have seriously negative effects”

        I don’t think anyone in this discussion intends to discourage/prohibit that. The OSTP directive refers only to results or publicly funded research, in peer-reviewed publications. I’m suggesting that MLA move towards immediate public access for its own publications and products. That doesn’t dictate where or how MLA members have to publish all their work.

        Tim McCormick
        @tmccormick Palo Alto

  7. This strikes me as a careful, forward-thinking response to a difficult question.
    I don’t know exactly how open access should be implemented, or how scholarly societies should handle the changes it introduces. But I think the MLA is on the right track when they emphasize that the benefits of membership will lie “in participation” rather than subscription.
    I appreciate that my scholarly society is engaging this question imaginatively rather than reactively. There are probably more changes to come, but the organization seems well prepared for them.

  8. [N.B. If you are short of time, please jump to the final paragraph.]

    I applaud the MLA’s statement in support of the White House’s Memorandum on Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research (, offered this past week at a public meeting convened by the agencies subject to the Memorandum to hear from all stakeholders, including “federally funded researchers, universities, libraries, publishers, users of federally funded research results, and civil society groups [so that the agencies can] take such views into account” as they plan their responses to the Memorandum, due August 22. (I urge everyone who wants to learn more about the context within which Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s statement was given to watch the videos of the live comments and read the written responses: In the last five years I have attended several of these stakeholder meetings on public access, but this was the first time either that the National Endowment for the Humanities has been involved or that a representative from a humanities society has given a public statement. That in itself is remarkable, indicating as it does that the principle of open access reaches across all disciplines and is of importance to all federal agencies, no matter what their domains. Despite the title of the White House Memorandum, open access is no longer limited to “scientific research.”

    In the sciences, progress toward full open access has always proceeded on parallel tracks: (1) publications either devoted to or (increasingly) permitting free access to all articles (whether grant-funded or not) and (2) public access policies enacted by law or executive order focused solely on work produced as the output of research supported by a federal grant. While (simplistically) one could say that both the notion of open access publications and the push for public access to federally funded sprung conceptually and practically from the same source, Nobel laureate Harold Varmus — himself a humanist-cum-scientist ( — open access has passionate proponents in every country, in every language, in every discipline. Several of the comments above reflect this passion, but all address the challenges inherent in transforming a scholarly communication system that until now has permitted most scholars, unless they chose to become editors or professional society staff, to keep themselves at a remove from the business of publishing. Until recently there was very little conversation about the costs — monetary and educational — of the system, about who paid and who could not afford to pay, about who should (or should not) have access to the work being produced by the academy. Such discussions were rarely heard within the walls of the ivory tower or in the hallways at a society’s annual conference.

    This is no longer the case. As Kathleen points out in MLA’s statement, dramatic changes and challenges in the academy demand a rethinking of scholarly communication, and, more broadly, of the role of a scholarly society in fulfilling its mission in the 21st century — in the case of the MLA, “to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects.” Kathleen’s public comments this week on behalf of the MLA in support of the NEH making its funded research freely available — as bold as those may be in comparison with other humanities societies — is only the latest in a series of forward-thinking position statements evidencing the strong commitment of the MLA’s leadership to provide not only guidance but advocacy for its members as they navigate the rocky shoals of the profession, whether that is arguing against the marginalization of women and minorities, decrying student debt, or condemning the low pay and adjunctification of the professorate. The MLA has likewise long been a leader when it has come to scholarly communication: urging a decade ago the acceptance of electronic journals in the humanities; strongly supporting the doctrine of fair use for teaching and publishing; providing guidelines for evaluating translations, digital humanities, and digital media in hiring, reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions; or separating itself from the ill-advised Research Works Act. A year ago the MLA took the bold step of revising its author transfer agreement for its own publications, permitting authors to keep their copyright while granting the association a limited-term exclusive license for one year but at the same time allowing immediate posting of the work (upon acceptance) to a personal or departmental Web site or deposit in an institutional repository. A few months ago, MLA launched its own site, MLA Commons, to facilitate collaboration and open publication (if desired) for its members and their work. (More about the thinking behind these “first steps toward ensuring public access to the work published by the organization” can be found here: The MLA continues to take deliberate steps in embracing technology and the openness such technology can provide while at the same deliberating, in conversation with its members, how best to serve all of us. This seems to me to be exactly the right forward-thinking but balanced approach I have come to expect from this association and its leadership, and I have never been as proud to be a member of any society as I am to be a member of the Modern Language Association.

  9. Interesting post. There are at least two important changes proposed here: making scholarship as widely available as possible (so, for example, PMLA would become an open access journal), and sharing work in progress rather than waiting for it to be completely finished. As part of sharing work in progress we might also imagine sharing “data”: cleaned-up or marked-up digital versions of texts, for example.

    I think that in the end most of us would be happy to see journals be free if that were economically viable. Who wouldn’t be happier to have more readers? I think we’re all less comfortable with sharing work before it is finished — not least because we tend to think of our work on a particular article or book as something that can in fact reach completion, even as we also understand that intellectual work consists of constantly revising what others and ourselves have written. Just as the scholarly societies Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes gave rise to a new genre, the journal article, the Web has created a new genre for sharing work in progress: the blog post. I have found Ted Underwood’s blog posts to be great introductions both to the content of his research and to this innovative form for sharing work in progress.

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