MLA and open scholarly communication

Earlier this week, Kathleen Fitzpatrick presented a statement to the National Academy of Sciences on the MLA’s position on public access to scholarly work. I was particularly interested in this line:

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.

This statement led me to wonder what motivates people to join MLA. Are they really joining in order to receive the society’s journal? I found that a surprising claim. That has never been my motive for joining. I would be interested in some marketing/survey data that supported that argument. I would imagine that a significant part of MLA membership is driven by the organization’s gatekeeping function over employment opportunities in the profession. One has to be a member to access the MLA job list (or belong to a department that has membership and that is willing to share that access with you) and one has to pay MLA to attend the conference where most of the interviews are held (and join MLA to present at the conference). The other significant reason for being a member is that membership has become a kind of professional habit; it’s part of a professorial identity for certain fields. I’ve never felt that way myself. In fact, I’ve never really seen MLA as representing my interests. I have been an off and on member over the years, strictly in terms of whether I was on the job market and/or presenting at the conference. My membership in NCTE/CCCC has a similar track record. And I also wouldn’t join that organization for the purpose of receiving CCC .

I realize that’s a lot of digital ink for one aside in this position statement, but I imagine that, in trying to articulate new reasons for joining MLA, understanding the old motives would be important. Additionally, I think it would be important to consider the motives underlying publication by MLA members and prospective members.

The statement suggests 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.” Now I might be interested in this, but it makes me wonder if MLA is going into the search engine optimization business. Will MLA drive traffic to my website or improve my Google Rank? I’m fairly certain this isn’t what is meant here. Instead, as indicated in the second half of that passage quoted above, “broadest possible distribution” probably means something like a humanities version of arXiv with a more social media feel or maybe an MLA-approved version of academia.edu. I think this perhaps what MLA Commons seeks to become.

In the comments following the statement, David Golumbia points to the variety of motives the underlie publishing done by MLA members. He argues “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.” I don’t know what significant or routinely means here, but I am sure there are MLA members who fit this category. To this first group of money-making authors, I would add a large number of MLA members for whom the primary motive to publication is getting tenure or a better job. That is a second group of motives. Finally, I would say that a large majority of MLA members publish work with virtually no concern for audience beyond getting their articles through the review process. All the really matters is journal reputation which is measured more by acceptance rate than by anything else. My point is that just as it may be a mistake to imagine that people join MLA to be able to read the journal, it may be a mistake to imagine that a MLA members, as a general rule, produce scholarship with the goal of it being read.

Part of this is the problem of hyper-specialization. Of course research is going to be specialized to some degree, to quite a high degree in fact. MLA has 30,000 members. There are more students in some MOOCs than there are members in MLA, so even writing something to the entirety of MLA is a comparatively small audience. Then if you think about the numbers in a particular part of the field, say “19th century American Literature,” one is imagining a number in the 1000s, probably low thousands. But, we aren’t done there. Then we are going to focus on a specific author (e.g. Melville) or period/region (e.g. antebellum Southern). Now we are in a community of 100s. That’s a small “broadest possible distribution”! However, it’s a lot of authors. There could be 100+ articles in the field every year, written primarily to this audience. Sure, the work might be of interest to a larger community, say the 1000s in 19th-century American literature, but those folks are all also generating publications. And not because there is a demand for the work by the reading audience, but because…. um, because… err.

Maybe because the authors want to be published. Maybe. We certainly want the professional rewards that accompany publication. We want to do the research. I would describe my own research interests as wide-ranging and often esoteric. People will come up to me and say they enjoy my blog but don’t read the OOO stuff. I get that. It can be dense, and the audience may be limited for it. However I am interested in OOO, and I am also tacitly pressured by my profession to be “theoretical.” I always feel my challenge as an author is to take these theoretical concerns and make them valuable for a larger audience or at least a different audience.

In short, as the MLA thinks about changing the way it approaches scholarly communication, I think it needs to explore more fully the motives that drive this work. More importantly, the shift toward digital publication will alter those motives I think (I hope). I would like to think that in my writing (both here and in more formal venues) that I am addressing concerns that have more kairotic purchase than they are just topics that I and a couple hundred other folks happen to study. I know that my move toward thinking of my work in these terms comes out of writing on this blog and thinking more about audience. I am guessing that if/when more scholars move toward more open venues, it might shift the tenor of their work as they strive to address those audiences. I’m sure this potential shift would signal a concern for many. And I wouldn’t say that it is a universal good; things will be lost and gained in the shift from one genre to another. Instead it is a matter for us to investigate.

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