Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

[This is an edited version of Kathleen’s keynote address to the Modern Language Association conference in 2012. You can find the full speech at her website, Planned Obsolescence.]

As you might guess from my title, this presentation focuses in large part on questions of open access as they might affect our thinking about the future of scholarly communication. “Open access,” I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, is a fraught concept among both scholars and publishers, one beset by a lot of misunderstandings, both intentional and unintentional.

Arguments circulate out there saying, for instance, that open access will open the floodgates to a lot of bad scholarship, when in fact open access publishing is perfectly compatible with peer review, and there are many OA journals that are more selective than their closed-access counterparts. There are folks who argue that open access is financially unsustainable, or even, as has been suggested by the recent proposal of the Research Works Act in Congress, an unreasonable infringement on publisher income, when in fact a range of new models for open access publishing are coming into being, and several of the major commercial journal publishers have recently announced new OA ventures, which they of course would never do if they hadn’t found a business model in it somewhere. On the other hand, there are equally misguided convictions out there that open access publishing is free; clearly that’s not so. What I am hoping to do in this talk, however, is to shift our thinking about open access, for the moment, from a focus on costs to a focus on values, though without entirely leaving behind the overwhelming and at times quite grim economic realities by which we’re surrounded.

To begin, a bit of background: discussions of the possibilities for new open publishing models began online in the early 1990s, as a number of scientists and librarians recognized that the growth of the Internet made possible the free and open reproduction of scholarly literature. Stevan Harnad pushed these discussions into the open by submitting what he called a “subversive proposal” to an email list in June 1994, which was later described as pointing out that “the scientific journal and the scholarly monograph are threatened by rising costs, rising output, and constrained academic budgets. The most painful paradox is that in the interests of science, the law of the market cannot be allowed to function. An item with a very small market may yet be the indispensable link in a chain of research that leads to a result of high social value.” One means of escaping this paradox, Harnad suggested, was the creation of globally accessible electronic self-deposit archives of scholarly articles – the foundation of today’s institutional and disciplinary repositories.

Open-access scholarship has the potential to reach a broad spectrum of potentially interested publics.

Over the years that followed Harnad’s provocation, the guiding principles of the open access movement began to be articulated, leading to the Budapest Open Access Initiative published in 2002, which gave the movement its name. Following behind the Budapest initiative were the June 2003 Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the October 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Scientific Knowledge. Together, Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin defined the agenda for open access scholarly publishing.

The tenth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative is rapidly approaching; in the intervening decade, the open access movement spread through a dramatic increase in the number of OA journals (the “gold” model of open access), including the very public mass resignations of a number of editorial boards of closed-access journals, who then joined together to start new publications online. Additionally, the open access movement over the last decade was profoundly expanded through a growing number of institutional and disciplinary repositories (the “green” model of open access), as well as an increasing number of institution- and funder-based mandates requiring the deposit of the products of research done under their auspices. (It is of course those mandates that the Research Works Act seeks to attack.) By this past November, at Berlin 9, the ninth annual conference associated with the Berlin Declaration and the first to be held in the U.S., 34 North American signatories had endorsed the declaration and agreed to uphold its principles, including more than 20 colleges and universities. These signatories collectively produce a powerful demonstration of the expansion of U.S. commitment to facilitating open access, a commitment that can be seen at the national level in the recent White House Request for Information on Public Access to Digital Data and Scientific Publications.

Though these conversations, like the White House RFI, have to this point been overwhelmingly dominated by the sciences, the Berlin 9 conference took on as part of its focus this year the impact of open access on the humanities. While our fields bear certain interests in common with the sciences, there are a few important differences as well. The most obvious of these is a radical difference in funding systems and levels. Scientific research is all but impossible to conduct without large-scale grant funding, and scientists have long been able to write publishing costs into their grants. As a result, the business model for open access scientific publishing was relatively clear: shift from a reader-pays to an author-pays model. Easy-peasy. In the humanities, however, not only is the available funding generally too low to accommodate significant publishing charges to authors, but the vast majority of research is either supported by the scholar’s institution or is self-funded.

Humanities publishing faces a set of financial constraints that are daunting at the best of times

It’s for that reason that I’m not standing here suggesting that a large-scale transition of humanities publishing to an open access model would be easy; it wouldn’t. Humanities publishing faces a set of financial constraints that are daunting at the best of times, and crushing in times of economic retraction. As I argue in Planned Obsolescence, it is of course perfectly well possible to make scholarly publishing profitable; the Wileys and the Elseviers have certainly managed it, but they’ve done so at the direct expense of our universities. For not-for-profit scholarly publishers to follow the commercial publishers’ lead would for a range of reasons I explore in the book be a disaster. Those presses can’t be beaten at their own game, as the large conglomerates that operate them will always be able to conduct business more efficiently, and more ruthlessly, than the university should want to do. But nor can we simply hand over the business of scholarly publishing to them to operate; as John Thompson noted in Books in the Digital Age, in times of economic slowdown “commercial logic would tend to override any obligation [such companies] might feel to the scholarly community” (98), leaving nothing to stop them from eliminating academic publishing entirely, if it ceases to pay.

So we can’t beat them, and we can’t join them; what we can do is change the game entirely. And it’s for this reason that I want to argue that, despite the serious difficulties involved, a transition to open access publishing might be desirable – desirable enough that rather than ending our conversations with the seeming insurmountableness of the financial obstacles, we should instead start figuring out what it will to take to get around them.

One thing that makes open access publishing so desirable for the future of scholarly communication is the increased impact that openly distributed scholarship is able to have, and study after study shows that open-access literature – whether that published in “gold” OA journals or that deposited in “green” OA archives – is more cited than is work published in traditional closed venues. In addition to facilitating traditional researcher access, however, openly published work can also reach a much broader range of readers – students and instructors at undergraduate teaching institutions and at secondary schools, for instance, as well as folks who work outside academia entirely. Open-access scholarship has the potential to reach a broad spectrum of potentially interested publics.

We in the humanities often resist opening our work to these publics, fearing the consequences of such openness – and not without reason. The world at times fails to understand what we do, and, because our subject matter seems as though it ought to be comprehensible (you’re just writing about books, or movies, or art, after all!), isn’t inclined to wrestle with the difficulties that our work presents; their dismissive responses give us the clear sense that the public doesn’t take our work as seriously as, say, papers in high-energy physics, which few lay readers would assume their ability to comprehend without some background or training. As a result of these doubled misunderstandings, we close our work off from the public, arguing that we’re only writing for a small group of specialists anyhow. In which case, why would open access matter?

The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we refuse to engage in dialogue across the boundaries of the academy, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions. As Kathy Woodward put it so brilliantly on Friday, the major crisis facing the funding of higher education is an increasingly widespread conviction that education is a private responsibility rather than a public good; we wind up strengthening that conviction when we treat our work as private, by keeping it to ourselves. 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. This is not to say that such openness doesn’t bear risks, particularly for scholars working in controversial areas of research, but it is to say that only through open dialogue across the walls of the ivory tower will we have any chance of convincing the broader public, including our governmental funding bodies, of the importance of our work. And let me say this clearly:  increasing the discoverability of scholarly work on the web, making it available to a broader readership, is a Good Thing, not just for the individual scholar but for the field in which she works.  The more that well-researched, thoughtful scholarship on contemporary cultural issues is available to, for instance, journalists covering those issues for popular venues, the richer the discourse in those publications will become – increasing, not incidentally, the visibility of institutions of higher education, and their importance to the culture at large.

Publishing is never free, of course; it either costs us in dollars or in labor (and often both), and sustainability in scholarly publishing has often been equated with the need to produce revenue based on the sale of publishing’s products. As I’ve argued at length, however, the current system of scholarly publishing is already not sustainable for most not-for-profit organizations, and some of the ostensible solutions – such as handing journals over to the commercial publishers who seem to have found a viable profit model – are only making things worse. One might see here the cautionary tale of a fellow humanities scholarly organization that, facing a budgetary crisis, contracted with a commercial publisher to distribute its journals. That organization received a nice bit of income in the short term – but the commercial publisher involved immediately more than doubled the institutional subscription fees for the journals involved, ensuring that more libraries would be forced not to carry those journals, and thus reducing the potential impact of the work published in them. And needless to say, however much the organization involved earned in this exchange, the corporate publisher earned more.

So rather than giving our work away to corporate entities that will profit at our expense, might we instead find a way to make a virtue of our market failures? What if we understood sustainability not as the ability to produce revenue, but the ability to keep the engine of generosity running? What if we were to allow the engine of generosity on which so much of the enterprise runs to affect the final point of distribution, if we were to embrace the gift economy of scholarly communication and make a gift of our work to others? What might happen if outreach, generosity, giving it away were our primary values?

What if we understood sustainability not as the ability to produce revenue, but the ability to keep the engine of generosity running?

Donald Hall has argued that the future viability of higher education requires that we collectively reclaim the intellectual growth fostered in the academy as a public good rather than a private responsibility. If we ask this of our institutions, and our funders, we must also ask it of ourselves.

There are financial realities that must be acknowledged in all of this, and I don’t want to minimize the difficulties of grappling with them. But in all such discussion about such financial realities, I cannot help but remember something Michael Jensen of the National Academies Press once told me. The NAP makes all of its publications freely and openly available on the web, producing revenue by selling print versions of that content. Admittedly, NAP has probably lost revenue that it could have obtained if it had refrained from giving the work it publishes away online – but it has gained significantly in visibility, in discoverability, and in goodwill. As Jensen said, when I asked him about this model, the press’s mandate is to make as much of its work available as freely and openly as it can while still breaking even. And this is the ethos that I would love to see become the guiding principle for scholarly communication more generally.

How much can we make freely and openly available in this fashion? How might we reimagine the production of revenue in scholarly communication from a basis in the sale of content to a basis in the provision of services? How can we work together to reorient our perspective from costs to values? How might openness allow us to better engage not just with one another but with the world around us, treating that world not just as an object laid open to our masterful scrutiny, but instead as a complex conglomeration of agents both able and entitled to enter into conversation with us? What if we were to recognize that the only way to hold onto the knowledge we have – and to help higher education and the communities within which we work to thrive – is to give it away?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association and is a co-founder of the digital scholarly network Media Commons. She is currently on leave from a position as Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College, in Claremont, California. You can read more posts from Kathleen at her blog, Planned Obsolescence.

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2 Responses to Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication

  1. Stevan Harnad 22 October 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Those sure don’t sound like my words! I bet they’re from O&O’s intro…
    http://www.arl.org/sc/subversive/introduction-2.shtml

  2. Matt 23 October 2012 at 8:50 am #

    Thanks for pointing that out Stevan. We’ve changed “in which he pointed out that” to “which was later described as pointing out that,” with your link attached.