Academia, Not Edu

Last week’s close attention to open access, its development, its present state, and its potential futures, surfaced not only the importance for both the individual scholar and the field at large of sharing work as openly as possible, with a range of broadly conceived publics, but also some continuing questions about the best means of accomplishing that sharing. As I mentioned last week, providing opportunities for work to be opened at the point of publication itself is one important model, but a model that may well have occluded our vision of other potential forms: the ease of using article-processing charges to offset any decline in subscription revenue possible as previously paywalled content becomes openly available is so apparent as to have become rapidly naturalized, allowing us to wave off the need for experimentation with less obvious — and less remunerative — models.

Among alternative models, as I noted, is author-originated sharing of work, often in pre-print forms, via the open web. Many authors already share work in this way, whether posting drafts on their blogs for comment or depositing manuscripts in their institutional repositories. And recently, many scholars have also taken to sharing their work via Academia.edu, a social network that allows scholars to build connections, get their work into circulation, and discover the work of others. I’m glad to see the interest among scholars in that kind of socially-oriented dissemination and sharing, but I’m very concerned about this particular point of distribution and what it might mean for the future of the work involved.

Here’s the crux of the matter:

The first thing to note is that, despite its misleading top level domain (which was registered by a subsidiary prior to the 2001 restrictions), Academia.edu is not an educationally-affiliated organization, but a dot-com, which has raised millions in multiple rounds of venture capital funding. This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent, but it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.

And if the network is to turn a profit, that profit has a limited number of means through which it can be generated: either academics who are currently contributing their work to this space will have to pay to continue to access it, or the work that they have contributed will somehow be mined for sale, whether to advertisers or other interested parties. In fact, Academia.edu’s CEO has said that “the goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.” Statements like this underwrite Gary Hall’s assessment of the damage that the network can do to genuine open access: “Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.” The network, in other words, does not have as its primary goal helping academics communicate with one another, but is rather working to monetize that communication. All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before commiting our professional lives to it.

The problem, of course, is that many of us face the same dilemma in our engagement with Academia.edu that we experience with Facebook. Just about everyone hates Facebook on some level: we hate its intrusiveness, the ways it tracks and mines and manipulates us, the degree to which it feels mandatory. But that mandatoriness works: those of us who hate Facebook and use it anyway do so because everyone we’re trying to connect with is there. And as we’ve seen with the range of alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that have launched and quickly faded, it’s hard to compete with that. So with Academia.edu: I’ve heard many careful, thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because that’s where everybody is.

And the “everybody” factor has been a key hindrance to the flourishing of other mechanisms for author-side sharing of work such as institutional repositories. Those repositories provide rigorously protected and preserved storage for digital objects, as well as high-quality metadata that can assist in the discovery of those objects, but the repositories have faced two key challenges: first, that they’ve been relatively siloed from one another, with each IR collecting and preserving its own material independently of all others, and second, that they’ve been (for the obvious reason) institutionally focused. The result of the former is that there hasn’t been any collective sense of what material is available where (though the ARL/AAU/APLU-founded project SHARE is working to solve that problem). The result of the latter is that a relatively small amount of such material has been made available, as researchers by and large tend to want to communicate with the other members of their fields, wherever they may be, rather than feeling the primary identification with their institutions that broad IR participation would seem to require. So why, many cannot help but feel, would I share my work in a place where it will be found by few of the people I hope will read it?

The disciplinary repository may provide a viable alternative — see, for instance, the long-standing success of arXiv.org — but the fact that such repositories collect material produced in disciplines rather than institutions is only one of the features key to their success, and to their successful support of the goals of open access. Other crucial features include the not-for-profit standing of those repositories, which can require thoughtful fundraising but keeps the network focused on the researchers it comprises, and those repositories’ social orientation, facilitating communication and interconnection among those researchers. That social orientation is where Academia.edu has excelled; early in its lifespan, before it developed paper-sharing capabilities, the site mapped relationships among scholars, both within and across institutions, and has built heavily upon the interconnections that it traced — but it has not primarily done so for the benefit of those scholars or their relationships.

Scholarly societies have the potential to inhabit the ideal point of overlap between a primary orientation toward serving the needs of members and a primary focus on facilitating communication amongst those members. This is in large part why we established MLA Commons, to build a not-for-profit social network governed and developed by its members with their goals in mind. And in working toward the larger goals of open access, we’ve connected this social network with CORE, a repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the network. We’re also building mechanisms through which CORE can communicate with institutional repositories so that the entire higher-education-based research network can benefit.

Like all such networks, however, the Commons will take time to grow, so we can’t solve the “everybody” problem right away. But we’re working toward it, through our Mellon-supported Humanities Commons initiative, which seeks to bring other scholarly societies into the collective. The interconnections among the scholarly society-managed Commonses we envision will not only help facilitate collaboration across disciplinary lines but also allow members with overlapping affiliations to have single sign-on access to the multiple groups of scholars with whom they work. We are working toward a federated network in which a scholar can maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own.

So, finally, a call to MLA members: when you develop your member profile and share your work via the Commons, you not only get your work into circulation within your community of practice, and not only raise the profile of your work within that community, but you also help support us as we work to solve the “everybody” problem of the dot-com that threatens to erode the possibilities for genuine open access.

Opening Up Open Access

It’s Open Access Week, and as befits the occasion, I’m starting it this morning by thinking about what we’ve accomplished, what obstacles we’ve found — or even, if I might dare to whisper, created — and what remains to be done in order create full commitment among scholars and researchers to getting their work into circulation in the most free, open, and equitable ways possible.

The last several months have been quite interesting in humanities OA land: we’ve seen the launch of exciting initiatives such as the Open Library of the Humanities and Luminos, plus the first round of competition for a joint Mellon-NEH Humanities Open Book Program (not to mention a wide range of other Mellon-funded OA projects). At the same time, there seems also to have been an uptick in approaches to humanities scholars by somewhat shady-looking publications claiming an interest in publishing their work (for a fee) or asking to add them to a (somewhat random) editorial board. For many scholars, sadly, the latter cast a long shadow, making it that much harder to persuade them of the value to their work that OA might provide.

I have been wondering of late about the extent to which the problem is the degree to which our thinking about the goals of OA has gotten derailed by our focus on the business model of OA — and even worse, by a more-or-less exclusive focus on one particular business model that can simply be taken up without the need to reconsider the purposes or values of scholarly communication. Shifting costs from the reader side to the author side creates hardly a ripple in the system, as witness the speed and fluidity and commitment with which the most problematic corporate journal publishers have absorbed this shift into their regular practices.1

Having said this, however, I must admit that I feel a bit implicated in that derailment-by-business-model, as my early interventions into thinking about OA in the humanities very much focused on gold OA, on making publications freely and openly available at the source. And I do still think that there are ways of implementing gold OA publishing models — perhaps especially around monographs — that might be more equitable and should be further explored.2 But I worry that this singular focus on making publications freely available might have prematurely foreclosed a set of larger discussions about the broader circulation of scholarship in general.

In some of the early open access meetings I attended, in fact, I found myself arguing with a few other participants who insisted that we were headed in the wrong direction, and that we needed to be thinking about green OA, on the author side of making things freely available — primarily through repository deposit — rather than on the publisher side. But the longer I think about it, the more I have come to believe that what I had in mind in the creation of free-and-open publications bears more in common with repositories than it does with the dominant mode through which OA has been taken up by corporate publishers. My all-too-nascent idea, after all, was based on my experiences with MediaCommons, which led me to hope that groups of scholars could take control of the systems through which they publish by creating collective, cooperative, scholar-organized and -governed publications on open networks.

And some of that has happened. The Open Library of the Humanities, notably, was founded by two humanities scholars who are working closely with the scholars who operate the journals under its umbrella.3 And, of course, MLA Commons is a platform developed by a scholar-governed society on which members are encouraged to develop and share new projects with the field in a wide variety of ways.

But there’s been comparatively slow uptake on this end of the open access spectrum, and it’s worth considering why. On the one hand, there is the fact that publishing requires work, and comparatively few scholars have the time or inclination required to move some of their “own” work aside in favor of working on publishing’s machinery, whether by building their own publications or supporting others through the publishing process. That sort of work isn’t, by and large, what we trained for, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t the kind of thing for which we get credit.4

Even more, there is the question of prestige: scholars continue to publish in venues that have established imprimaturs, and in venues that they have no editorial hand in, because those two factors continue to be privileged by the various review mechanisms up the chain. Scholars need to persuade internal and external review committees that their work has been selected through an impartial, rigorous review process, and all the better if the name of the organization that runs that review process resonates. But of course publishing collectives are capable of being just as (if not more) rigorous, and scholarly associations like my own can provide not just an imprimatur for those collectives but also access to the many other members in the field that the collectives would likely want to reach.

So the question that remains for me is what will be required in order to motivate scholars to take the lead in forming such collectives. Much of the OA movement has focused on a hearts-and-minds campaign of sorts, working to convince individual scholars that open access to their work is not just good for the work but also key to intellectual forms of social justice. But I think, in the coming years, we need to pay as much attention to shifting the requirements of those review mechanisms up the chain, whether institution- or funder-based, in order to persuade them that impact and prestige might not necessarily correlate, that rigor need not necessarily require distance, and that all publications — from the individual scholarly blog to the most carefully edited monograph — demand to be evaluated on their own terms, with an understanding of the possibilities each presents for the increase in knowledge we all seek.

Public Responsibility, Public Access

Occupy is back today, celebrating the first anniversary of S17 with Strike Debt, a movement meant to call attention to the unconscionable levels of debt that many Americans are forced to take on, not least in the process of getting an education. There is much anger out there – and much justified anger, at that. We once understood as a culture that providing access to education was a public responsibility, and we funded it as such. Over the last thirty-plus years, conservatives have convinced a huge percentage of voters that education isn’t a right, but a privilege, one whose funding is a private responsibility, and access to which therefore has become a private privilege.

There is a very similar discussion taking place about the knowledge that is being created within our institutions of higher education, and for equally good reason: knowledge, of the kind that is produced in universities and communicated through scholarship, is in the main produced in order to benefit our culture as a whole. It should be shared as widely as possible, so that it can have the greatest possible impact.

Many publishers associated with academic institutions and scholarly societies have long sustained themselves by making scholarly work available for a price. None of these university or association publishers make a profit; they use the proceeds from the work that they sell in order to provide services to the scholarly community.1 Scholarly societies in particular have used revenue generated through publications as a means of supporting the kinds of work on behalf of their members that can never produce revenue. Those activities are the mission of scholarly societies, and successfully pursuing that mission while keeping membership fees as low as possible requires additional revenue to come from somewhere. Many not-for-profit publishers would like to make the work they’re helping to facilitate freely and openly available, except that they don’t have the means, in a most literal sense: they need to recover costs on the work that they publish, in order to maintain the publishing activity. This isn’t just a matter of paying for the costs of printing and mailing the publications; putting work on the web may reduce the cost of distribution to near-zero, but it doesn’t reduce the cost of the work that publishers do to take the work from manuscript to finished publication.

Most such publishers have done a less than great job of explaining exactly where their “value added” lies, why it’s worth paying them for the work that they do. There’s a tendency, for instance, among university presses, to gesture toward “conducting peer review” as a key service, which only makes scholars pushing for increasingly free access dig in their heels: presses may coordinate peer review, but it’s scholars who do the reviewing. There is, however, an important set of services that publishers provide: they manage the many submissions they receive and select carefully from among them; many of them still, contrary to popular belief, invest in robust copyediting (and even the best writers benefit from the thoroughness that a good copyeditor can provide); they design readable texts, whether in print or online; they build those texts, whether through web production or typesetting; they distribute and publicize those texts through known networks. All of this provides the scholarly community with quality publications — and provides authors who publish through these channels with a venue in which their work will be associated with other quality work, and where it can be found by many of the other scholars who are looking for it — but all of those tasks require labor, and the people who do it (people, it should be said again, who are working for non-profit organizations) deserve to be paid, just as scholars deserve to be paid for the labor they provide to their institutions. However freely available we’d all like the products of such publishers to be made — and I think many, if not most, not-for-profit publishers would be very happy to give their work away, if they could simultaneously manage to keep the organization running — producing that work simply cannot be done for free.

Similarly, I know that many “public” universities — now only nominally public — would be happy to slash the tuition they’re charging, if they could find a way to remind the public of our collective responsibility for funding higher education. Strike Debt is out there today trying to remind us that access to education should be a public right, not a private privilege, and that making it so will require understanding that the responsibility for funding it is a public responsibility.

If we want the public to have access to scholarship — and if we want that access to be free — one key question remains: how will we fund it?

Changing the core model on which scholarly communication operates will require great imagination, a lot of experimentation, and a bit of time. We at the MLA are working on a number of initiatives designed to make the work that our members are producing more openly available. We have recently revised the author agreements for our publications to make them green open access friendly. We are in the process of developing a platform on which members will be able to share their work as freely as they would like. And we’ve got some other plans as well, as we look for more ways to give away the stuff that we’re producing. But there are still costs associated with all of this work. Whose responsibility is it to pay for scholarly communication? And how do we ensure that the responsibility is equitably distributed and fully accepted?