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?

  1. I am here setting aside the for-profit publishers, which I would argue are of another class entirely, in the same way as are for-profit educational institutions.

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