MLA Shift on Copyright

June 6, 2012

Literary scholars on Twitter were offering praise Tuesday for an announcement by the Modern Language Association that it is adopting a new author agreement for its journals (including the flagship PMLA) that will leave copyright with authors, enabling them to post versions in open access repositories, or on individual or departmental websites. The reactions included "Fantastic," "Great open access news," "very cool and important" and "a watershed [for open access] in the humanities?"

The open access movement has in some ways made the most headway in the sciences, where requirements from federal agencies and other funders have many times forced journals to permit authors to post their papers in repositories that have no paywall. Humanities journals, in contrast, publish relatively little work that is the direct result of grants, so these publications (and the disciplinary groups that run them) have been able to consider these issues without government pressure.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that the association's new policy "was not responding at all" to the legislation and regulations. Rather, she said, "we see that publishing needs are changing, and our members are telling us that they want to place their scholarship in repositories, and to disseminate work on blogs." Professors want to produce articles that "circulate freely," she said, and that reach as many people as possible.

Until now, the MLA policy was that the journals held copyright, and the only blanket exception was that authors could use their works (with attribution to the MLA publication that published it) in other works.

The new MLA policy appears to move beyond those of other humanities organizations -- although some of them have created ways to work with authors who want their scholarship in open access repositories. The American Historical Association, for example, holds copyright on articles that appear in its journals, but its author agreement tells authors that -- if they ask -- they will be granted permission to post articles in repositories and on personal websites. The Organization of American Historians -- which publishes The Journal of American History with the Oxford University Press -- gives authors a link that can be used for open access repositories. But Nancy Croker, director of operations for the OAH, said that "we do hope that an author would not circulate their article in such a way that it jeopardizes the integrity of the publication as a whole."

Many disciplinary associations have been dubious of the open access movement, saying that it would hurt their revenues from journals (either directly through subscriptions or indirectly as an incentive to become a member of the association).

Feal said she did not share those concerns. "We believe the value of PMLA is not just the individual article, but the curation of the issue," she said. PMLA regularly includes thematic issues or issues where articles relate to one another. While there will be value in reading individual articles, she said, that does not replace the journal. Further, she said, the individual articles posted elsewhere could attract interest to the journal.

The MLA's journal policies tend to be watched by many humanities related associations, and Feal said she hoped the MLA change would have an influence in encouraging open access. "While recognizing that each association and journal has its own business model, we hope that they will find ways, like the MLA, to disseminate their scholarship broadly."

Brett Bobley, director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, said he was very pleased by Tuesday's news. "The 'long-tail' effect of the Internet has shown us that there is widespread interest in reading scholarly and scientific research," he said, and there is "widespread interest" among those who write journal articles in "exploring public access methods."

He said that the MLA, "as one of the largest scholarly societies in the humanities," could inspire other groups to experiment. And Bobley said that the results could broaden the reach of new ideas being published in these journals. "It will be interesting to see the results of this new policy the MLA has put in place," he said. "Might it, for example, greatly expand readership to some of their published articles? We'll have to wait and see."

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