So much discussion about scholarly communication in the humanities focuses on the so-called crisis of the monograph (and, by inference, of university presses) that we frequently overlook the rich range of scholarly and pedagogic material produced by humanists. Not so at the Modern Language Association (MLA) where, four years ago, the innovative MLA Commons platform was launched. Earlier this month, MLA – in association with three partner societies – launched the beta version of the expanded and now interdisciplinary Humanities Commons — a non-profit network where humanities scholars can share their work in a social, open access repository, discuss ideas, collaborate on common interests, and store research and teaching materials.
I’ve been increasingly interested in “scholar-led” innovation over the past few years and, as the Director of a university press that sits at the heart of one of the world’s great research universities, eager to understand how more traditional publishers can partner for mutual benefit. So I was pleased to have the opportunity to discuss MLA’s work in this emerging space with Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MLA’s Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication.
Alison: Humanities Commons has grown out of the successful launch of MLA Commons nearly four years ago. Can you briefly outline this evolution for us?
Kathleen: As you note, we launched MLA Commons in early 2013 as a platform for communication among MLA members, enabling them to share work with one another, to participate in discussion groups, and to create a range of formal and informal publications. But our members work in increasingly interdisciplinary ways, and they let us know very quickly that they were interested in collaborating and communicating with colleagues in other fields across the humanities. So we began thinking about the possibilities that a humanities-wide Commons might present, both for individual scholars and for the societies to which they belong. What might be possible if those societies worked together to support a platform for networked scholarly communication that might benefit not just our own local interests but also those of our fields collectively? And what could individual members do if they were able to create a unified professional profile online and connect with the other members of all of their overlapping fields with a single sign-on? We began exploring the technical and organizational requirements and, with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, are happy to have launched a pilot of Humanities Commons with our society partners, the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, the Association for Jewish Studies, and (coming soon) the College Art Association.
Alison: The Commons joins a growing number of scholar-led innovations in scholarly communication. What needs were you trying to respond to in your communities? Why do you think more traditional publishers were not addressing these needs?
Kathleen: Humanities Commons is working to fill several needs, most of which have to do with forms of scholarly communication that exceed the conventionally understood affordances of publishing. For instance, the Commons allows scholars to do remotely what before they could only do in person: collaborate directly and informally with colleagues, seek feedback on work-in-progress, and engage in conversations about current research in ways that extend the capacities of in-person conferences and other sorts of meetings. These are modes of communication that have long been facilitated by membership organizations rather than by traditional publishers, and so it makes sense for a platform like the Commons to be hosted by scholarly societies.
Alison: We hear a great deal about how wary humanists are of open access, and how they remain conservatively wedded to traditional forms – especially the monograph. But the success of MLA Commons would seem to suggest otherwise – how do you explain this dichotomy?
Kathleen: It’s true that many humanists have been slow to embrace open access, but I’d argue that it’s mainly been because open access has been slow to embrace them. This is partly because the most important forms that scholarship in the humanities takes — especially, as you say, the monograph — have not until very recently had viable open access channels, channels that scholars trusted would be understood to bear the same significance for their careers as publishing with a reputable university press. But it also partly derives from the economic realities under which humanities research is conducted: the vast, vast majority of that work is undertaken without the kinds of funder support that has underwritten article processing charges (APCs) in the sciences. But these obstacles not only leave many other paths to greater openness within our fields available — there are, after all, other means of supporting open access publishing beyond APCs — but also fail to recognize that there are lots of other forms of work that scholars in the humanities produce.
We are very interested in enabling scholars to create and share open forms of traditional research outputs with one another, but if we can also create means for scholars to share other kinds of work with one another — work that might include pre-prints, conference presentations, syllabi, lecture notes, and so much more — we can begin to create a culture of open communication that takes direct connection and communication among scholars, and between scholars and the world, as its primary value. And, not incidentally, we have the potential to shift the ways that the academy values and prioritizes the many important kinds of scholarly work that currently feel under-considered in most scholars’ lives. That even the relatively reticent scholars in the humanities want to participate in such a culture might be seen in their adoption of platforms such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu; because of the opportunities we provide for community-building, we hope that Humanities Commons might become a scholar-governed, open-source, standards-based, and above all not-for-profit platform for that community.
Alison: How do you see the Commons fitting into the current scholarly communication ecosystem? You’ve talked about the more informal elements of scholarly exchange here, and the ways in which the Commons offers “virtual” opportunities to share and collaborate. I wonder if you see it as a replacement for or complement to existing vehicles and structures? How do you think these new modes and behaviors might impact the more formal publishing system?
Kathleen: I think the answer above starts to get at our hopes for Humanities Commons; we want to provide a trusted option for scholars who have become understandably nervous about the ways that venture-capital-funded scholarly communication networks might be required to develop in order to turn a profit in the future. Scholars have long entrusted their membership organizations with some of the most important aspects of their professional lives, in no small part because those organizations are member-governed. Humanities Commons brings its participating societies’ focus on scholars’ needs and values to thinking about the networks and platforms that are becoming increasingly important to the ways scholars work today.
Moreover, in bringing together the affordances of a library-grade repository with those of a robust social network, Humanities Commons enables direct social engagement among scholars in the act of sharing their work. Our members can not only make their work available but also direct it to the other members in their subfields whom they most want to see it. Humanities Commons members are connected to forums or special-interest groups that have the ability to host discussions, to create websites, to collaboratively author materials, to share an event calendar and more. The interplay between the repository and the social functionality of Humanities Commons may be its greatest asset — not least in that we’ve noted a 257% increase in downloads of deposits that are shared with just one forum!
Alison: Although many scholarly societies support the goals of openness, they have nonetheless been reluctant to jump into open access largely because so many remain dependent on journal revenue. MLA and its sister societies seem to have embraced a different path – can you explain this for us? What’s the sustainable funding model for the Commons?
Kathleen: The funding model is primarily built around the notion of collective action: scholarly societies working together can afford to do things that they cannot do alone — and particularly if we have the support of partners in other like-minded organizations that understand the value of the open, member-governed model we provide. As it is, an increasing number of societies are providing their members with an online space for communication with one another, but those spaces are siloed — meaning that individual scholars have to create and maintain accounts on multiple services, and so, quite frankly, they don’t — and they are usually corporate-provided services that are less than fully responsive to the specific needs of their members. And these services are not only expensive but they often lock their members’ data into proprietary formats. Humanities Commons couples a trusted open source, standards-based platform, meaning that the data it houses will continue to be accessible and migratable by the societies to which it belongs, with member governance, meaning that the societies will have a direct voice in the directions in which the platform develops. We look forward to working with our partners to expand the community and to develop its governance and sustainability models in 2017.
Alison: It’s been interesting to learn more about the driving forces behind the Commons specifically, but I also want to ask how you see scholarly communication in the humanities evolving more widely. There seems to be a building momentum with new investment and initiatives all focused on taking greater advantage of the potential of both open and digital – where do you hope this might take us? And how might scholarly publishers – especially university presses – work with scholarly societies to engage with this kind of innovation and help build our shared missions?
Kathleen: This is a very interesting if somewhat tricky question – tricky mostly because presenting myself as any kind of futurist makes me nervous! That said, looking at the scholarly communication landscape today, one can see a lot of experimentation taking place, including many Mellon- and NEH-funded projects exploring new open access business models, new multimodal publishing platforms, new digital-first workflows, and the like. Not all of these experiments will result in lasting changes to the scholarly communication landscape, but they all promise to teach us some important things about the ways that scholars work today and the ways that they might be encouraged to work tomorrow. And the platforms and workflows that result from these experiments, if shared, might be built upon by others in ways that will allow scholarly communication to continue evolving.
All of that is to say that I hope these projects might lead all of us – not just scholars but their organizations and institutions as well – to think seriously about the value of collaboration and collective action, not for their own sake but as means to further our shared goals. I’m increasingly certain that real sustainability is going to require a turn from competition to cooperation across the academy. My hope is that projects like Humanities Commons might draw interest from mission-driven not-for-profit scholarly publishers, who might believe as we do that our organizations can do more together than we can do alone.