Electronic Publication and the Academic Knowledge Industry


Recently the Modern Language Association published a statement on electronic publication which says in part that “[E]lectronically published journal articles, monographs, and long-form scholarship are viable and credible modes of scholarly publication.” I’m pleased that one of the most important scholarly associations in the humanities recognizes the legitimacy of digitally-published scholarship, and I agree that digitally-published academic work is not simply ‘credible’ but ‘viable.’ That said, I’d suggest that the concept of viability should be expanded as academic scholarship migrates away from paper.

As the MLA states, electronic publication has been common for decades and has become more so, largely due to the move from print to electronic publication on the part of scholarly journals and academic presses. This has happened as a result of what the MLA statement calls “comparative advantages in distribution, discovery, and retrieval,” which means that digital scholarship is usually easier and cheaper for presses and journals to publish more widely. What I want to add to the statement is the suggestion that the migration away from paper publishing allows publishers to pass on to their readers the advantages of decreased logistical and financial outlay in the distribution of knowledge, and that being able to basically means that they should. The rationale for requiring subscription, for not allowing authors to retain copyright, for controlling the availability of published knowledge, and for Closed-Access academic publication in general is very much weaker once the logistical and financial challenges associated with publication are largely removed.

So what is keeping us from a more general acceptance not just of the electronic publication of academic knowledge but free and freely-available electronic publication thereof? There are plenty of hurdles—scholarly tradition and widespread digital illiteracy in the academy probably the foremost among them—but I believe that the perceived illegitimacy the MLA is making a statement about is only part of a larger phenomenon in which exclusivity and institutional control, long taken as the hallmarks of good scholarship, are becoming the excuse for some actors in the academic knowledge industry to model their companies more closely on traditional, non-academic, for-profit publishing without sufficient attention to the problems inextricably associated with that model. Passing on publishing costs to readers who belong to institutions unable to pay the hefty access fees associated with top journals and their large, multinational publishing companies means that too many scholars from less-wealthy colleges and universities (and basically all members of the general public) find themselves without access to important knowledge in a given academic field, and thus are unable to contribute as fully to those fields as scholars who happen to work at larger, richer institutions. This in turn keeps the academic knowledge industry ‘vertical,’ and what worries me most about this vertical model of academic knowledge distribution is that it works to restrict access to knowledge both on the part of those lower in the hierarchy and those who find themselves at the top. There are vast areas of unsounded silence in our scholarly conversations, and they map directly onto the economics of the modern academy.

So I’m happy with the MLA’s recent statement on electronic publication, because I appreciate the idea that whether or not ideas are printed on paper, their force remains undiminished. However, to the degree that we continue to ignore the Open Access movement and evince an absence of interest in making what is sometimes a very vertical, exclusive, institutional academic publishing industry more responsive to the people it purports to serve, I’m not so happy. I’d like to see a world where all the ‘top’ journals were Open Access, and where their quality is understood to flow from their radical availability. I’d like to see a world where digital publication in Open Access journals is so ubiquitous in academe that no one need make a statement about it. I believe that free, open distribution of knowledge serves the academic community better and is simply more ethical than paid, closed distribution of knowledge. The increasing ubiquity of electronic publication has given us all an opportunity to dispense with an unsustainable, limited and limiting knowledge economy.

~Thomas Spitzer-Hanks