Like many, I was surprised and a little pleased to hear about the announcement from MLA that they’ll be updating the author agreements for their publications, allowing copies of articles to be placed in personal and institutional repositories. It’s a nice first step, albeit one that won’t have a huge effect on my own field (very little space is devoted to writing studies in MLA publications). As a symbolic gesture, however, it may prove to ripple throughout related journals and organizations over the next year or two, and it could have very positive implications. We’ll see. I think it will depend a lot on the financial models of those journals. I don’t think the repository step is one that will trouble too many, but whether it’s a “first step” or a stopgap will depend on a lot of factors.

Anyhow, I was interested to read some of the context provided by Inside Higher Ed’s account of the announcement. Therein, Rosemary Feal comments on the move:

“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.

For me, Feal’s comments should have more far-reaching consequences than the actual policy change. Two of those comments struck me as really important. One is the idea of blogs/repositories “attract[ing] interest to the journal,” which is a move in the direction of the decoupling that I talked about a few days ago. I think that’s an accurate statement, but only if MLA spends some time thinking about how frictionless acting on that interest can be. In other words, if a body reads an article of mine that I’ve posted here, and thinks about following up on it, what will that body have to do? If the answer is change out of pajamas, shower, drive to campus, walk to the library, check the map, find the shelf, pull the issue, and sit down at a table, then I’ve got a newsflash for you. You may have momentarily provoked interest, but not much else.

That’s actually more of an observation disguised as snark, though. Taking the first step is good. Understanding what sorts of next steps are implied by that first step? I’m willing to be patient. And I trust smart people to do smart things.

The other remark that sparked my attention, though, was Feal’s reference to curation as a source of value for PMLA, because that’s another shift in the landscape of scholarly communication that I’d like to see a lot more of. I do think there are important differences among curation and procuration/procurement–our journal gets good stuff–and decuration/decoration–our journal wraps that stuff up in Adobe software and pleasing fonts and cover images. (I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the puns.)

If indeed our journals begin to move towards OA-friendly agreements (or OA more broadly), then it seems to me that they will soon need to begin asking what sorts of value they can add through curation, because it’s that value that they’re going to be asking members (and members’ institutions/libraries) to pay for. Let me be clear: I’m a huge believer in this value, and often, I’m willing to pay for it. But I think it requires organizations and journals to ask and answer frankly questions about why people buy their product, and under what models they will continue to do so.

Here’s one example, and I hope that it won’t shock you to learn that it’s something that I worked on. I’m actually a little proud of it:

cover graphic for issue 5.1 of Enculturation

You can follow that graphic to issue 5.1 of Enculturation, a special issue of that journal from 2003 on the relationship between rhetoric and composition. It grew out of a CCCC panel, and features a bunch of smart folk.

(And yes, I know. It’s from 2003, almost 10 years ago now, so sharpen your validation knives somewhere else. It still looks all right in my browser.)

I still have vivid sense-memories of working on that site, because I did a lot of it in a feverish 3 days in mid-December, trying to finish it up before I left Syracuse for the holidays, and resenting myself for how long it was taking. (Some things don’t change, apparently.) Anyways, if you look at the site, you’ll see 10 essays (plus a CFP, some reviews, et al.), each of which shows up on a pretty plainly designed page, with a pdf version available (bear in mind that this was a rarity back in 2003). For me, though, the value comes from the bottom of the sidebar, in the “Threads” category.

I identified 5 conversational threads in that issue–definitions of composition, definitions of rhetoric, the relationship between the two, writing more generally, and institutional practices. Each of the thread pages pulls and juxtaposes quotes from the essays. Those links end up being bi-directional because I went in and marked the spots in the essays themselves with links to the threads. Then I also took the quotes themselves, and sprinkled them amongst other essays, to provide little tiny juxtapositions. Almost 10 years later, I’m still pretty pleased with the results–yeah, it’s small potatoes, and yeah, blogs and wikis and social bookmarking, but honestly, how many of us were doing any of those things in 2003?

What I like most about it is that it’s a decent solution to the problem of presenting the essays in a journal in a way that allows them to maintain their individual coherence, but also provides lots of paths outward to the broader conversational network that they participate in. And I remember, vividly, sitting on the floor of my apartment, surrounded by printouts of all the essays, with 5 different colors of highlighter, reading pieces of each, scribbling links onto the pages, and figuring out how to make it all work on the screen.

Much as I might like the takeaway from this to be what an awesome and visionary curator I am (or was 10 years ago), my point is actually a lot simpler (and less arrogant?): there is nothing that stops our journals, right now, from experiments like these, even in print. (Two syllables: Hop. Scotch.) Scratch that: the thing that stops our journals from doing things like this is the presumption that their value is located in protecting their content through the imposition of an economy of scarcity. As the pressure to reject that economy continues to mount, they will need to start thinking about alternative models, or at least start seeing themselves as one of the core audiences for the conversations that are already happening.

In my opinion, that means expanding their ecologies to something more complicated than the (print-driven) publisher-editor-author model. That model is more a matter of habit and convenience (for some) than it is a realistic way to conduct business these days.

Oh, and I’m still an awesome and visionary curator. Just so’s you know.