(First a brief disclaimer. Generally speaking I like the MLA, I think its core mission, to advocate for languages and literacy education is an important one. And for those who don’t know my PhD is actually in English, so I feel a certain affinity for the scholars there. And recently the MLA has made a turn to promote what I feel are important issues to in the field, like open access journals. Indeed, I think Rosemary Feal and Kathleen Fitzpatrick (new head of scholarly communications) deserve a lot of credit for taking the MLA in the right direction, but . . . .)

Open-Washing

The Modern Language Association released the Job Information List last week (known as the JIL) , but it is probably more accurate to say they released the database. The term list here refers to the bygone era of analog job lists and publications; now job seekers log onto a website, and view jobs posted by the MLA. Except they didn’t really open up access to the database, what they did was allow those with MLA membership to access the database. In other words if you have a membership or a member of an institution which has a membership you can see the list, and if not, well no job database for you. Just to be clear this isn’t to post jobs, this is merely to see the jobs. In other words the database is paid access.

Last year the MLA claimed that the job list would be open access, as in available to anyone, so to some the fact that accessing the database still required a subscription seemed problematic. Later Rosemary Feal, the executive director, explained that the database was still restricted access, but that anyone could receive access to the .pdf copies of the list, published twice this semester (once in Oct, once in Dec.) So, in short the database is closed, but a published version of the database is available to the public. The MLA website says, “printable PDF files of the JIL are available free of charge on the website.” What that section doesn’t mention is that those are not updated as frequently nor available at the same date as the online list. And given the current competitive job market, the ability to access this list in a timely manner is crucial.

What ensued was a heated discussion between myself (and many others who I will let add themselves to this list if they want) on Twitter and Facebook about this policy. To us it seemed an unfair policy (why lock down the list) and a disingenuous claim to state that the list was open (when in fact only a limited version is being made available to the public)-this in my mind is know as “open washing.”

So, I am going to call bullshit on this one. This list is not open and MLA’s policy of maintaining a restricted access to the database is unethical (and they know it). Why? Let me explain.

All About the Benjamins

The MLA claims that access to the database is a service which it provides its members. If you join, or your host institution joins you will be given access. In the analog days of job hunting this somewhat makes sense. There was a cost to distributing the list, to printing it an mailing it and getting it in the hands of anyone who wanted it, jobseeker, curious academic, member of the press, faculty members etc. But now given the affordances of the digital network the cost of distribution is trivial, and while not zero is pretty darn close (bandwidth does cost).

So why does the MLA still restrict access. The answer is pretty simple: money. One has to pay both to get a job listed and to access the list. Why? The rational seems pretty clear to me. If the MLA opened up the list, i.e. didn’t require one to be a member to access the list, the number of member institutions would go down. Presumably there are a lot of institutions which would cancel their membership if the list were free. The subscription rates here are confusing, and a bit complicated as the relationship to the ADE and the ADFL make it even messier. But on the about the JIL page you can read about the policies. Looking at the recent 990 though it is pretty clear that membership and subscription to the JIL is a pretty large chunk of income for the MLA. (It’s not clear to me how much of the income is subscription and how much membership. I am not a forensic accountant and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but the numbers are large see 4a-4c.)

Clearly the motivation here is for the MLA to make money both by insuring that those who use the list to post a job, and that graduate programs that use the list to help students get placed pay for access. But it also is pretty clear to me that they make more money off the list than it costs them to run it. In other words they are using the list to leverage institutional buy-in. The list serves as a motivation for an institution to join the MLA and support its efforts.

Before we go any further let me say again that I support the MLA. I think it has a worthy mission, that it does a lot of good work as an advocacy group on behalf of professors (see the role it played it resisting Foreign Language Cut Backs). And indeed in the job market the MLA probably plays a good regulatory role, setting norms of behavior that are in the best interests of the candidates (for example institutions have to agree to a certain set of standards and behaviors to use the MLA). So the MLA clearly provides a service to the community. But that doesn’t mean that the ability to access the list is a service that job seekers ought to pay for.

The MLA wants to claim that the list is a service provided to members, join the MLA and this is one of the benefits. But that’s not at all what is going on here. Instead the MLA has set itself up as the primary knowledge broker in the trafficking of information about jobs. What the MLA has is the place that job listers post because it is the place that job seekers (at least in MLA fields) go to find jobs. And because it has this important informational resource of the job list it is able to use it to leverage institutional support (AKA make graduate institutes who want to help students find jobs pay for access and/or membership). This isn’t a service, this is holding information hostage.

To see how this is the case imagine the MLA job list went poof tomorrow, as in completely disappeared, as in wipe the site off the internet, burn all the print editions, the JIL is no more. What long term effect would this have on job seekers? None. Why? Because the jobs listings would move elsewhere, The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, HigherEdJobs, heck even Monster.com. All places where job listers have to pay but job seekers would have free access. In other words to a large degree job seekers would be better off if the list just disappeared. Consider also how other professional organizations such as the American Historical Association and the American Mathematical Association provide free access to the list for job seekers, only charging to list a job.

Why then is the MLA locking down this knowledge? Indeed the MLA recently has made moves to open access knowledge, giving authors open access rights over articles published in the MLA. So it is odd then that the MLA would chose to lock down information they didn’t even produce. In this case the job ads are all authored by institutions, the MLA merely curates the database. What is particularly vexing about this situation is as the cost of distribution has gone down the price of access has gone up. Clearly the MLA makes more money than it spends on this list, it is using the list to fund operations, using its position and control over the list to force other institutions to pay the rates it dictates both to list jobs(fine with me) and to access (a far more spurious endeavor).

I get it, the MLA is invested in preserving the current job ecosystem where it serves as the broker, and collects on both sides, being a knowledge cartel is a good racket. But that doesn’t make it ethical or justifiable.

So when you raise this, what is the response of the MLA? Well they will claim that everyone who needs access has access. But as many have pointed out, there are hosts of contingent faculty, faculty who have been away from the market, who aren’t fresh out of grad school, who might not have such easy access. It isn’t precisely clear from the MLAs site that one is supposed to be able to access the job list via one’s graduate institution into perpetuity. Or the MLA will say that they will get access to anyone who needs it. But this also isn’t clear. Why not display a button, icon, or text that says “don’t have access, click here.” That would let job seekers without access fill out a form and gain access, sponsored by the MLA. The MLA is counting on the idea that graduate institutions will provide access to everyone, which is clearly not happening. For years there has been a sort of informal trading among individuals, where those with access share with those who don’t have it.

But more to the point is it is ridiculous to on the one hand require paid registration, and then on the other hand say everyone has access. Paid access is by definition a gate keeping function meant to restrict access. The logical fallacy here is large enough to drive a truck full of rhetoric professors through. Either everyone has access, or the MLA gatekeepers the list. Right now they are acting as gatekeepers even if they want to claim that everyone has access. (P.S. Doesn’t the fact that the MLA describes the .pdf list published in Oct & Dec as “open” serve as an admission that they recognize that the online database is not open?)

I realize the MLA’s business model is based (in part) on profiting from this list, but revenue is not an excuse to act unethically. But even more the MLA is missing an opportunity here. A list which is open to all job seekers is far more valuable in the long run than one that is closed. If you are a job lister you want your job to be published to the widest possible audience. An open list with a larger viewership is more valuable to those listing positions, and as they realize this they are likely to move to posting the jobs in places that aren’t locked. If you were a department and only had the financial means to post the job in one place, would it be in a list with limited viewership or one with open access? And increasingly job openings are becoming open by proxy, as places like the AcademicJobWiki or social media are used to share jobs, nearly all jobs are listed on the home institutions website. So, what the MLA does is curate these jobs, and if someone else can do this for better, for cheaper, and provide access to more jobseekers the MLA is rapidly going to be obsolesced. And if the MLA ceases to be the place where job seekers go, and hence job listers go they will lose leverage over recommended hiring practices etc. (a place they are providing a service).

A Better Way Forward

From a strategic point of view it makes more sense to play the long game here and open up the list, serving as the aggregator for all English jobs. Charge job listers, not seekers to have the job listed. Open up the database, heck even make an API so others can use the data. Imagine what could be done, what job seekers could do: Create a mash-up of the data with google maps so you could see ads by geographic location, or someone could write a program that would allow you to look for jobs as an academic couple (jobs in nearby geographic areas), something Inside Higher Education already does.

Let me re-iterate, a business model is not justification for closing access, not merely because this is an outmoded model likely to lose purchase in the coming years, but because it is a model that often hurts the most marginalized of our community. Academic knowledge exchange is changing, and with it should change our professional practices, and advocacy institutions. No one understood this better than the MLA when they hired Kathleen Fitzpatrick to be the director of scholarly communications. Kathleen is most famous for a call to perform digital scholarship to leverage the digital to alter our institutional practices lest we face obsolescence. Which I think many would agree is what is going on here with the job list.

(Copied from a Facebook Discussion on Scott Eric Kaufman’s Page):

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Note: Subsequent to this discussion, a group of english academics launched mlajobleaks.com, which makes the job list available to anyone. Let me say that although I have been accused of being the mastermind behind this project I am not. While I might know the parties involved, and might even have provided “material support.” I shouldn’t be given credit (or blame) for this. However I encourage all the parties involved there, and hope that the list continues to be publicly available.