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The AAA Author Agreement is Not the Same as the New MLA Author Agreement

If I am wrong about this, I hope that someone in a position of authority will explain clearly why my understanding is in error.

As I have discussed previously, the American Anthropological Association has an author agreement that allows for the circulation of author post-prints down the “green” OA (open access) path. It has had this author agreement for a number of years and it is a worthy thing that the association can be proud of.

The Modern Languages Association has recently announced changes to its author agreement. These changes are also designed to facilitate green open access practices. (For the announcement see here. For reporting in Inside Higher Education see here. For commentary from Kevin Smith at Duke, see here.)

The MLA has been receiving a lot of positive attention in the wake of its announcement.

Commenting on the story presented in Inside Higher Education Hugh Gusterson credited the MLA with making a positive step, but chided IHE for suggesting that this move was novel among scholarly societies, pointing to the green status of the AAA policy. The suggestion of Gusterson’s comment is that the two policies are equivalent because they both allow authors to post articles on websites and in repositories. Gusterson is someone whose research I respect and who is working hard on AAA publishing issues as a member of the association’s Anthropological Communications Committee.

More recently, on the AAA blog and in a tweet from the AAA twitter account, this argument is made in more elaborate terms. The AAA is basically saying that its author agreement is equivalent to the new MLA one and that anthropologists should be proud (rather than alarmed) that the AAA got there first. The blog post notes: “AAA members should rest assured that such an agreement is not new to publishing; in fact AAA journal authors have enjoyed this practice for quite a while.” There is no need for me to quote extensively from the blog post. It is there for interested readers to consult. To see the relevant tweets, the twitter account to look for is @AmericanAnthro.

I stand ready to be corrected and I have not seen the actual MLA author agreement, but the MLA’s language is clear on the following point: “The revised agreements leave copyright with the authors…”. This is clear language on a major point. If it means what it says (and I have every reason to believe it does given that Kathleen Fitzpatrick is the Director of Scholarly Communication for the MLA), then it means that the MLA agreement and the AAA agreement should not be treated as equivalent. Unless things have changed since the last time I saw a AAA author agreement, it does not leave copyright in the hands of an author but instead serves as an instrument by which copyright was transferred to the association. While the agreements may be alike in having the effect of allowing authors to circulate their work outside the society’s publication channel, retaining copyright and granting a license to your scholarly society to do something with your work is very different from signing away your copyright and retaining (i.e. being granted back) certain rights to use the work in which you formerly held copyright.

I hope that raising this distinction (something smarter people than me can explain more effectively) is not seen as snarky. As a board member that helped implement it, I am proud of the green author agreement that the American Folklore Society has and am quick to celebrate its strengths (i.e. it allows authors to circulate the publication version rather than just the post-print version of an accepted manuscript). I can also acknowledge that the AFS did not take the further step of defaulting to author-retained copyright. I am cognizant of the arguments for and against societies gathering in copyrights (and for the opposite position in which authors are allowed to retain them). My point here is just that, unless I am wrong, it is not accurate and thus not helpful to describe the AAA and MLA frameworks as being the same.

If I am reading the MLA language incorrectly and the association is actually obtaining copyright is the customary way, then it would be good if I were corrected on this point and for the accurate word to get out.

If I am wrong about the AAA author agreement and it does not now serve as a means by which copyright is transferred to the association, that too would be good to know. It would be an amazing and unlikely development.

If I am right and there is a difference between the two frameworks, then it would be beneficial for all interested parties to think about their implications and to discuss them with as much clarity as possible.

Despite the ways that my attempts to clarify its specifics have gone nowhere, I am glad that so many AAA anthropologists worked hard and early to establish a green author agreement for their association. It is a worthwhile accomplishment, for certain. Progress on open access can, of course, be incremental.

At the same time, I think that the MLA should be commended for its systematic reform efforts across the scholarly communications spectrum. If I am right and the copyright transfer aspects of their new agreement are distinctive, then they deserve particular credit for the kind of innovation that the recent AAA postings have aimed to diminish.

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