My (R)OA Story

by Eric Baković

This story begins just over 24 years ago, in March 1991. Although I didn’t know about it at the time, Judge Constance Baker Motley (U.S. District Court New York Southern District) decided on Basic Books, Inc., v. Graphics Corp.

Plaintiffs in this case, all major publishing houses, allegeded that Kinko’s infringed their copyrights when they copied excerpts from books, whose rights were held by the plaintiffs, without permission and without payment of required fees and sold the copies for a profit. The court found that Kinko’s did not convincingly show that the excerpts it appropriated without seeking permission were a fair use of the works in question and concluded that they violated the Copyright Act.

The impact of that decision was felt by the staff in the main office of the LSA Linguistic Institute, held that summer at UC Santa Cruz. I was an undergraduate language studies major who had somehow finagled a job working in that office, and one of my many duties was to take care of course readers: collecting packets of readings from course instructors and taking them to be copied and bound for students taking those courses. The way I remember it, Kinko’s was responding to this decision by seriously hiking up their prices because (they claimed) of how much they anticipated their costs to be for obtaining permission to reproduce each copyrighted work. So we ended up doing our business with a cheaper, local copy shop that apparently wasn’t particularly concerned about this court decision.

kinkos

Alan Prince was one of the course instructors, who marched into the main office with his packet of readings and showed me how he wanted it copied and bound. He was teaching a course with Paul Smolensky entitled “Connectionism and Harmony Theory in Linguistics,” where they introduced everyone in attendance to what they were apparently then calling “Harmony-Theoretic Phonology” — but, wisely, they later re-named it “Optimality Theory.”

Two years later, in 1993, I visited some potential grad schools. Among these was the freshly-instituted PhD program at Rutgers, where Alan Prince and Jane Grimshaw had just been hired. At one point I met with Alan in the copy room, where he was surrounded by stacks and stacks of copies that he was making of the then-new tech report with Smolensky (Optimality Theory: Constraint Interaction in Generative Grammar) that he would subsequently send to phonologists all around the world.

ps-copies

I remember thinking that this was the way new research should be disseminated: not in pricey journals (where by the time it is in print, it’s not really ‘new’ anymore) nor only within your own private echo chamber (where it will not get decently vetted), but freely, to everyone, everywhere.

But of course, all those copies — and mailing them all over the world — cost real money. Luckily, wide-spread use of the Internet across all sectors of academia was taking off right around then, and Alan had the great idea at the time to start a repository of “work in, on, and about Optimality Theory”: the Rutgers Optimality Archive (ROA; roa.rutgers.edu).

roa-1996ROA in (late) 1996, courtesy of the Wayback Machine
roa-2015ROA in (mid) 2015

In addition to being an invaluable resource in its own right, ROA was the inspiration for many other repositories in linguistics, many of which have come and gone (e.g., minimalism.linguistics.arizona.edu) and some of which have also managed to stick around (e.g., semanticsarchive.net or ling.auf.net/lingbuzz). (The inspiration for ROA itself came from arxiv.org.)

In the course of the 20+ years since all this, Open Access (OA) has become a more and more significant and organized movement, and I feel lucky to have been exposed to it early and involved in it for this long. But of course the ultimate goal is not to be involved in OA — to get to the point where it is just the normal way in which scholars communicate their work. To the extent that we’ve made progress toward this goal in linguistics, I believe we have Alan to thank.


Suggested citation:
Baković, Eric. 2015. My (R)OA Story. In Short ’schrift for Alan Prince, compiled by Eric Baković. https://princeshortschrift.wordpress.com/stories/bakovic/.

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