“I must side either with or against my section”

Over break I’m reading Battle Cry of Freedom, the definitive one volume history of the Civil War (and also, incidentally, “available online for free”:http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;cc=acls;rgn=full%20text;view=toc;idno=heb00677.0001.001 thanks to the super-excellent “History E-Book Project”:http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/a/acls/index.html). In the years leading up to the civil war, ‘sectionalism’ meant the divisive need to commit to either the South or the North — hence Robert E. Lee’s reluctant decision to serve the South, despite his own dislike of slavery and secession: “I must side,” he wrote, “either with or against my section.” In the context of the economics of AAA journals, on the other hand, I’m rapidly learning that understanding sectionalism is also very important.

In pre-war America, of course, sections were the source of a union-shattering divisiveness. In the case of the American Anthropological Association, on the other hand, they are the source of our greatest strength: sections like American Ethnological Society and the Society for Cultural Anthropology are the fundamental building blocks of our organization, and allow anthropologists who share a research focus to come together and exchange ideas in a variety of formats, including journals, sessions at the annual meetings, and even their own independent meetings.

Anthropology’s sectional organization also has a great impact on its publishing model.

In a “recent post”:http://savageminds.org/2006/01/01/the-aaa-budgest-and-publications/ and the ensuing comments, we discovered that according to John Willinsky’s book “The Access Principle”:http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10611 as well as the AAA’s own budget, it looked like membership dues were subsidizing the publication of AAA journals. Looking over the annual reports for the sections, though, I am seeing a different picture. Although none of the section reports I’ve looked at have much in the way of detailed financial records, the overall impression I get is that sections fund their activities through membership dues. Members join because they want a subscription to the section’s journal, which is a benefit of membership. So — again, this is only what I’ve gathered from the AAA website — the model here looks to be that you run the journal for less than the dues, and use the surplus to fund your other activities.

I am not sure if this is how things actually work, and how sections relate to the wider AAA budget. However it does demonstrate the difficulty of coming up with an open access model for anthropology journals — publishing and its economy is deeply embedded in the organizational (and thus political) life of the AAA.

So in the case of the sections, it seems that even relatively ‘closed’ online setups like AnthroSource, much less an open access model, can prove to be contentious. Currently, all AAA members (and only AAA members) can access all of AnthroSource’s content, including the latest issues of journals. This creates what John Willinsky has called a situation of ‘redundant access’ — members receive the latest edition of the journal electronically by virtue of their generic AAA membership fees and a paper copy by virtue of the additional dues they pay to individual sections. As a result, sections fear that anthropologists will cancel their membership subscription in favor of relying on AnthroSource.

“We remain concerned and vigilant on the question of how our revenues will be affected by the recent inauguration of AnthroSource,” writes the authors American Ethnological Society (and publishers of American Ethnologist) 2004 annual report, which also noted that their membership numbers continued to fall. The Society for Cultural Anthropology continued to have strong subscriptions to Cultural Anthropology, but they also that that “with the launch of AnthroSource in November 2004, CA became available on-line to all AAA members. The Board will closely monitor the effect this has on memberships.” The General Anthropology Division of the AAA reports that it “is concerned that… the new availability of Anthrosource will hurt membership.” “Like all other sections,” notes the Society for Visual Anthropology, “our finances will be drained deeply because of AnthroSource.” The Association for Political and Legal Anthropology noted that it was concerned about “the uncertainty of future AnthroSource revenues” and noted that “Unless the revenues from AnthroSource turn sharply up, PoLar [their journal] would be projected to go out of business within two years.” “The cause of our decline in membership is unknown, though we suspect it is related to… the launching of AnthroSource” writes the Society for Medical Anthropology. Passages like these can be found in practically every section report.

So on the one hand the association’s overall budget seems to indicate that journals are running at a loss and subsidized by memberships, but the section reports seem to indicate revenue from journal subscriptions and membership dues (which are essentially also journal subscriptions) are vital to their budget. Am I missing something here?

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

9 thoughts on ““I must side either with or against my section”

  1. AnthroSource needs to get a new model. Open Source if great if you’re PLoS [Public Library of Science] and have a multi-million dollar grant, but even PLoS makes author’s pay fees for printing their work. If AAA section journals switch to this model, will author’s pay? Will articles be shorter so there’s less of a fee?

    OA is still working out plenty of bugs. In fact, the entire publishing industry [not just science] is in the middle of a generational paradigm shift. OA has been most successful in the ‘hard’ sciences, like biology. But biology is somewhat tethered to big business. The Pharma industry also has plenty of money to burn, so OA in that area is well funded.

    Anthropology isn’t related to the same revenue-generating industries so underfunding is always an issue. One thing that Anthrosource can do is consider how it can open up the library to paid subscribers — institutional as well as individuals outside of the AAA galaxy. Electronic library subscriptions at reasonable prices would do well in many universities. This creates a renewable revenue stream.

    But again it sounds like despite anthropology’s ‘holisticness’ and all, many still live in some bubble. How can the word get out–that Anthropology is relevant to today’s problems and a useful science–if its literature is hidden from all but a few? Sounds to me like someone at the AAA and AnthroSource needs to rethink why their really doing this online thing in the first place.

    To believe anything is ever truly “free” is foolish.

  2. I think that Patricia is confused about several things — most notably how the biological and physical sciences are funded. As I understand it, the research that we see in journals is funded by government agencies, not the pharmaceutical industry. My own (admittedly biased) understanding was that big pharma prefers to make its money by encouraging strict intellectual property laws to make competition illegal. Why invest money in research which might not produce a breakthrough when you can continue to charge high fees for known working product by making its generic equivalent illegal. Ditto with research — why would a profit driven company allow its researchers to publish data that might let competitors get ahead?

    I do agree with Patricia, however, on the issue of author fees. Funding open access journals through author fees has been a successful strategy for some, but the size of grants and other funding in anthropology precludes this option for anthropology as a discipline (although the models of institutional fees or a cooperative system that Willinsky mentions might work).

  3. Rex-I’m not confused at all. The differences between STM and Humanities/Social Science publishing is the “end user”. Biological and Pharma research’s end results, whether funded by gov’t. or private dollars are for-profit products that charge big-bucks for dissemination. New drugs, procedures, etc. are disseminated to for-profit businesses that then refine and sell results as products. Remember the Human Genome Project? This semi-gov’t. venture’s fueled private industry for at least 12 yrs. “Visible Human” — another project that’s trickled down into the private ‘for profit’ sector. Sure, lots of STM research is federally funded, but those grants are in the million dollar ranges. Many researchers in these fields figure out that retaining ties to private industry pays. Why did the NIH reign in its researchers last year from profiting on their work? Because those NIH people were finding collaborations in private industries lucrative beyond belief. Private industry pays big bucks for published research that’s offered, at high price from private publishers. And the demand keeps growing. It is in the private sector’s interest that publishing in their areas remains prolific. Money invested in these areas has incredible ROI and the screen between public and private sector is more transparent than many believe. In a sense the gov’t. invests in this sort of research to ‘fuel’ private industry.

    On the other hand, humanities/social science research, although funded, has much less money to burn since its ‘end user’ isn’t some profitable product, but rather in many cases more gov’t. monies to fund social welfare programs here and abroad. This sort of information isn’t nearly as attractive to private industry as what’s available in hard science. The application of the information is tenuous, and ability to profit is much less. This hasn’t stopped industry from copying anthropological tools and reinventing them as marketing enhancements. Ethnography, participant-observation, and the like are anthro elements that are being increasingly incorporated in modified form to enhance marketing of commercial products. But do private marketing and advertising firms read anthro literature? Probably not. Would they, if made available? Perhaps. Right now they publish their own research, which is more accessible than AnthroSource.

    Would other sciences benefit from access to AnthroSource? I think so. Addiction research, for one, is an area I think is out of touch with the social and cultural issues related to alcoholism and drug addiction. Most research done now isn’t very insightful beyond the obvious.

    Again I think AnthroSource, and anthropology as a whole needs to rethink what its doing and how much or little its research impacts related fields, other scientific disciplines, and public and private sectors of society. As I’ve mentioned before, anthropology can do all the research it wants, but if no one is aware of it, reads it, understands it, and applies it, what really then is the point?

  4. Re – access to journals run at a loss which attract people to sections that depend upon membership dues only paid in order to access journals.

    It’s called a “loss leader” just like your local supermarket offering a deal on Charmin to get you in the door.

    :-)

  5. That does make a certain amount of sense, although maybe you shouldn’t compare AAA journals to toilet paper in public :) Seriously, though, in the case of a grocery store they sell you Charmin at a loss to get you in the door, but make a net profit from your additional spending. I don’t know what (if any) additional spending section members make that would offset a section’s loss on a journal.

    I’ve been lately thinking about this, though: sections are relatively insensitive to their financial status, but very highly value membership in sections (for many reasons). They can run a little (or perhaps a lot? I don’t know) in the red for a couple of years without many serious repurcussions. But a drop in membership is something they take very seriously. So what bothers them about AnthroSource is not really the economics of it (although I’m sure this bothers them more than a little bit) but the moral economy of it.

  6. If the societies are very interested in retaining members they should investigate what other journals outside of anthropology are doing. Many science and medical journals now provide content online via web portals. Members [subscribers] get access to back issues and bonus materials as well as current editions, depending on the amount of OA involved.

    AnthroSource can be sold to universities on a subscription basis, with some of the revenue shared with sections, depending on impact. Even if the sections aren’t that interested in the economics of journal publishing, perhaps the incredible changes within the publishing industry will make them become more proactive.

    Coupled with the MLA’s new tenure recommendations, all of this is pointing towards drastic changes to come, whether or not sections and members are interested. What are other disciplines outside of anthropology doing about this? Should AnthroSource be repositioned in a way to help the sections regain or maintain memberships? Out-of-the-box thinking is needed when the status quo doesn’t work anymore.

  7. Just one small correction to Patricia’s comments: AnthroSource *is* currently available to institutions on a subscription basis and has received an encouraging level of support, not only in the US, but also overseas.

    [full disclosure – I’m the Library Relations person at University of California Press, and I market AnthroSource to libraries…]

  8. Patricia points to another major issue surrounding AnthroSource and AAA journal more generally — I think we are pretty far away from a time when AAA members are willing to give up a paper copy, and this fact has large implications for AnthroSource and the AAA’s business models. Although Rachel is right that AnthroSource does do a lot of institutional subscriptions. And in general my impression is that it is a LOT cheaper than some Sage or Elsevier’s online content packages. Although I don’t actually know this.

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