When I’m the voice of moderation, you know you’re in trouble.
Kelty has already posted a somewhat splenetic response to the latest missive from Bill Davis, but for people who didn’t get the memo (literally) I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why the American Anthropological Association is like Gourmet magazine.
Bill Davis, the executive secretary at the AAA, spent most of his piece focusing on the AAA’s failed business model, describing a number of things that won’t keep the AAA’s financial boat afloat: author-pay models, embargo periods on journals, and large amounts of federal funding. I’m glad that Bill agrees with us in the Open Access movement that none of these things will work — although I’m a little unsure who he thinks he is disagreeing with. Is there someone out there who believes the government was going to dump tons of free money on us? Or that authors have thousands of dollars lying around to pay the costs of publishing their articles? And how much of the Mellon Foundation’s money was spent figuring this out? Ah, the joys of an agile, responsive, efficient organization.
At any rate, the real kicker comes at the end of the piece, when Davis writes that he’s got to balance the AAA’s publications budget even as he “engage[s] with a world that expects scholarly content to be “free.”” Reading between the lines, one gets a sense that Davis — like many career bureaucrats — considers himself on a weary, never-ending crusade to save his institution from its own members. “Look,” Davis seems to be saying, “it costs US$5,500 to publish an article in American Anthropologist. Do you think money grow on trees? Selling our content is the only way to go.”
It’s a compelling argument — especially if you don’t notice the fact that the one variable which never changes in the AAA’s equations is production cost. What if we could find a way to cut costs and make MAQ cheaper to publish? What if instead of costing five thousand dollars an article it cost, say forty six cents an article to publish?
Luckily, we don’t have to imagine what this would be like because it has already happened.
After fighting a losing battle inside the AAA to reform the journal Museum Anthropology, Jason Baird Jackson began publishing an open-access alternative called Museum Anthropology Review. As he tells it:
At the time… a single page of Museum Anthropology… cost about $202 to publish… At this rate, an article cost about $5000 (pre-subsidies) to publish… in spring 2007, the Council for Museum Anthropology was loosing about $79 per page. Museum Anthropology Review began publishing–using the same editor, the same peer-review community, the same university subsidies, the same computer, the same office, and the same file cabinet–at an out of pocket cost of less that 42 cents per article. In contrast to Museum Anthropology, Museum Anthropology Review was (and is) available freely to anyone able to muster an internet connection. Most contributions to Museum Anthropology Review have now been accessed thousands of times by readers from most corners of the globe.
What is the secret to Jason’s success? What is the difference between the money-loosing, expensive Museum Anthropology and low-cost, open access Museum Anthropology Review? The same difference, it turns out, between Gourmet and All Things Considered.
Gourmet is one of the oldest, most prestigious magazines in the food world. Or was — since it has just ceased publication. What was the problem? The magazine was expensive to produce, and in a world where food news and recipes are available on the Internet, no one was willing to pay for it. It is a familiar story in print journalism: the old business model of selling paper copies of your publications just doesn’t work in an online world. Condé Nast, the publisher, simply had to cut its losses.
Sound familiar? It should — it’s the AAA’s business model, but with more glossy photos of heirloom tomatoes.
Now let’s consider All Things Considered, the flagship show of National Public Radio. It’s an award-winning program that produces high-quality journalism. The color stories drive me nuts personally, but I know a lot of people love them. How much does a subscription to All Things Consider cost? Nothing. The show is free. And its not just free — it’s available in every conceivable form: broadcast, podcast, on the web, on your mobile phone, you name it. How much do they charge for the show? Nothing.
In fact, while traditional media is crumbling all around us, NPR has flourished, expanding in size, exploring new outlets like social media, twittering like crazy, and turning its music column into a full-fledged music-discovery and review website. Or so I’ve been told — I pretty much just listen to the radio show.
The things that make NPR successful are the things that make Museum Anthropology Review successful: an organization that builds its budget around its values rather than the other way around; successful innovation which attracts smart, ambitious employees. Charitable foundations recognize NPR and work to support it, just as Museum Anthropology Review is subsidized. And, of course, donations and volunteer labor from people who want to support a good cause.
Of course, not all publications are Museum Anthropology Review (let alone NPR!), but a whole lot of them are like Gourmet. Homesteading on the electronic frontier is grueling work. But what is the alternative? I ask because there is one point on which I am in agreement with Bill Davis: As long as the AAA keeps on with business as usual while the rest of the world is changing around it, it will find itself with its back increasingly against the financial wall. The difference between the AAA and Condé Nast is that the AAA has averted a total budget melt-down by partnering with Wiley to publish its journal. It’s a temporary reprieve, however, and the trend lines are not going to start going up any time soon. Mark my words: what started out as a joint venture in which the AAA was a junior partner is going to end up the academic equivalent of sharecropping. And it’s not going to take long.