Open access anthropology needs a civil service

Open access anthropology needs a civil service, a staff, a personnel. For Big Content, it’s easy: hire and pay staff with the money you’ve received for charging professors to read the work they themselves have written. For open access anthropology, finding a staff to proselytize and educate open access is difficult — finding people to actually edit and produce publications is even more difficult. The two key factors involved are time and money, and so far anthropology’s usual solutions to these problems have not been working out.

The professional association of most anthropologists, the AAA, has failed the discipline. Attempts to shift paradigm from paper to digital publishing revealed the association’s underlying lack of capacity: unable to successfully tap or organize volunteer human resources, the AAA could only run its website and publications by hiring outside contractors to do so. When the cost was too great, they mortgaged our content to keep their journals afloat. As a result anthropology, like many disciplines, now exists in two worlds: a for-pay, exclusionary professionalized world and a volunteer, open-access, nonprofit one.

This open access world currently works via a loosely knit, sometimes-connecting network of people who each keep their own pots boiling and their own pet projects up and running. This has been great — the days when a group of us would meet around a table for an ‘open access lunch’ have been obsoleted by the proliferation of personnel and projects that we are working on. But at the same time large-scale projects which require more structure have taken longer to take off.

There are exceptions to this — for instance, anything Jason Jackson’s involved in. But increasingly OA advocates have been looking at each other asking who is going to crystallize the energy in the room into a fully-functional, formalized publishing apparatus.

A lot of the work is currently done by graduate students, but graduate students eventually become professors (hopefully!) who have to start building and growing the institutions that have hired them. Uptake of OA ideals from high-prestige players is critical to legitimating the paradigm, and so far as been one of the great unsung successes of the movement: OA is not something that “community colleges do”. But by definition people at Princeton, Chicago, Berkeley and so forth are the very ones with little free time on their hand to acutally to the work of administering OA projects.

Right now a lot of OA projects — like the upcoming journal Hau — work outside the donought hole of tenure, leveraging graduate student initiative with emeritus emminence (thank you, Marshall, Justin, Keith, etc). It’s a promising model, and I think more and more senior professors should grasp the nettle and start their own publication programs. But in this case the donought we’re missing is acutally where most academics work: their career as full-time professors.

I think we need more tenured, secure professors taking charge of the administrative end of open access publications. And not people from research schools, necessarily. Teaching-first institutions seem a perfect location for this sort of work, since they reward teaching, an activity that leaves just enough time to edit work but maybe not as much as you’d like to do it and write it up.

It would be great if there were other careers that made this sort of free time available — Ph.D.s who become administrators, have part-time research positions, work as librarians, and so forth. In my own wierd imagination of the Durkheimians, a lot of their ability to produce major, movement-defining periodicals came from the fact that they weren’t professors, but had a string of demanding but not totally absorbing appointments.

Regardless of how the hours are subsidized, I think this sort of serious institutionalization is a necessary next step for the movement. The people who are already blogging, or already writing, or already have grants to create repositories cannot also take on the additional task of starting open access journals… as much as we’d like to! While some might object that this sort of service work doesn’t count towards tenure, I think that there are positions out there where tenurable activities could coexist with a major sideline in open access adminsitration — and that’s what we need right now.

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

5 thoughts on “Open access anthropology needs a civil service

  1. Figure out how much money you’d need to pay an administrator/coordinator (to manage finances and digital distribution, and to coordinate peer review), an editor, a layout person, and a proofreader. Perhaps only the first two jobs would need to be full-time. Freelancers could do the layout and proofing. Raise the money to endow a non-profit foundation for publishing [whatever].

  2. I am going to say something shocking: I actually want for-profit firms to manage and provide my scholarly content.

    Lest it appear I have gone insane, here are the qualifications: I want them to do a 3000% better job than they are doing now, and I want it to be open access.

    The point is that OA doesn’t have to be an all volunteer, student-led, cooperative, off-the-grid, alternative publishing nirvana. It just needs to be sustainable in a world were egregious monopoly rent-extraction is the norm. The big corporations are never going to see this light, but some of the mid-sized ones just might, and certainly lots of small ones should. There are ways to make OA publishing work and even to keep making a little bit of money. There is no conceivable way that we can continue to make 400% increases in profit every year, which is what the shareholders of Elesevier et. al. now expect. That, as if it were not obvious, is some serious bullshit just waiting to drown us all.

    The downside to this is that we need to come to grips with the fact that we (and by “we” I mean also our employers, universities, and scholarly societies) need to pay for quality open access publication–not bad quality toll access publication, which is what we pay for now. It can’t be provided for free with all free labor–at least not at any significant scale. The small stuff yes, but not at scale, which is why having people who devote their careers to doing a good job of it is something I want in the world, and am willing to pay for.

    And it is up to this same We to force the publishers to revise their business models so that this whole venture can start to become sustainable. We need to stop squeezing the lifeblood from our universities in order to hand it over to enormous monopoly corporations– and start giving it to reasonable, high quality outfits committed to making scholarship accessible.

  3. Is anyone here but me aware of BookBaby? The basic business model, providing e-publishing services for niche publications, might be worth considering. The big shift would have to be in the tenure review process, substituting sales, reviews, and citations—both of which are now easy to track on line—for publication following peer review.

    I anticipate people worried about what would happen to the quality of academic publications; but I’d bet that research and writing would actually improve.

    And especially now that publishers increasingly demand camera-ready copy and no longer provide serious proofreading, copy editing and marketing services for anything except what are seen as potential best sellers (which rules out most academic monographs), there is not a lot to lose on the production end.

    Just brainstorming, but…

  4. I’m glad to see this discussion about OA and academic publishing continue.

    Rex wrote:

    “While some might object that this sort of service work doesn’t count towards tenure, I think that there are positions out there where tenurable activities could coexist with a major sideline in open access adminsitration — and that’s what we need right now.”

    Since I am a grad student, I am somewhat on the outside of some of these issues. But this question of tenure–and what counts for tenure–clearly seems to be a huge issue. Working toward tenure takes an exorbitant amount of time (from what I have seen profs go through), and if OA doesn’t count toward tenure, then people aren’t going to do it. Right? Or are there some universities who have some different policies about this?

    ckelty wrote:

    “Lest it appear I have gone insane, here are the qualifications: I want them to do a 3000% better job than they are doing now, and I want it to be open access…The point is that OA doesn’t have to be an all volunteer, student-led, cooperative, off-the-grid, alternative publishing nirvana.”

    Ya, I think that makes sense. Besides, I’m not sure if the off-the-grid way of publishing is really nirvana anyway! But I think it does make sense to have people who are dedicated to OA publishing, and who can actually sustain themselves by doing it right. I just read your piece on what happened with RUP, and it definitely made little sense to assume that one editor could run the whole show.

    What I don’t get is why involvement in the actual publication of anthropology–and not just publishing articles–doesn’t count for more in tenure, etc. All of the advice I get about “getting a job” and such basically boils down to this: publish, publish, publish. So our energy and focus is all about a constant production of information, “groundbreaking” research, and so on, without all that much attention being paid to where the information goes, how it gets distributed, and how it’s used (hence the lack of open access to top anthro journals).

    I have to admit that I find the current state of affairs pretty confusing and contradictory. How did everything get all FUBAR in the first place?

    “And it is up to this same We to force the publishers to revise their business models so that this whole venture can start to become sustainable. We need to stop squeezing the lifeblood from our universities in order to hand it over to enormous monopoly corporations– and start giving it to reasonable, high quality outfits committed to making scholarship accessible.”

    Here’s the question I have: what other outlets would you suggest? This is exactly the issue/question that comes up every time I start thinking about how I am going to approach writing and publishing. I hear from all sides that there are severe problems with the publishing model, yet conversely get lots of advice about the dire importance of publishing. The problem–as many mentioned already–is that many of the big pubs that “count” are also some of the most problematic. It seems pretty clear that we all need to look elsewhere. So either we support and participate in projects that are already underway, or we make new ones and push to get them the support and recognition they need. Maybe both.

    Anyway, I appreciate all of this discussion. It’s just making me want to do more research about this whole OA/publishing subject, but I also need to keep getting ready for those quals, which are coming soon…

  5. I agree with Chris that it would be great if we had a dedicated, successful publisher that was committed to making OA work…. until that day comes, maybe we should concoct an alternate plan and start filling that doughnut hole…

    I think that grad students should not be worried about OA issues and publishing for tenure. They should be worried about getting a _job_ first, and if that means publishing in some big journals, then that’s fine. That said, I think that hireability is a result of a lot of things other than publications, of which the visibility of OA is part.

    I think fears of OA and tenure are also overblown. People get — or don’t! — tenure for a variety of reasons, including (perhaps mostly) how much their colleagues like them. This may be different for a few ‘R-1′ schools out there, but let’s face it: at most places that standards for tenure are opaque and there are no hard-and-fast metrics for numbers of articles, citation number of journals, and so forth. I suspect a prolific, well-liked colleague who does a good job teaching but doesn’t pop up regularly in American Anthropologist is not going to be dumped by their colleagues because their quality articles are appearing in out-of-the-way places.

    And this despite the self-perception people have about how they work their tenure process. And anyway how much longer will it be before tenure committees include the generation of post-OA peple?

    Finally, John, there are tons of easy and convenient platforms for publishing — technology is now really not the bottleneck, it’s the people hours. The actual sitzfleish necessary to coral people into writing. And that, I’m afraid, is not so easy to replicate digitally.

Comments are closed.