Big Content runs 66% of our journals, but the Open Access shortfall is our fault

(just to drive the point we have all been talking about home, this is a remix of Jason Jackson’s two recent posts on the state of scholarly publishing and open access in anthropology. The posts are excellent, and Jason is a very careful scholar, but sometimes he tends to bury the lead so I am rewriting this in a blunt, careless style that is imprecise but, hopefully, more informative. For the real deal, read his own posts)

With the annual American Anthropological Association annual meetings just around the corner in November, it’s time to start priming the pump with some topics for us to kvetch about in Montreal. We all talk constantly, for instance, about how for-profit publishing is taking over anthropology. But how bad is it really? What does a bird’s eye view of the journal publishing industry reveal? Jason answered this question by taking 75 of the most commonly read anthropology journals and seeing who was involved in publishing them. The take-away? Roughly 66% of our top journals are being run and published by Big Content, while only a third are under the control of non-for-profit publishers.


Where do these numbers come from? Jason got the list of 75 journals from the Thompson Reuters journals citation database, which measures the ‘impact factor’ of various journals. Although these rankings have not been a big deal to sociocultural anthropologists, they do matter in many other disciplines, and so this is as good a place to start as any. From there Jason pretty much just poured himself a big cup of coffee (or maybe something else?) and then tracked down who was involved in publishing each journal. He counted any for-profit involvement in publishing, so even though the American and British anthropology associations (the AAA and the RAI) are non-profit, their publishers Wiley-Blackwell is, and their journals got chalked up in the ‘for profit’ category.

One of the great, if slightly scary, things that Jason does with this chart is predict Wiley’s next move: if it really wanted to take over the world, it would buy Sage.

After reading Jason’s post, you might feel that anthropology’s publishing situation is like the last minute of Return of the Jedi, with Jason Jackson’s highly realistic synthetic hand being reattached by a medical droid while Wiley Fett spirits Tom Boellstorff back to Tatooine encased in a block of carbonite. You’d be right — there is still lots of hope in the situation, but it is up to us to see it through.

The reason is simple: as much as we like to bitch and moan about the evils of Wiley-Blackwell, Sage, Elsevier, and so on, the simple fact of the matters is that a lot of these publishers have a remarkably enlightened approach to open access. Most of them, for instance, will allow you to post publisher’s proofs (the final draft version of your article) on your website or institutional repository. When we read the table of contents for the latest American Anthropologist but can’t download the article, it is only most Wiley’s fault — if the actual author just posted their PDFs of the article online, we’d be set.

Of course, Big Content is still sucking our lifeblood from us money-wise, but it is important to recognize that they have opened the door to us to make our work available to, well, everyone — but only if we take the time to do so. They are betting that we won’t. Our greatest challenge going forward is to find ways to make sure that we do. What sort of institutions and incentives can do this? That, currently, is the million-dollar question.

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

17 thoughts on “Big Content runs 66% of our journals, but the Open Access shortfall is our fault

  1. Hardly relevant, but I think you mean Empire Strikes Back. The last minutes of Return of the Jedi involve dancing anthropomorphized others and smiling ghosts.

  2. Please, PLEASE will someone do a cartoon of Wiley Fett encasing me in a block of carbonite? I promise to post it on my website.

    But seriously, and really quick and rushed (and as you and others have pointed out, that’s part of the problem) – these issues raised are so important and I want to bring them up in the “Future of AAA Publishing” forum at the meetings, but of course they should be discussed before and after that. Very quickly, just to add some tidbits and off the cuff remarks – please no one at AAA or W-B take offense at this –

    I’m really committed to finding a way to make our publishing world more open and fair. The AAA and W-B staff are just great and as you note can be very supportive of open access, etc. Going forward in terms of a long-range vision, I do think there needs to be more discussion of the corporate model, which overlaps with the open access stuff but of course not completely the same. In a way I would almost prefer a pure corporate model where editors got paid, say $20,000 or $10,000 or even $1,000 a year to do their work, and reviewers got a little recompense, and so on. But the current system relies on a corporate publisher being supported by the labor of academics who are supported by taxpayers, students, parents, etc. It’s hard to identify a better model easily, but I really think that conversation should be pushed further and many people have been doing this very eloquently.

    I’m happy I’ve been able to open up American Anthropologist as much as I have within the limits I’ve been given. And I’m happy that this work has borne fruit: from 2008 to 2009 alone American Anthropologist has a 36% increase in American Anthropologist’s “5-year impact factor,” a 61% increase in its “immediacy index” (how quickly articles are cited), and a 50.9% increase in “article influence.” But that is supporting the profits of a corporation, at a time when higher education is so strapped.

    Example of the craziness of all this: so one way the AAA allocation system works for journals in the Anthrosource portfolio is number of pages downloaded. In other words, if your journal has 3,000 page downloads one year but 6,000 the next year, that will increase your allocation. Now, long ago I pointed out to W-B and the AAA that this is not articles downloaded, but pages downloaded. So a journal like American Anthropologist that has a larger 8 x 11 kind of format – an article in American Anthropologist that is 15 pages long would be, say, 25 pages long in Cultural Anthropology or some other journal with smaller pages. So we can envision a future in which all the journals are like those little thumb books you leaf through to make a cartoon character move (say, me being encased in carbonite), with each article 100 pages long!

    Of course you can find ways to game the system almost any way you slice it, so I understand the difficulty. And it’s not the only metric they use. Just an example of the complexities.

    I could say more but gotta get back to reviewing manuscripts. But please everyone, keep this conversation going.

  3. As long as it’s fine to distribute publisher’s proofs, what I’d really like is a Napster for academics. Everything would be much easier to find if it was distributed to a cloud instead of trying to track down personal web pages.

  4. Re. page proofs and websites. NO NO NO!

    I wrote a comment but then tried to translate it, as Rex might, out of Jason-speak. The result was the following sentence.

    Jason thinks that posting page proofs or typeset articles is usually illegal and that posting anything to one’s website is usually dumb and should only be a last resort in the absence of better options.

    For anyone who needs to know why, I’ll just post my original at my website. Thanks go to Rex for reanimating my remarks.

  5. Big publishers are “remarkably enlightened” ??? Are you kidding? If scholars are being screwed royally by these guys in 14 different ways, does one toss of a few crumbs constitute “remarkably enlightened”? Not in my book. On the other hand, I acknowledge the argument that much of this is our own fault. If we would insist on using the SPARC Authors Addendum, if we would submit our papers to (and cite and download from) online OA journals, if we would pressure our libraries more, and so on, we would be in better shape. But when one’s university is insufficiently enlightened to mount a repository, one can always post one’s articles. I post all my pdfs, some from journals that have accepted the authors addendum and some from journals that have rejected it. I haven’t been hassled by publishers or university bureaucrats about this, and I will probably ignore it if I am ever hassled. Sometimes one has to use guerrilla tactics, as in the circulation of the Viking Kittens video after Led Zeppelin made the creator remove it from the website (you can see that too on my home page).

  6. “I could say more but gotta get back to reviewing manuscripts.”

    TB, I respect you, your colleagues, and everything you stand for… but get over yourself. If you really cared, you’d say ‘fck the manuscripts, most people read me and Im in a department that everyone is watching and something needs to be done and its clear that few are willing to put their tenure where their discipline is.’ We need a super hero, someone who has made a significant contribution whose name (along with their friends) will make everyone stop in their tracks, and force the discipline to really change sht. (((When was our last writing culture?))) Sahlins tried with the PPP, and other faculty from Nader onwards in his age set have tried, but we’re succumbing to the commoditization of academia and not giving a sht about it, while saying “OMGGG! OPEN ACESS PLZ!!!”
    Don’t forget, we’re all complicit in making sure that the brilliant lesbian black girl from Tennessee state will never get read because she’s from Tennessee state (and she’s black, and she’s a she who isn’t writing in Rubin’s mode of making white sexuality feel natural for the discipline, or pandering to while/bourgeoisie guilt, and because her advisor isn’t a Ortner, etc. etc. etc.). Let’s hope for that girl that in her next life she’ll be an articulate Latina with janitors for parents, living in New Haven.

  7. I think anthropologists might get some ideas here by looking at their least-liked social scientist colleagues: Economists.

    They have effectively solved the open-access problem.

    Economists publish drafts early, publicly, both on their own websites and on SSRN, a despository that literally the entire profession uses. They update those drafts as the paper evolves. The final draft is basically indistinguishable from the published version. By the time the published version comes out, drafts will usually have been available for around five years. It is not unusual for papers to become well-cited and well-known and never actually be published. And this is not a marginal strategy, this is the normal strategy, the high status strategy. Cf. If you want to get a sense of how this looks.

    1. Why would we ever expect big publishing to voluntarily give up its monopoly rents?
    2. Why would we ever expect an abrupt rupture with the current regime, rather than growing a parallel regime, like economics did?
    3. What’s to stop us from doing so, aside from our own lack of gumption and satisfaction with our feeling of outrage?

  8. @Adam Leeds:

    “What’s to stop us from doing so, aside from our own lack of gumption and satisfaction with our feeling of outrage?”

    Now that’s a good question. So what is stopping anthros from publishing drafts, working papers, etc on something like SSRN?

    @Jason Baird Jackson:

    What platforms (SSRN, etc) do you think hold the most promise for something like this? Is there anything comparable already in place that anthros are taking part in?

  9. @ryan (Thanks!) I am not quite sure what has prevented significant SSRN uptake by anthropologists beyond the simple fact that anthropology is not present in the social science discipline list one encounters when visiting the site. The service seems particularly “popular” in departments and schools in which the boss (like a dean) insists that everyone use it. (This is a slightly different dynamic from those characterizing faculty self-mandated green OA by faculties such as Oberlin, Harvard, etc.). I do not know enough about SSRN.

    (In my view…) The best place to place pre-prints, post-prints, and (if allowable) publisher versions is an institutional repository such as are found at some colleges and universities. Such repositories use the best technical infrastructure and are managed by librarians with the goals of interoperability, stability, sound migration practices, and preservation. All OA works need not live in the same place (repository) because information (metadata) is harvested by the search tools that we use (general ones like Google Scholar) and disciplinary one (like Open Folklore).

    Funding agency sponsored repositories and subject repositories (such as PubMed Central or are especially good for those who lack a local institutional repository option.

    Even if one does not have a home institution with a repository, it can be possible to work one’s ties to an institution that does have one as a means of gaining the ability to place one’s work there. (Playing on alumni status, research collaborations, etc.)

    On a personal or departmental website, one can (ideally) provide links to the permanent, stable version’s of one work that live in a formal repository.

    Especially for a manuscript that you do not want to see made available forever, a personal or departmental website is useful. There are some folks who cannot make a repository option work and, of course, a website is much better than nothing.

    Rex may be able to provide a 2011 update on the Mana’o repository project that he catalyzed at Hawai’i. To my knowledge this is the furthest-along subject repository project in anthropology. I will be reporting on the Open Folklore project at the AAA meetings.

    To learn about institutions that have adopted OA mandates, see the ROARMAP database at

    To consult a database of known OA repositories, consult the OpenDOAR databse at

  10. Jason,

    Thanks so much for this reply–I have to admit that I have a lot of reading to do when it comes to all of the details of OA and all of these publishing issues, so I really appreciate your info. I have been reading through a lot of your recent posts about this as well.

    I definitely need to look into how I can work with the repository we have here at the U of Kentucky (you pointed me to this a few months back when I first started the anthropologies project). This definitely sounds like a good path to explore.

    I wonder what it would take to get something like SSRN going for anthropology? Do you think anthros would be interested or willing to follow the lead of economists, etc? I definitely like the idea. Or would it be redundant to have an anthro version of the SSRN *and* work toward building these university-based repositories?

    Thanks again. I hope this discussion keeps going here at SM and elsewhere.

Comments are closed.