HAU and the future of anthropological communication, part I

There’s been a ton of discussion in blogs, twitter, and hallways about the AAA’s shameful opposition to the free dissemination of knowledge. It’s depressing, but ultimately I think time is on our side and things are trending up. How can I put this delicately? As generational change occurs institutions will increasingly be staffed by people who not only want to do the right thing for the discipline, but will be able to.

People have suggested some concrete steps to take in the mean time, some positive and some negative. On the whole, I think the positive ones will be more successful (although boycotting peer review duties for AAA publications sounds like a good idea), even if the enormity of their task — reformatting the entire communication system for our discipline — is almost ridiculously daunting.

I’ve talked in the past about some of the things that need to be put into place — for instance, a ‘civil service’ of people to produce journals, a way to alert people when new articles are published. A lot more needs to take place, but today I want to focus on just two of them: open access needs to acquire some cultural capital, and it needs to demonstrate that its production values are as high as those provided by Wiley.

(that shouldn’t be too hard — once again, the latest issue of Cultural Anthropology is available on Wiley’s site, but not on AnthroSource. I pointed out this problem ten months ago and it’s still not fixed. So much for ‘access to content’.)

It’s for this reason that I think we need to revisit and pay close attention to the inaugural issue of HAU. Compared to other disciplines, anthropology has not had much trouble taking Open Access seriously. Many of the au courant theorists embrace the new and made their names with genre experimentation. I remember how gratified I was by Paul Rabinow’s attendance at an early open access gathering at AAAs, and I remain gratified by Michael Fischer’s continued interest in the movement. But crazy-ass postmodernists are one thing, HAU is another. This is a journal that includes pieces by Marshall Sahlins (who has supported copyright reform for ages) and Laura Nader. HAU is so important because it represents the way the opposite end of anthropology also embraces open access. Think about this for a second: when was the last time Marshall Sahlins and Michael Fischer agreed on anything? At this point I really think that it is safe to say that the only people who firmly oppose open access are not anthropologists, but the employees at the American Anthropological Association who are hanging on to an ever-more unsustainable business model which drives them into the arms of for-profit publishers.

HAU is not perfect — yes, I’ve found a few typos here and there — but there is no doubt that it has all of the polish and shine of a professional journal. And the occasional typos it does have just make us ask: how much do we really care about typos? Are we willing to ransom our discipline’s future to the need to make sure Wiley pays someone to copy edit our publications? Personally, I’m not. But that’s because I’m one of the worst spellers on the planet. So cracking the nut of copy editing is something to add to the to-do list. Or rather, HAU get’s to add to the to-do list, since they are the trailblazers in this respect.

Beyond the journal articles, HAU’s archival section is a third important aspect of the journal. Most of the time when we free up classic content we put it in a repository and then people hear about it…. how? By getting the rights to classic material and publishing it open access in a journal, HAU combines the best of repository building with the alerting and discovery functions of a serial. Instead of “we now have 10,000 articles in our repository” they can say “this month, why not read this classic article by Leach?” It’s a great way to bring stuff to people’s attention — read: shove it in their PDF libraries — even if they don’t have the time to read it right away.

HAU has been received great fanfare because it is the first “high-end” (as the editors put it) open access general journal of anthropology. Is it all it’s cracked up to be? The answer, as far as I can tell, is: yes. Of course, I can’t really say my endorsement is made with a great deal of objectivity. True, I’ve only been peripherally involved in the journal: I wrote a blurb for them (which makes me a member of the ‘editorial board’, apparently) and I’ve had lunch with one of the editors. But my connection lies deeper, because many of the authors involved are in my personal network.

So rather than take my word for it, why don’t you see for yourself and check out the journal today?

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