About once a year Sage opens up all its content to the public — you create an account with them, logon, and download away. What’s the difference between Sage’s periodic giveaways and the AAA’s new Open Anthropology publication? Sage knows that what it’s doing is advertising, while ‘Open Anthropology’ is pretending to be an academic journal.
Who could possibly be fooled into believing that Sage’s periodic ungating of its content is part of a move towards open access? The idea is ludicrous. Everyone knows that Sage is giving away free samples of its product — one of the oldest marketing techniques on the books. And I don’t mind. In fact, I usually use the opportunity to download as much of Sage’s total corpus as possible (after about 100 downloads you get an error screen telling you to wait thirty minutes and try again, btw).Sage doesn’t love me, I don’t love them, and none of us pretend otherwise.
What makes the AAA’s latest attempt to get up to speed with digital publishing so worrisome is that they are passing off advertising as outreach. The AAA’s recycling of old content into a new publication is exactly the sort of thing that Wiley-Blackwell or De Gruyter fill my in-box with everyday: “download the top five article from the X Journal of Y now!” Could CFPEP (The AAA committee that hatched the scheme) really have come up with this themselves, or was Wiley whispering in their ears?
That said, since one CFPEP member has asked for suggestions about how to make their ‘Open Anthropology’ publication not suck, I thought I would make some positive suggestions about how they ought to undertake the project. Admittedly, our many legitimate complaints about other CFPEP projects have gone completely unanswered, but whatever. Hope springs eternal. Since this new project is basically an ongoing virtual issues project, I’d suggest you go back and re-read my two-year old post on virtual issues. But here are the highlights:
Do not regate content once you have opened it. I repeat: do not regate content once you have opened it.
Make sure the essays around the curated content really add value to the content. In general, these sorts of introductory essays tend the be very short and go in either of two directions: first, they says something very beautiful and essayistic about the theme connecting the curated content or, second, they summarize the argument of the content. This really is not particularly helpful. Do you know what would be helpful? No regating the content once you have opened it.
These curated issues should basically be like articles in Annual Review of Anthropology – they should present the history of a topic or idea, explaining the reception of articles, the sociology of the scholarly network that produced them, and how each one led to the development of the next (ARoA, btw, does this less often than it should). Each number of the new publication should be viewed as a small, light anthology of the sort we use in teaching. Or, to put it another way, a written version of the ‘tell me your vision of medical anthropology?’ question that is usually asked at job interviews. I think this relatively new format could be a way to think seriously about what anthropology’s canon is, or should become. Especially if you didn’t regate the content once you’d open it.
The problem with doing something substantive like this is that it would cost money, which is something that the AAA doesn’t have. While ‘Open Anthropology’ as a publication is a good idea in principle, its biggest problem is the institution hosting it. The systemic failure of the AAA organizationally and — especially — financially means that new initiatives like these will likely never get off the ground. They are competing with their own institutions, and any non-suck version of them (for instance, one that did not regate its content) is basically not in the interests of the AAA itself. There’s a term for this out in the business literature — when small innovative groups create products that challenge the business model of the corporation that houses them — but I can’t think now of what it’s called.
So in the end, there is a way to move from free samples to genuine and valuable open access, but the AAA can’t do it and, if I’m right, couldn’t be the home for any group that did. Which is sad and distressing but, imho, irrevocably true.