Against Open Access: A change of heart

Open Access (OA) has always been an issue that the contributors to Savage Minds have covered thoroughly.  When I joined the SM crew, I too joined the chorus singing the praises of OA and calling for change in our publishing regimes.  I spent a lot of time over the past year or so writing about OA issues.  It was always OA this, and OA that, and on and on.  I am sure many of you got sick of it all.  But I haven’t written about it much over the past couple of months.  There’s a reason for this.  After some recent experiences, and a lot of reflection about academic publishing, I have completely changed my position about open access.  In fact, I think the whole push for OA is a waste of time, if not a complete delusion.

About six months ago I decided to look into internships and other opportunities within the academic publishing field.  Out of pure luck, I managed to land a pretty sweet three month gig with one of the top academic publishers here in North America.  This is part of the reason why I haven’t been posting much on SM, and why I specifically gave all the OA stuff a bit of a rest.  I was intrigued and also a bit skeptical about this chance at getting a closer look at the inner-workings of the publishing world.  Due to a disclosure agreement with this publishing company, I cannot tell you which one I worked with.  But I can tell you that this experience is what really changed my mind about all this open access business.  And I can also tell you that the coffee they gave us was *not from 7-11.  It was amazing.  I didn’t even have to add a bunch of Coffeemate to make it drinkable.  Amazing!  But I am getting off point.  Sorry.

Here are a few of the unforgettable lessons I learned.

First of all, a lot of people complain about the profits that some of the big publishers make.  Ok, I get it.  Granted, there is money to be made in academic publishing, but the profits aren’t really all that great.  I mean, seriously, academic publishers?  Compared to transnational corporations, narco-traffickers, or global defense contractors, these publishers are small time.   Hardly worth getting all worked up about.   I think we have bigger fish to fry than worrying about whether or not some academic publisher is making a little money while giving us the best journals in the world.  Besides, to be honest, a lot of us are starting to come off as seriously anti-business, and in this day and age all that’s going to do is upset folks like Florida Governor Rick Scott, who already want to put disciplines like anthropology on the chopping block.  Rather than complaining about all the money that publishers make, maybe we should try to learn something from them.  If they are making money, then obviously they must be doing something right.  All we’re doing when we complain about this is generate more bad press for anthropology.  What we need is good PR, not more incessant whining.  Think about it.

Here’s another thing: I used to complain about the fact that an article could cost upwards of 30 bucks for access.  I thought this was really unfair and unjust.  But that was before I started working behind the scenes and learning what really goes into academic publishing.  Life in the publishing world is pretty tough.  You know, I am perfectly aware of the fact that academic anthropologists put in a lot of time and effort doing fieldwork, research, and all that jazz.  And surely all of this adds at least something to the value of a publication.  It’s always good to have a catchy fieldwork story, after all.  But the real value, as I learned during my internship, comes much later.  While academics undoubtedly provide the raw material, it’s the publishers who really make this material into the valued commodity it should be.  It’s like the difference between raw material and a fine diamond ring.  Packaging is literally everything.  I am not kidding: it’s the work of the publishers that really matters–from editing and proofing all the way to the final publication of a finished journal.  An academic article is truly meaningful not because of the ideas, or the fact that X or Y scholar wrote it, but because of the name recognition of the journal in which it appears.  This was something that became really clear to me during my stint as an intern.  And this is why I think that getting access to a high quality academic article for less than 50 bucks is actually a steal.  We’re lucky we get the chance to read, think about, and be influenced by the material published in top-tier academic journals.  Rather than complaining about access costs, we should be sending these publishers thank-you cards.

A lot of the OA rhetoric is about who can and cannot access academic publications.  Some argue that academic ideas should be open to any and all readers.  On the surface, this sounds like a good idea in a very democratic or populist sense.  I spent a lot of time here on SM writing about this sort of stuff.  But after a lot of long conversations with my new colleagues in the publishing world–and some excellent staff meetings–I see things a little differently.  One of the titles of a weekly staff meeting was “Complex Ideas and the public: Can they handle it or what?”  This experience was a real eye-opener for me.  The meeting was run by one of our top editorial team members, who argued–quite convincingly–that some ideas and conversations should be a bit more…private.  Why?  Simple: because of complexity.  This is an issue that I often failed to address when I talked about OA on Savage Minds, but the truth is that a lot of the concepts, theories, and ideas that academics produce just can’t be grasped by the general public.  And if they don’t understand, it’s better to keep these ideas within a safe, guarded circle rather than letting them get mangled in the public mind.  It’s for the best, if you really think about it.  Pay-walls, which I used to drone on about endlessly here on SM, are actually well-needed “security” devices (this stuff comes right from the meeting) that protect intellectual knowledge from populist confusion, misappropriation, and misunderstanding.  Again, rather than complaining about pay-walls, we should learn to see the positive side of things and realize what they really do for our academic communities–and society at large.  They keep ideas where they belong, in the hands of their intellectual creators and benefactors.

My last point is about the tenure system.  I used to complain about the connections between the tenure system and academic publishing.  But that was back in my more naive days, when I didn’t know much about the real world of publishing.   My internship–once again–really set me straight.  Tenure should be directly, intrinsically linked with the most prestigious journals, period.  And these journals should not be open to just any run-of-the-mill academic mind.  They should be showcases for the cream of the crop.  The democratic ideals of open access are fine and all, but what do we really end up with?  An unruly cacophony of voices, arguments, and ideas.  There’s no quality control, and if we are going to get ahead these days, especially with all the competition from sociologists and cultural geographers, then we need to start upping the ante.  Especially when it comes to handing out tenure.  We need to cut the low-hanging fruit, and there’s no better way to do this than through a competitive marketplace of ideas that helps cull the herd.  The only way to improve quality is to raise the bar, and this is what pay-walls do for us. They bring the best of the best–the best journal articles, and the best anthropologists–to the right readers, the ones who should be reading this material and, in turn, becoming the next generation of top anthropologists.  We don’t want just anyone.  It’s all about putting knowledge in the right places.  This is why we need an intricate, intimate relationship between elite, pay-walled journals and tenure.  It’s just how things must be.  If a few hard-up graduate students and other marginal folks can’t cough up a few bucks to read the best of the best, well, that’s the price we all pay for excellence.

Going “open access” sounds great…until you take a closer look.  Upon inspection it’s little more than a bunch of bankrupt populism based upon a lot of pseudo-democratic nonsense.  What we really need is to grow up and get real.  We need to excel, and the only way to do that is to produce a superior product that outshines all the rest.  We don’t need to be more open, as all those OA activists keep telling us.  We need selectivity.  We don’t need more voices and just any readers–we need the best voices and the right readers.  Open Access is a mere sham meant to mollify the unmotivated masses that just can’t cut it in academia.  Rather than aiming high, or striving for the best, open access leads us down a path to nowhere, with all of its high-minded-rhetoric about “inclusivity” and so-called “ethical obligations to research communities and wider publics.”  Nonsense!  It’s a dead end.  The sooner we all learn this, the better.  The next time you hear someone going on and on about the need to go OA, don’t fall for it.  What we really need is to circle our wagons.  You know this is true.  Thankfully, we already have excellent pay-walls in place that are doing just that, 24-7, even while you sleep.  Our ideas are safe and sound, just where they should be.  Isn’t that comforting?  I think it is.

Just say no to open access.  I did.  You should too.

*Full disclosure: I will be working full-time for this publishing company starting on April 1, 2013.

UPDATE 4/21/13: Just to make things really, really clear here folks: This post was written on April 1, 2013.  A day otherwise known as April Fool’s day.  This is satire.  I did not really change my mind about open access.

Ryan Anderson is a cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on the politics of development and land in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently living out in the desert while finishing up his dissertation. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

8 thoughts on “Against Open Access: A change of heart

  1. For those of us on the other side of the date-line you need to careful, it is no longer April 1st! I was waiting for the just kidding….and when it didn’t come was a little worried, maybe they slipped him some drugs in that amazing coffee. So yes, for next years April 1st post, please post it in the early hours of April 1st, so that it is still April 1st everywhere, otherwise you could have seconds of confusion on your hands!

  2. Hey Bret…

    Ya, I tried to post as early as I could. This one went up at 2 am…but I wondered about the date-line issues. Sorry for the seconds of confusion!!

  3. I received the newsletter on April 2nd, and in an outrage I was working up a “bankrupt populism based upon a lot of pseudo-democratic nonsense”-inspired comment when I hit the comments section…Well done, sir.

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