When the American Anthropological Association announced that it would create an ‘open access’ ‘journal’, most people in the anthropology’s public sphere were skeptical. Now that it has launched, Open Anthropology turns out to be just as disappointing as everyone thought it would be. Remember the brand disaster’s of MySpace’s failed logo or UPS’s vaguely fecal “What Can Brown Do For You?” add campaign? Yeah, like that.
Many of the problems were obvious from the beginning. The new ‘journal’ is not ‘open access’: all of the material on it is being released temporarily for a six month window, at which point it will be closed again. True, older material will be available for everyone, but this has been the AAA’s longstanding policy, not something new that has come to the journal.
This is also not a ‘journal’ in that it does not publish new peer reviewed papers. Open Anthropology is a curated reprint service — it puts together themed issues of previously published material. These sorts of curated best-of selections are now very popular in the world of academic journals for two reasons: first, because they provide free samples of journals to keep it popular and thus force libraries to buy it and second, because it creates the illusion that the journal cares about open access thereby placating the less perceptive open access advocates out there.
We knew the Open Anthropology would be broken in these ways before the first issue appeared. Now that it is out, one wonders: even given how broken this model is, are they at least publishing accessible work with real value, and making it more valuable by curating it in an intelligent way? The answer, unfortunately, is no.
I am a specialist on kinship and so I know a little about marriage, which is the topic of the first issue. Some of the pieces — like Augustin Fuentes’s — are good and worth reading (especially if you are bio-deficient cultural anthropologist). Anthony Wallace’s review of American Kinship was new to me and a very interesting (and, I reckon, forgotten) moment in the history of anthropology. The problem is that by themselves the articles lack coherence and (as in the case of McGee’s 1896 “The Beginning of Marriage”) give the impression that anthropology is caught in some Victorian nightmare of armchair evolutionism. The problem is that this is not an edited collection of essays that speak to the topic, it is a syllabus for a course that no one will ever take. The editor’s introduction by Alisse Waterston helps one see the logic of grouping these pieces together. Maybe. But average readers — all 13 of them — will probably not notice the part in the intro where Waterston says “By the way that McGee piece we included is totally wrong, but we liked the data in it so focus on that”. I don’t think it puts our discipline in a positive light. True, it’s early days and subsequent ‘issues’ might be better. But overall, I get the feeling that Open Access is public anthropology for public anthropologists: exactly what we think everyone needs (and wants) to know, portrayed in a way that no one can (or wants to) read it.
How different Open Anthropology is from an actual open access journal like Hau. Hau prints original research which is high quality, and it leaves it open forever. What’s more, it also reprints classic material, like Open Anthropology, but it takes genuinely important pieces and leaves them open forever. In fact, for Hau the license is the point of the reprint — they are actively ungating and liberating content that was buried in paper form, or with a restrictive copyright. This is open access publishing done right.
In fact, Open Anthropology doesn’t compare well to Sage. God bless Sage for their unvarnished commercialism — you know that they are driven by profit, and they have gotten very good at being driven by it. They put together professional looking products with a lot of thought put into them, and they tease their availability by briefly letting you get a glimpse at them. The AAA, on the other hand, pretends to something other than self-interest only to produce mediocre work which must be disguised as open access.
As far as I can tell, the AAA is trying to justify its screwed up business model by trying to do new and interesting things with the money it takes from its members and libraries. “You get the journals,” they seem to be telling subscribers, “and we use the money we make to produce new and interesting scholarly products which you get for free.” Sometimes this is a good strategy — the AAA’s syllabus exchange is a great example of one such product. But in my opinion, however much money it cost to produce Open Anthropology is too much. Everyone would be well-served by lower journal prices and less of these sorts of experiments.