Yes, The AAA's new 'open access' 'journal' is just as disappointing as everyone thought it would be

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.

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

7 thoughts on “Yes, The AAA's new 'open access' 'journal' is just as disappointing as everyone thought it would be

  1. Totally agree Rex. Maybe the AAA should get an applied anthropologist to assess the needs and wants for an OA journal, rather than, as you said, “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.” This is what we as a discipline are supposed to be good at, right? Community based solutions?

  2. “Hau prints original research which is high quality, and it leaves it open forever.”

    Those of us of a certain age may remember wire recordings, none of which seem to be playable anymore, and the 8 tracks of our younger, more disco selves. “Forever” is a long time when writing about technologies. I hope you are right, but I suspect that it would be more accurate to say that Hau will be open for as long as it exists and as long as the technology remains useable.

  3. Well I mean that Hau puts its reprints under an open license (CC irc) that makes it open forever — it doesn’t revert after six months. I doubt the site will stay open until the end of the universe, or that we will continue to use PDF when we can store articles in nanocrystals injected into our cortex. The point is a legal, not a preservational one. Except that open content can be preserved by anyone, so maybe that will help. And also… did I just say ‘preservational’?

  4. Rex: my concern is that while paper documents last for hundreds of years, documents that rely on technologies as sophisticated as BetaMax microfiche or PDF may not have the same lifespan. “Open Access” is nearly synonymous with on-line, web-based sources, which certainly will last for my professional life, perhaps for yours as well, but for 50 more years? I dunno… If open content is “preserved” by anyone, I hope it remains open.

  5. Regarding “forever”: The Library of Congress has been struggling with the challenge of preserving electronic sources. Some of my hard science friends insist that paper journals are essential for preservation and long term access, while electronic versions are equally essential for immediate, wide access. I would welcome a guest blog from someone expert in the technological challenges here. Is posterity of electronic sources equally as long as that of the floppy disk?

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