Back in December Haidy Geismar, the incoming editor of The Journal of Material Culture (published by Sage), published an editorial mooting the future of JMC as an open access journal and asking readers to weigh in by taking an online survey about the future of the journal. To date, sixteen people have responded. Sixteen. That’s pretty embarrassing — for Geismar and for the JMC, but also for the open access movement more generally. So after you read this, go take the survey.
The apathy of the JMC’s readership is worth dwelling on because it demonstrates what is really at stake in debates about open access. Its not about open versus closed access, or for-profit versus non-profit publishing. Its about organic, flourishing publishing tied to vibrant intellectual communities versus mechanical mass production of journals. My use of the term ‘organic’ is intentional: just as consumers and farmers today are increasingly becoming aware of and taking responsibility for the production of the food we eat, so to is open access part of a broader movement to take responsibility for the production of scholarly content.
You see, in some sense it doesn’t really matter what the authors and editors of the JMC want for their journal, because its not their journal. Sage owns the name. So if Geismar et. al. decamp for a new Open Access Journal Of Material Culture, Sage will just get new editors for the JMC and all of the back issues will still belong to the company. This issue regarding who owns a journal is a big one and affected how Cultural Anthropology went open access. This issue is bigger than the JMC. It is about the ownership of our means of production.
The published version of the editorial about open access seemed misguided to me on several scores: right about the Finch report, but wrong about the ‘dangers’ of green OA. What can I say? Haidy and I can hash out these issues later. What’s germane now is the apathy that greeted the editorial.
To be frank, I think Geismer (and her co-author Küchler) were their own worst enemy. They write so diplomatically that it is often difficult for the reader to understand just what they are saying. The complexities and jargon of open access debates (green, gold, Finch) compound this problem. Geismar also buries the lead in the editorial, asking readers readers to work through two thousand words of editorial before actually getting to the URL for the survey. Even the title of the piece “On Open Access and Journal Futures” makes the classic sophomore error of telling us the topic of the editorial, but not the claim. Perhaps titling the piece “the future of this journal is in your hands, please take this important survey” is too brusquely American for the well-healed staff at JMC, but I think it would have helped.
But these are minor issues. I think the real cause of apathy amongst JMC’s reader is not Geismar’s prose (she’s written great, important pieces in other contexts and I recommend her work) but reader apathy about journal production. There are many sources of this apathy. Some professors still see journal production as ‘beneath’ them. Others are pressed for time. The value proposition of for-profit publishers is that they can do it quicker and better than us. Keeping us ignorant and unskilled is key to staying competitive with their clients.
The best part of Cultural Anthropology’s decision to go open access was the process by which the decision was made. It was organic. It involved a change in sensibility, strong leadership, and a rich deliberative process by members. The people who make CA have a lot of time and effort invested into it. As a result, they care what happens to it. This includes the staff who work on it, the interns who are beginning their academic careers, the assistant professors who publish in it, and the full professors who run it and whose biographies are deeply intertwined with it. The journals are metonyms of scholarly movements and networks — that’s why we describe the Annales and Année Sociologique movements use journals as their metonyms.
But it didn’t happen overnight. It took ten years of open access advocacy to grow awareness of this issue. The network behind JMC isn’t as tightly integrated into these conversations, despite occasional grandstanding, as the stakeholders of the AAA. JMC is still working on developing this history.
There are many more examples of these sorts of journals, both closed and open, for-profit and non-. In all of them, a flourishing intellectual community has developed around publishing as a scholarly project. They are like communities like farms that grow, process, and eat organic produce and livestock: informed, knowledgeable, and engaged in all aspects of the production process. Not everyone is an expert at everything, and a lot of people would rather just eat fresh produce than spend time weeding in the fields, but they all have a connection with the forces that reproduce their lives.
Many journals, in contrast, produce the scholarly equivalent of industrially-produced meat that is cheap and comes to you wrapped in plastic. Where does the meat come from? Who owns the factories? No one knows or cares. The editorial boards of these journals are like chicken farmers who have been working their land for generations, are genuinely committed to it, and yet can only survive by becoming appendages of Sysco or ConAgra.
My advice to the the JMC would be to give up their brand (and, alas, archive) and start a new open access journal from scratch. Developing an editorial chain would be an incredible challenge, and building your brand from scratch would suck. But doubling down on an organic form of publishing would create a project — publishing — that would galvanize commitments and provide focus. Less people might read it (or would they?) but the people who did contribute would be genuinely invested in it, and this investment would be reflected in the seriousness with which the community around it read the work published in it. And of course, when you make it open access, that community can grow to become the size of the entire Internetosphere.
Some people object that open access will result articles with typos in them, and that this is unacceptable. I get a CSA bag every week, and as a result have experienced from of the most gnarly and deformed carrots imaginable. Sometime there’s even dirt on them. But let’s face it: the organic stuff tastes better and is better for you, even if it isn’t as unblemished and shiny as the corporate stuff. And at any rate, journals like HAU — the Niman Ranch of open access anthropology — demonstrate that the correlation between openness and poor quality spurious.
Open access is an important, ethical commitment about the distribution of knowledge. But, even more importantly, it is an ethical commitment to the production of knowledge. I’m sure there’s a way to produce organic scholarly content and make a profit, just as I’m sure there’s a way to involve corporations. But what’s best for consumers is ultimately what’s best for producers: a cultivated community of intellectuals who know how their knowledge is grown, from farm to fork.