Recursive public irony

Chalk one up for Irony biting you in the ass. My article “Geeks, Social Imarginaries and Recursive Publics” is in the Summer issue of Cultural Anthropology (after about 4 years of re-writing, but that’s OK, it’s a better article now). The ostensible topic of the paper is how geeks make a “recursive public” by addressing each other in public at the same time that they address the means of making that public public– such as the ability to create networks, license software openly, anonymously contribute and read, etc. A chunk of the paper is about my good friends over at Silk List, who are inverterately recursive publicans. The Irony comes in that one of them noted the appearance of the article in AnthroSource, our discipline’s new stab at digitizing the last 100 years of anthropological scholarship–but could not actually access a copy of it. Unfortunately, without a membership in the American Anthropological Association, the article costs $12. Not a bad price really, except that the research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, and any self-respecting American Taxpayer should balk at paying a second time for research they have already funded.

But the Irony does not end there. This semester I have affiliations at three separate universities– Rice University, MIT, and Harvard. It turns out all of these institutions have subscriptions to JSTOR–which contains copies of the journal up to 1997–but none of them have subscriptions to AnthroSource, which contains the last six years of the journal–so even having standing at three very rich institutions does not guarantee access. Fine–I’m a member of the AAA in good standing, I think, I’ll just access AnthroSource and download a copy of my own article. No go. The system doesn’t recognize any permutation of any of my email addresses from any of the 8 years of meetings I have been to. When I “register” at AnthroSource, there is no option for looking up my member standing. No doubt I will have to do some sort of telephone tag or email trail in order to find the person who can help fix the problem, and probably that only temporarily.

Rub 1: I can’t even get a copy of my own article.

I knew this would happen. When I was revising the article, I returned the author agreement with an amendment that would give me the right to distribute electronic copies under a Creative Commons license. I’ve done this with four other articles I have written, but the AAA (via the University of California) said, and I quote:

The AAA does not allow authors either to amend the standard agreement or to retain their copyrights…AAA is a non-profit, educational and scholarly publisher. It exists for anthropologists as their collective publishing arm–unlike the many commercial, for-profit publishers against which Creative Commons pits itself.

The asinine suggestion that somehow Creative Commons is pitted against commercial for-profit publishers notwithstanding, they seemed to misunderstand the fact that what I wanted to encourage was for people to read my article, not the destruction of the AAA. What I want them to see, in the midst of much gnashing of teeth in the discipline about so-called “public anthropology”, is that the goal of the society should be to promote and distribute our research, not restrict it, charge people twice for it or make our lives exceedingly difficult by burying the research inside passwords and accounts and cross-linked memberships that don’t work.

The cry always comes up: “but the AAA depends on subscription revenue, without it we will go bankrupt!” To this there are two answers: 1) if the only solution to this problem of revenue means sacrificing the goal of distributing our research or making it publicly available, then fine, adieu! But, more charitably 2) there should in fact be much more discussion about how to increase the revenue for the AAA– through means other than the restriction of research–especially publicly funded research. There are ways to do this and a very lively ongoing discussion in “Open Access” such as the work Peter Suber and Public Knowledge have done– why not engage it more?

Rub 2: So much for recursive publics in Anthropology… I hope at least that a few people at the AAA, who do have working accounts at Anthrosource will read my article…

Update: I forgot to mention that the AAA is having an essay contest to best describe “How Anthrosource will Transform Anthropological Scholarship.” I’m not sure I have 1500 words in me, but it kind of cries out for a submission…

Update Two: Check out what google Thinks You Mean when you search for anthrosource. Not good.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

8 thoughts on “Recursive public irony

  1. Very, very well said Chris! A close friend of mine is fed up with the double-payment scheme since about 30 years—since then he happens to be a chair in mathematics. He always thought it to be a scandal, that high-calibre books in mathematics are equally high-calibre priced, although the gaining of their contents, mathematical knowledge, was publicly funded. “I can afford them,” he says, and reluctantly goes on, “but hell, my students can not!” Back in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union still was in existance, and when the two of us regularly visited New Delhi, we by default always dropped by the Soviet Bookshop at Connaught Circus. There you could buy all the top-notch mathematics stuff at the price of a Mango-lassi. Granted, the paperquality was genuine pulp, but the content was excellent. The Soviet Union has vanished, the ‘Free World’ has prevailed, and the ‘Free’ have transposed the double-payment scheme to the 21st century—and right to the Internet as well.

    You courteously ‘warned’ me that your article will be out soon. From then on I was on the watch. At golublog I read that it was published. So I followed the link, but was not allowed to download. All right, I thought, that’s fair enough, as I am not a triple-A member. But I am university-staff, linked to two large libraries here in Munich. Libraries boasting to carry ‘eJournals’.

    So I spawn at the Bavarian State Library’s website, click my poor self through the somewhat awkward system, only to learn that I can’t access ‘Cultural Anthropology’ from here. The system tries to appease me by offering a bribe: I am granted access to the JSTOR archives, though. Well, I knew that, as I am using JSTOR a lot via the State Library and the Univerity Library. For a second I am tempted to call the hotline and tell them that Chris Kelty ain’t a time-traveller, that he is publishing his insights in the newest issues. I refrain from doing so and instead head for the University Library’s website. Mind: the website of the Library of the University of which I am a staff-member. Just some weeks ago the head of that Library asked my departement/institute to cancel as much subscriptions to the print-versions of scholarly journals as possible, as they are too costly, and somehow redundant. Instead we should use the “phantastic online-journal system of the University Library” much more (at that point of time my colleagues and me already used it to its very limits).

    Clicking through the system in search for K-Dawg’s knowledge, same result as with the State Library—after having read your blog-entry above, I now know why. Well then, I’ll get Chris’ article from the print-version later, I thought, but now that I am here, let’s browse through the available journals a bit. During this voyage I discover more and more journals which are ’embargoed’, meaning that I have no access to the current issues, but only to back ones—phantastic online journal system, indeed. Finally I find an article of interest and start the download procedure. The system asks me to identify myself by my library-number and PIN. System says: Unknown number and PIN. Last week it still worked, so I retry, typing more carefully now. Unknown number and PIN. Grabbing the receiver, calling the hotline, explaining the issue.

    The clerk at the other end of the phone-line looks up my account and finds it to exist no more—vanished like the Soviet Union, he jokes. I crush an ammo-clip into my Kalashnikov and ask him how the hell that could happen. He asks back if I have used the system during the last twelve months! Unlocking the Kalashnikov I explain to him that I am using the system almost every day, and that at least once a week I download articles from the phantastic online journal system. “No, no,” he says, “have you ordered a book, a real book, you know, hardcopy, during the last twelve months?”. No, I haven’t, as we order books via the institute’s number, not my personal one. “Then,” he enlightens me, “your account has been deleted by the system due to one-year non-usage of the library. Online access and downloading articles doesn’t count.” Slightly, just slightly, loosing my temper I explain to him some points: 1) that I am a member of the university 2) that I am a scientist—the breed of creatures the library was made for 3) that in my contract I am guaranteed access to the university’s resources 4) that I am a civil servant, a state officer even, in the rank of a ‘Wissenschaftlicher Assistent’—something like an assistant professor in your terms 5) That he is an idiot, and worse: a bureaucrat 6) that I am in possession of soviet mathematics books. Finally I shout: “We shall see each other in court!”

    Well, so it happened. I am typing this comment from detention while awaiting the trial. I am charged for running amok in the precincts of the University Library with a Kalashnikov and a bolshevist mathematics pulp.

  2. Fine. AAA is expensive. Publishing costs money. Somebody’s got to pay for it.

    But the thing is, who should it be? Who writes journal papers? Mostly older, more established scholars. Who reads them? Mostly students. (A generalization, but give it to me, would ya?) So which group is more capable of footing the bill, if there has to be a bill? I would much rather pay to publish (something I do very little of) than pay to read (something I do a lot of). Maybe that’s self interest, but it seems like a more egalitarian solution.

    This isn’t a new idea, of course, but is that what anthropologists do? Repeat things we knew already?

  3. Dear Chris,

    Members of the AnthroSource Steering Committee have read your posting on “Recursive Public Irony” (May 24) with great interest and welcome the opportunity to address issues you raise about access to AnthroSource.

    First, we apologize for the inconvenience you had in accessing AnthroSource using your AAA membership. AAA offices have sent login information to you in the past day and we trust that you are now able to get access to the full text. If you should have any difficulty in using your AAA account, please contact Richard Thomas, Manager of Membership Services ( In the meantime, your comment about “register” at AnthroSource has provided valuable insight into the “sign in” and “register” pages and given the Steering Committee an opportunity to consider interventions that might alleviate problems some are having with getting to the full text.

    We agree with your statement that the “goal of the society [AAA] should be to promote and distribute research” and to that end our work is guided by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALSP) Principles of Scholarship-Friendly Journal Publishing Practices ( Although the open access model does not address all of the issues you raise, you may be interested to know that the AnthroSource Steering Committee is charged to “periodically reevaluate the feasibility of an open access business model”. Several of our members are active participants in the global open access movement and are familiar with the current issues and taking them into account as we continue with the design and improvement of AnthroSource.

    In a number of areas AnthroSource has set new standards in scholar-friendly publishing by removing and reducing barriers to access.

    (1) The Authors Rights statement to be released in July 2005 is among the most liberal in the publishing field, and sets a new standard allowing authors to submit post-prints not only to institutional repositories but also to discipline based repositories, such as AnthroSource. The rights are retroactive. We hope you will take advantage of the authors’ rights you have and deposit your Cultural Anthropology article with any repositories of your choice.

    (2) AnthroSource has been singled out by the library community for its very low cost. The entire package containing 100 years of legacy text for 29 titles and 11 current titles is less than half of one anthropology title produced by a commercial publisher, and less than other single titles in anthropology.

    (3) AnthroSource has taken a very pro-active stance regarding the ongoing needs for archiving of digital anthropological research to ensure that AAA publications will be available in the distant future — in archiving terms that is “400 years or forever “. To that end AnthroSource will feature state of the art digital preservation, something not addressed in the open access discussion and business model.

    In addition, AnthroSource provides enhanced visibility and access to AAA authors by providing free access to abstracts via Google and CrossRef links from within the site.

    While you raised an important question about whether publicly funded research should be made freely available, to date many funding bodies only fund the cost of research, not the publication and dissemination of the result. In this context, it is not correct to say that the public
    is being asked to pay “twice” to access the results of publicly funded research.
    We applaud efforts to build publication and archiving costs into grant funded research and expect that when such funding is available, AnthroSource will be able to accommodate and provide free-access to author paid peer-reviewed submissions.

    Finally, the ongoing development of AnthroSource is guided by the following objectives:

     To enhance the AAA publishing program and to serve as a working model of best practices for scholarly communication in the social sciences.

     To enrich anthropological scholarship and teaching through a portal that integrates existing services and tools and promotes innovation.

     To support and foster the development of global communities of interest and practice based on anthropological knowledge.

     To increase the public visibility of and access to anthropological knowledge

    We hope you will continue to contribute ideas about how this resource might better serve your scholarly needs, because AnthroSource is, after all, a work in progress.


    The AnthroSource Steering Committee
    Suzanne H. Calpestri, Chair
    Leslie K. W. Chan
    Patricia K. Galloway
    Hugh Jarvis
    Wade Kotter
    Robert Leopold
    Edward Liebow
    Bonnie Nardi
    Deborah Heath, ex-officio
    Susan Skomal, ex-officio
    Sandra Berlin, ex-officio
    Rebecca Simon, ex-officio

  4. The most successful model I’ve seen for open access would be the Public Library of Science. It would incredible to have such a system for the social sciences. I feel it’s inevitable, actually, just a matter of when and who makes the push for it.

    In the meantime the rest of us who aren’t getting published in journals and have the rights to our work need to keep using the CC licenses and posting whatever we can online. Sites like OurMedia are good places for the less web-savvy.

    Keep up the work Chris, you’re obviously being heard.

  5. Chris, why not publish your work in open-access journals instead? And as for the stuff you’ve already published in closed-access journals, why not start engaging in some much-needed civil disobedience, and put it on Bittorrent yourself? Who could stop you?


    The Scholar’s Copyright Addendum Engine might help, but yes publishers just say “I’m sorry, you can’t”

    The Scholar’s Copyright Addendum Engine will help you generate a PDF form that you can attach to a journal publisher’s copyright agreement to ensure that you retain certain rights.

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