Several of our “sister websites”:http://antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/index.php?p=1347&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1 have been commenting on a “recent article”:http://www.aaanet.org/press/an/0905/Lathrop_Bakke.htm in Anthropology News which seemingly sounds some gloomy news for open access scholarship in anthropology. Indeed, Judd Antin goes so far as to ask whether “there something fundamental about anthropology that makes the discipline averse to an open model”:http://www.technotaste.com/blog/no-open-source-anthropology-at-least-not-anytime-soon/. The short answer is: no. The long answer is: yes, if by ‘open source’ you mean ‘AnthroCommons’.
What did this article actually find? The authors wanted to understand how people use digital genres to organize scholarly meetings. They concluded that people used email and face-to-face interaction. No surprise there. Although many people liked the idea of posting conference papers on the internet, in practice very few were willing to do so themselves, and most people thought it would be better to make abstracts easily available online.
So: people like to use email to send papers to each other. Why? Because it’s private, they already know how to use it, they use email as a file system to store, index, and retrieve attachments, they’re not actively interested in adopting new technology for its own sake (if it’s not broken, don’t fix it), and new genres are not obviously sufficiently better than existing onces to induce a switch. In other words, we use email because it is a good tool for the job we want to do.
Why would people be averse to publishing their papers online before the AAA meetings? Two things occur to me here. Come on, folks: we write our papers the night before we give them. Let’s just come clean about that, ok? Our aversion to choosing a Creative Commons license has less to do with concerns about intellectual property, and more to do with the fact that we don’t want to admit to our session organizer that we haven’t finished our paper. Second (and more importantly), conference papers are some of the worst work we produce — they are poorly edited, the citations are often incomplete or wrong, and the arguments we make in them may change over time. There is nothing wrong with this — it is just another way of saying that conference papers are the first step to a final polished document that we do want to make available to the world. David Weinberger once glorified the Internet as a form the raised the first draft to the level of art, and I don’t have any problem posting my informal work on the internet (hence this blog) — but why in the world would we as scholars want these hesitant, initial steps of our thoughts to appear at the top of a Google search for our name?
Much of the article’s discussion of open source and anthropology came in the context of evaluating AnthroCommons, a ‘virtual community’ (i.e. bulletin board) for anthropologists. They found that people didn’t like AnthroCommons. But just because people don’t like AnthroCommons doesn’t mean that they don’t like open source. It means they didn’t like AnthroCommons. Duh.
And people really don’t like AnthroCommons — only five of the 619 people surveyed said they’d actually posted anything. Now admittedly, I’ve not read the full report — while the news article states that “the full report is available through the AAA website” there is no clue on the website as to where it is. There isn’t even a link to the report in the article! This is an egregious flaw for which the gods of useability (or any webdesign 101 teacher) ought strike them down. Regardless, five out of 619 does not bode well.
It’s easy to see why people don’t like AnthroCommons. First, the site is graphics heavy (the text in the ‘about’ page is actually an image of text, not CSS styled text). Second, it is hard to use (if you want to get at the content of the website, you must click the ‘browse’ link, not the ‘content’ link). Third — what is the point? To repeat, email is easier to use than AnthroCommons. There is no real reason to make conference papers public, much less open source their contents. And believe it or not, despite my own enthusiasm for open source models, I would argue that there is no point in releasing your forum comments under an open source model. I mean, thank god: finally, someone can mix, rip, and burn such earth shaking creative works as “what time is the conference again?” Let the revolution begin!
People clearly want AnthroCommons to be a place where they can quickly and easily browse through session abstracts and — after the session — make papers available to fellow participants and selected others (but not everyone). We desperately need this because those little catalogs we all have to carry around are a pain, and I can think of ways of adding value to these catalogs when we digitalize them. What if you could login (easily) and search (easily) for sessions (and topics, and people), and then save the ones you were interested in on a personalized schedule page? You could even rate them so you could figure out which ones to skip once Conference Fatigue set in. And then you could print up a little schedule, map, and room guide and carry it around with you. If the site was well designed and standards compliant, you could even browse it on your cellphone as you were walking around the hotel trying to decide what to do next. And none of this, of course, has anything to do with open source.
Open source is a superb way for us to share the information with the world that we want to share — the polished scholarly work on which we stake our reputations and careers. But it is not a magic sugar shaker which can be sprinkled over any project with the word ‘community’ in it in order to make it even better. Similarly, technologies are not necessarily better because they are newer. Poorly designed technology designed to do something users have no interest in is not going to be successful. This does not mean that anthropologists hate open source, it means that we need it to be applied where it counts — in the distribution of our journals, magazines, and other scholarly products, not in forum postings or incomplete rough drafts. Is it really a surprise that anthropologists are averse to the use of open source when it is done poorly? No. Can we imagine a way to do it well that anthropologists might love? Yes. Does such a thing exist now? No. Should we create one in the future? Obviously.