Is digital publishing bad business for the AAA?

I’ve been posting about how the finances and politics of the sections of the American Anthropological Association affects its publication model. After some initial entries I ended up faced with a paradox — the AAA budget made it look like running publications was a loosing proposition financially, and that publications were underwritten by membership dues in the AAA. At the same time, it appeared that sections relied on revenue from journals (in the shape of sectional membership dues ) to fund their activities. Since then I’ve acquired the fuller version of the 2004 AAA budget, which provides a little more data.

Here’s the deal with the sections:

To a first approximation, it looks like there are 35 sections of the AAA, 21 of which published a journal and 14 of which did not (I include here newsletters, but not occasional papers or monograph series). 11 sections reported loosing money in 2004, and of these 6 had journals. Unfortunately the section budgets are not broken done any further than this, so I don’t know how much of their total revenue derives from membership fees as opposed to subscriptions to their journal from institutional subscribers. However I can make some intelligent guesses: in their 2004 report, for instance, the Society for Cultural Anthropology reported that 2003 subscription fees for Cultural Anthropology were US$37,006. The AAA budget reports that their total revenue for 2004 was US$53,377 (versus US$27,351 in expenses). Modulo some huge shift between 2003-2004, it looks like if you are publishing a well-known journal like Cultural Anthropology yes, it does make a lot of money for the section. The overall picture, then, is that (very) roughly one-third of AAA sections ran a deficit in 2004, two-thirds of them are publishing regularly, and there isn’t an obvious correlation between the doing the later and risking the former.

More interesting, however, is the AAA-wide budget for publications:

According to the AAA 2004 annual report, in 2003 the AAA made US$696,894 selling its journals but spent US$794,164 producing them. According to John Willinsky’s Access Principle in 2000 the AAA made US$637,950 of which came from publication revenue (I’m not counting royalties here, which are negligible). However, it cost US$790,113 to produce AAA journals. Although this data is pretty fragmentary, it suggests that prior to 2004 the AAA was running its journals at a small loss and was subsidizing, say, 15% of production costs from membership dues and other sources of revenue. This is not unusual for a scholarly society (I still don’t know how to reconcile this to the budgets for the sections, though).

According to the AAA 2004 budget, however, journal revenue in 2004 was US$1,301,954 and expenses were US$1,859,346. In other words, the cost of producing journals more than doubled but revenue did not rise to match, and the publication deficit broadened out to US$557,392.

Now: the full AAA budget has a breakdown of expenses (although not, alas, of revenues). The costs of printing (US$256,890) and postage (US$13,146). This might be described as the ‘paper penalty’ — the price we pay for physical copies of our journal. At US$270,036 it’s a significant amount of the budget, but still less than half of overall expenses, although to be sure it may be more, since other categories of expenditure that I don’t understand what they are could count towards the paper penalty. Now, John Willinsky urges us in The Access Principle to give up paper journals and go digital in order to shed costs. But this data suggests that, in the case of the AAA, such a move would only be a partial fix. It would help balance the books, but at considerable cost — after all, paper is an affordance (it is easier to browse paper versions of new journals than digital ones, at least for me) and AAA members probably value it and are not ready to just give up the idea of there being a physical incarnation of AE. But most critically, giving up paper only makes sense if the cost of going digital is less than the paper penalty, and it is not clear to me that, in the AAAs case, it actually is.

How much does it cost to go digital? Chris Kelty previously “guessed”:/2006/01/01/the-aaa-budgest-and-publications/#comment-2714 that the tremendous increase in production costs we see in the 2004 budget is due to AnthroSource appears to be correct. He appears to have been right. The full 2004 AAA budget indicates that US$569,717 was spent on “UCP Management Fees” and US$85,109 in “UCP copyediting and composition.” “UCP” here is obviously the University of California Press, the “technical partner”: the AAA paid to create AnthroSource. Add to this US$654,826 going to UC Press the line item “online operating expense” which cost US$159,478 and it appears that the AAA spent US$814,304 in 2004 on digital publishing.

What was all this money spent on? I have no idea. It could be that this was a one-time cost used to get all the back-issues of AAA journals digitized, or it could be that the AAA is going to may US$800,000 dollars a year to do digital publishing. The truth is probably somewhere in-bewtween. I suspect that it tends close to US$160,000 than US$800,000. But if costs remain even half of what they were in 2004, then it looks like going digital will prove to be more costly than staying in paper. Even if we eliminate paper journals and costs of digital distribution are minimal, the AAA will only reach about the break-even point financially, and at the cost of loosing paper journals entirely. And, of course, doing both paper and digital will be even more costly than doing just one or the other.

What this discussion of expenses reveals is how incredibly expensive it has been to shift to AnthroSource. The cost of the AAA gong digital bring to the foreground one of John Willinsky’s other main suggestions for cutting costs — using open source software to produce and publish digital journals. I am sure that getting AnthroSource off the ground would be an expensive proposition regardless of who was doing it. But I do have to wonder whether the proprietary system UC Press built the AAA was the cheapest option available.

I have no idea whether the AAA considered open source solutions when creating AnthroSource. I don’t know what the recurrent budget for AnthroSource is, if anything. I even don’t know what the future is for income for AnthroSource. It may, for instance, be more expensive than paper but also more proftable if AnthroSource attracts more subscribers and/or charges more. As a result of this uncertainty it is difficult to figure out what is going on. As a member of the AnthroSource Steering Cmmittee I think I can (and plan on) getting some more information about this. But I will probably not be allowed to share it with you here on SavageMinds since not all the stuff discussed in the committee is meant for public consumption. And, unfortunately, AnthroSource has not provided much information to AAA members about what it is and what it does. The 2004 report of the “AnthroSource Steering Committee”: is pretty abstract, and the repot of the “AnthroSource Working Group”: is downright gnomic. I hope that this will change, since my (incredibly brief) time on the committee has made me realize that the people working on AnthroSource are very smart and clued in, and that the problems they are grappling with are much more complex than I had initially anticipated. So I and will encourage the committee to be more forthcoming — the data from the budget is not that encouraging, but I suspect that if AnthroSource opened up more then we’d all see it was hiding its light under a bushel.


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

5 thoughts on “Is digital publishing bad business for the AAA?

  1. Susan Skomal has written a good article about the process of creating Anthrosource. One thing that might not be clear from what Alex has written, or what ANtrhosource has published, is that Anthrosource is not just a digitization of past publications and a repository of new ones, it is a complete reorg of the way sections publish new work. Now, it all goes through UC Press, as opposed to being managed by each section.

    In some ways this is a big step forward, since it simplifies all AAA publication, but in other ways, it is a terrifying change, because it means that the sections do not get to rely on revenue from subscription in the same way as previously–but they still have to pay for the same stuff, viz. labor to produce the journal (when it is paid for).

    The costs that are covered in the recent switch to Anthrosource probably represent a significant one-time charge–but there is probably also a contract with UC Press that specifies a certain amount that AAA will pay regardless of revenues from journals, just for UC Press to manage ANthrosource. OPen source software would probably mitigate this only in small part, since the charge is probably mostly labor and overhead to maintain it.

    Surely there is someone who knows all this… Can we ask Susan to guest blog? or maybe someone else from Anthrosource/UC Press?

  2. Yes, I took it for granted in writing this that everyone knew that AnthroSource is/will be a complete rethinking of the way that publishing and researching anthropology will occur. So it is true that the money spent on AnthroSource get us more than just the latest issue of every journal. The problem is that regardless of whatever additional features there are we are still spending the money and we do not (afaik) have a business model for it.

    Susie’s article is helpful, but what we really need (as I said in the post) is the information from the reports she cites — the Mellon assessment, etc. If anyone would like to guest blog to clarify this, or Chris if you have good ideas (other than contacting Susie), that would be great.

  3. The entire system of scholarly journal publishing is undergoing vast changes. AnthroSource is but one society within this system. I’ve commented before about these changes and have a pretty good idea of whats going on since I’m involved with scholarly publishing myself.

    Electronic products aren’t free-as Rex’s post points out. Some of the “hidden” costs can be in areas few think of–such as the electronic ‘backbone’ keeping the electronic versions online. There’s webhosting, webspace rental, CPU servers, IT maintenance, uploading, upgrades, and linking. Electronic subscriber upgrade, maintenance, and upkeep also figures in. Computer backup systems are needed too, and depending on how much is backed up, it can be costly.

    Software cost must also be figured in. I’m not sure if AnthroSource uses Microsoft Content Server, or another scheme, but network software systems to organize and maintain the data costs money. Right now AnthroSource uses PDFs for electronic document delivery, and depending on the vendor providing electronic files, Adobe Acrobat Distiller might also be required to create PDFs.

    These software and hardware costs have nothing to do with paper-version fulfillment. I’m not sure how much detail UCP provides to the Anthrosource committee, but it might be useful to ask about the hardware, software, and IT support UCP is providing to maintain it.

    Although the social sciences are relatively new to online journal publishing, the ‘hard’ sciences and medical communities have been involved since the mid-to-late 1990s. PLoS [Public Library of Science] publishes several OA journals, and their OA model includes charging article authors fees to publish, thus recouping some of the extra expense involved. There are many other societies doing OA publishing that partner with publishers such as Blackwell Science, utilizing online delivery pathways the publisher already has available.

    Perhaps the AnthroSource committee could look into how the biological sciences and medicine are adjusting to online publishing, their economic models, and vendors/resources, so the committee could assess options for the future of AnthroSource and its society journals. By reviewing other models, at least the committee will have a better understanding of how to deal with some of the issues mentioned in Rex’s posting.

    Being in the scholarly publishing industry myself I would say there are many alternatives and options available to the AAA’s publishing future, however the one thing that will not stop is the onward push to online journal publication, OA or private, this I think will continue for a long time to come. I think the idea of AnthroSource was a good one, now the AAA and its society’s need to think about restructuring how they do things to remain profitable in the new scholarly publishing economy.

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  6. How much does an average anthropologist get on each paycheck? I need to know because i’m doing a report in school. And without that information i’ll get an f!

  7. Which is the way of publishing an article about iberoamerican anthropology:’Marian cults in Spain and Iberoamerica as a feature of identity and religiosity between both sociocultural realities implied’.
    The work has been made by a group of lecturers from the universities of Salamanca (Spain)and Pernambuco (Brasil).
    Thanks for your information.

    Castilla y León Anthropological reaserches institute

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