The American Anthropological Association’s lobbying against open acess is so, so misguided

Thanks to the invaluable “”: for pointing out that “the American Anthropological Association opposes open access scholarship”: As Lorenz points out in the link above, the AAA has issued a “press release”: saying that it is has signed on to “letter by the Assocation of American Publishers”: which opposes the “Federal Research Public Access Act”: Our sister (brother?) organizations the American Sociological Association, the American Political Science Association, the Society for American Archaeology, and others have not signed this letter. The AAA’s main reason for doing so is, according to them, “the potential impact the proposed legislation may have on the AnthroSource business model and revenue generation.” The sad — indeed, pathetic — thing about this decision is that I am actually on the AnthroSource Steering Committee and didn’t hear anything about this decision. On another occasion — when I am allowed to speak more publicly about the internal workings of the AAA — I’ll discus what I think is wrong with how this decision was made. Here I’d just like to discuss how wrong I think it is.

The Federal Research Publication Access Act requires that researchers submit manuscripts of published articles to open access repositories run by the government. So, for instance, if you got an NSF grant to do your fieldwork and published an article in American Ethnologist about it, you would put a copy of the manuscript of the article in the NSF repository where everybody could read it. This is a good thing for authors, because it has been shown time and time again that when they publish in open access forums their work is more widely known. And it is good for researchers-cum-tax payers because they don’t have to pay twice for a piece of research.

You see, currently the way that much scholarly publishing in the US works is this: tax payer dollars go to the government, which gives them to researchers as research grants. The researchers do research and submit the articles to journals. Other researchers then peer-review the articles submitted to these journals for free as part of their service to the academy. This adds value to the articles because the peer reviewers provide suggestions for revision which strengthen the article. They also add value to the journal by ensuring that it produces reliable research. The journals then charge money for this product, and taxpayers then buy it. The result: tax payers pay twice for access to research, and journals make a profit selling a product subsidized by the unpaid work of peer reviewers and government funded research. How much value these journals add to a product is an important question. Some would say that without publishers there would be no journals at all and that they provide the technical infrastructure to create publications — they provide a public good and the market rewards them for it. Others would say they are parasites who exploit the work of others for profits. I fall somewhere in the middle of these two views, personally. But the key question here is exactly how much value publishers add to journals.

The American Anthropological Association doesn’t like this bill because — according to the AAP letter it signed onto — it believes it would “adversely impact the existing peer review system that ensures the high quality of scientific research in the United States. In addition, it would impose costly new mandates on federal agencies.” has its own “evaluation”: of this claim, as does “Peter Suber”: However let me add my voice to these other writers and take a look at these claims…

Let’s take the first claim: the AAA basically believes that the peer-review system will collapse if federal repositories are created because no one will subscribe to journals and as a result journals will not be able to maintain “staff, capital, and operational costs to manage the peer review system.” This is wrong for many reasons. First, the Federal Research Publication Access Act has a six month moving wall for content so new articles will not be immediately available. Second, the articles in the public repositories will be unpaginated manuscripts, not final paginated offprints of articles, and so they will be less citeable. Third, the repository will not take a paper form, so it will not compete with demands for a journal’s paper product. In other words, the federal repositories will be hobbled so that they will not be able to compete with journals.

Fourth, open access repositories do not necessarily result in the extinction of journals. In physics, for example, the existence of has not destroyed the publication of physics journals. Fifth, this argument assumes that journals are actually funded through subscriptions, but that is not true. Many scholarly associations pay for their publication program using membership dues. In fact according to John Willinsky’s book The Access Principle (p. 219) in 2000 the AAA lost over US$100,000 on publications. I double dog dare any member of the AAA or AAA staff to guest blog on Savage Minds and explain what has changed and how a feasible business model based on subscriptions would/will/has worked for the AAA.

In other words, in order for publishers to argue that it will become unprofitable for them to run a journal because of competition from open access repositories, they must argue that they provide very little value to a journal as a product. If it is really the case that these federal repositories will compete them out of existence then finding another forum for coordinating peer review cannot — by their own admission — be that costly. I think its much more likely that publishers of for-profit journals (which the AAA apparently considers itself to be) could innovate and provide increased benefits to their subscribers that open access repositories provide, but would rather not do so simply because efficient markets are never fun for sellers, and this change makes put a premium on the services that publishers actually add to a journal.

As for the second argument that federal agencies will have to waste tax payer dollars constructing costly and inefficient alternatives to free-market delivery of services provided by for-profit publishing. According to “Sparc”: the NIH estimates that it will cost .01% of its budget to set up a repository. True, that’s 3.5 million dollars! But still, this is hardly an enormous amount of that institutions over all spending. And given the tendency towards consolidation of the publication industry under a few major publishers, we can no longer assume that the ‘free market’ is more efficient than government interventions.

Is the Federal Research Publication Access Act a challenge to scholarly publishing? Of course! But simply because a business model faces a strategic challenge does not mean that the challenge shouldn’t be faced. It might even be that life after the challenge is better than life before. I am not surprised to see Elsevier, Sage, and other publishers attempt to stop this law. I am, however, surprised and saddened to see the AAA get on the bandwagon. Perhaps the AAA would like to see changes in the law. Perhaps it is lukewarm on these proposals. But actively lobbying against an open access bill is, in my opinion, totally inexcusable.


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

11 thoughts on “The American Anthropological Association’s lobbying against open acess is so, so misguided

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  2. Let me say first that I am all for open source, and for the reasons you lay out and for others as well; but you have to face the fact that what the US Senate is proposing does have the potential for vastly changing the peer review system. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because peer review isn’t the greatest thing in the world, particularly blind reviews which have suppressed articles that disagree with the prevailing paradigm. But the fact that making articles free for the download will effect peer review is a rational concern, and for sure Steven Harnad would agree with that.

    As far as I’m concerned, the radical alteration of the peer review system is something devoutly to be wished, but we must figure out what replaces it.


  3. Kris —

    I agree that the bill has the potential to vastly change a lot of things. The question is whether, after careful consideration, we think the changes will create a situation better than what we have now. I think the AAA’s response to this intiative betrays a rush to judgment based on FUD rather than a careful consideration of the many factors you mention.


  4. Much applause for this entry.

    I suppose the AAA deserves a mild nod for at least being honest about the rationale for its opposition, but considering how indefensible that rationale is, it’s not much to their credit.

    The possible effects on peer review strike me as a positive corollary of the legislation, to be honest.

  5. “The result: tax payers pay twice for access to research, and journals make a profit selling a product subsidized by the unpaid work of peer reviewers and government funded research.”

    Jeesh, where to begin? Rex, have you ever heard of a library? Last time I checked, mine was stocked full of those paper and ink journal thingys and – lo and behold – I didn’t have to pay a dime to “access” them. I really weep for anthropology. The AAA takes a (rare) sensible stand and, immediately, the circular firing squad forms…

  6. Josh,

    The issue isn’t access to published material — most academics are more than aware of the value of a good library. The issue is access to material that is *not* published — publicly-funded research that becomes “intellectual property” or, worse, “trade secrets” of private corporate entities. That you /won’t/ find in your library.

  7. One also needs to consider what counts as a “good” library. How many people actually have ready access to one? If there is government research on a critical health issue, shouldn’t that be available to anyone with web access?

  8. Josh — I\’m not sure what claim your example of libraries is meant to support. Can you be more specific? Public libraries are a great example of a \’hobbled repository\’ — they provide free access to information, but makes it inconvenient enough to access that information (i.e. you have to return the book and xeroxing all of it is a pain) that publishers are still able to sell their produce to the general public. In fact the coexistence of libraries and the contemporary publishing industry is a great example of how open access to information and for-profit publishing can coincide.

    Of course, there are people out there who think that libraries should be shut down because they cut into publisher\’s sales. But then again there are also people who think marriage should be illegal because of the unfair barriers to competition it raises for prostitutes.

  9. What I am reacting to is, first, the idea that “tax payers” are somehow being ripped off when publicly funded research is published in academic journals (journals that -at present – anyone with a degree of interest – heard of nter-library loan? – can access for free already.

    Second, I know you all are caught up in open source millenarianism, but I really think that you are missing the point of the bill. The intent, I believe, is in part to create a one-stop shop for critics of “frivolous” research funded by the federal government. If you don’t think that anthropology will be the first thing on the chopping block, you are blind. Of course, given some of the comments in this thread, many around here aren’t exactly fans of the peer review system. Watch what you wish for: a system in which the mob decides what research should and should not be funded – to which the bill brings us a step closer – will not be one that is friendly to anthropology.

  10. Josh — I think our disagreement lies in the overly simplistic view you have of how people access information.

    People’s ability to be alerted to the existence of content and to access that content is critically shaped by, as it were, the architecture of the institutions in which they live and act. Faculty members with access to a large research library which subscribes to thousands of journals and online databases can access information quickly and easily, whether it be by downloading dissertations from their offices or skimming the table of contents of an entire run of a journal while browsing in the stacks.

    Cowboys who are not academics who live in rural areas and have to travel a half hour to a small under-funded library do not have access to these resources. It is true that they may be able — somehow — to hear about an article in a journal they want to read, fill out an ILL request, and then after a month the journal issue may arrive and they can drive a half hour to pick it up.

    Both the professor and the cowboy may have ‘free access’ to ‘the same information’. But only in the most trivial sense of the word. I use extreme examples for illustrative purposes but the point holds even in other more moderate cases: the architecture of institutions matter — a fact that is obvious to anyone who has done research in a small library dependent on ILL. Which I’m guessing you haven’t.

    As for your assertion that I believe that tax payers are being “ripped off” because they are paying twice for research, I can only say you are putting words in my mouth. As I said in my post, for years we have paid twice because for-profit publication of content was the most efficient way of getting access to content. We weren’t being ‘ripped off.’ My point is that now we have other options to explore and we should explore them to see if there isn’t a better way.

    Finally, you claim the AAA is secretly being lured into some attempt to destroy its research funding. This seems absolutely bizarre to me. 1) recent attempts to cut funding to the behavioral sciences have been quite overt (i.e. the recent attempts to change NSF) why do you think secret methods are being used to bring us to the ‘chopping block’ 2) It is not clear to me how much anthropology IS funded via institutions covered by FRPAA. Wenner Grenn, SSRC, university grants to faculty, and so forth cover a lot of research in anthropology — especially post-dissertation work. 3) I believe that anthropology is not frivolous research and I think we can prove it to tax payers — especially when our work is freely accessible to them.

    So in sum although you accuse me of a sort of religious fanaticism (millenarianism) but you seem to be the one with the strongly-held, but weakly-argued claims.

  11. This would be the challenge then, as always and as it should be. Prove it to the taxpayers. How are your research and findings relevent to the “average” taxpayer and what does it mean to all? That your cowboy is armed with the same information as your professor could define casual or activist interest in your research from a variety of prospectives, the least of which is not public conceptions of “frivolous research”. It certainly would add a whole other dimension to the research process if the quest need be tied into the greater reality, as it were. Could be the beginning of yet another liberal arts revival on tomorrow’s college campuses as the search for social relevance rears it’s ugly head.

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