Big Content’s ‘pitbull’ and the AAA

If you keep up to date with “what’s happening” on the Intarweb then you probably read “Boing-Boing”:, and if you read Boing-Boing recently (or the “open anthro blog”: or “”: then you probably saw their link to a recent article by Nature entitled “PR ‘Pitbull’ To Take On Open Access”: The plot of the story will be familiar to those who follow intellectual property issues, but what might not be so familiar to you is the American Anthropological Association’s relation to this particular ‘Pitbull.’

The plot is straightforward: there are companies out there that make money selling content to people. It may be movies, it may be music, or it may be academic articles. Although what exactly they sell may vary from company to company, all of them have one thing in common — they themselves do not produce the content that they sell. The actual movies, music, or articles are made by artists (or anthropologists, or biologists) who license their creative work to Big Content. These companies then acts as a middle man, taking a cut of the profits earned from the sale of the content. Sometimes they take more of a cut than the creative individuals who made the profits in the first place. Let’s call these businesses Big Content.

In the past, these publishers have justified their role by pointing out all the value that they add to the content created by artists. After all, they bankroll movies, hook musicians up with producers, and provide copy editing for journals. And of course there is distribution — no singer-song writer or professor of Semitic philology has the know-how to print CDs or academic journals and distribute them across the country. These are — or were — very good points.

The problem, of course, is that Big Content’s business model faces a strategic challenge in the digital age. Suddenly we can distribute our creative work across the Internet and make it available to everyone, solving many of the problems associated with distribution. Similarly, computer technology and in particular free/open source software give us tools that challenge Big Content’s claim that it adds value to our creative work. Suddenly the middlemanship of Big Content goes from seeming slightly unsavory to appearing downright superfluous. Or, at best,

In a land of plenty, what does an industry premised on scarcity do? Enforce scarcity on a world that has never known it. And just as in the recording industry, Big Content has begun using scare tactics to convince academics that the free dissemination of ideas — the central ideal of our profession — is unethical.

The article in Nature article reports that the American Association of Publishers has hired powerful PR consultant Eric Dezenhall — the ‘pit bull’ of the PR industry — to develop a PR campaign that will convince people that scarcity is good and plenty is bad. How could you possibly convince people of this? It seems a hard sell to us, but remember, this guy used to work for Enron. And they wouldn’t be paying him US$400,000 for nothing.

The solution, according to Dezenhall, is to claim that “public access equals government censorship” and to argue that peer review will collapse if the pay-for-content journal industry collapses. The second assertion — that I will suddenly be unwilling to provide free labor to journals to review the work of my colleagues if it is made free and open — is so incoherent that there is no real way to respond to it. This like saying “If we allow people to read reviews of books and music at without charging them for the privilege, then people will stop writing them”: not only is it completely illogical, it seems to assume that we live in some sort of bizzarro-world where people are currently paying money to read reviews at and this, of course, is completely crazy.

Ditto with peer review. I currently provide peer review for several journals, including the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (i.e. ‘Man’) and none of them pay me a red cent. Is Big Content seriously arguing that I would be less likely to provide peer review for JRAI if they gave me a free subscription (in the form of open access to their content)? This sort of “Every Time You Read An Article God Kills A Kitten” hocus-pocus is truly pathetic.

But wait, Dezenhall’s meeting was arranged by the Association of American Publishers and he talked to representatives from Elsevier and Wiley. What does this have to do with the American Anthropological Association? Plenty. After all, the AAA has what it calls a “strategic relationship” with the AAP and has worked with them in the past to “oppose open access legislation”: over “the protests”: of its own steering committee. There are also personal and institutional connections between the AAA and Big Content. The biggest of Big Content is Elsevier, one of the publishing houses that met with the consultant. And what is the AAA’s connection with Elsevier? Jasper Simons, the AAA’s director of publications, “is a former Elsevier employee”: who left he company to take up his position at the AAA.

Grassroots AAA members and the leadership are, in general, supportive of open access and want to do the right thing for our organization. The publishing program has made a number of important steps forward — the search feature of AnthroSource now works, and the AAA offers reduced pricing for ‘third world’ and ‘tribal’ institutions (but not third world individuals or people or others who have not officially met the AAA’s definition of ‘charity case’). But the staff’s intuitions are gravely incorrect, and leadership can’t see the forest for the trees.

Nowhere is this confused and ineffective approach more clearly demonstrated than in AAA Alan Goodman’s presidential statement on creating a “More Inclusive, Public, and Open Association” for the AAA. This statement was published in Anthropology News, a publication with a ten-year moratorium on all electronic conent, even for AnthroSource subscribers. That’s right — no one can actually read Goodman’s statement on openness because it is closed. You can, however, pay US$12 and buy a PDF of the article reassuring the importance of openness.

These sorts of statements may salve the conscience of the leadership and the small number of people who get a paper copy of AN, but the AAA’s actions in the digital arena speak louder than words. The AAA’s small steps forward are overshadowed by what the rest of the scholarly community and Big Content know — that when the chips are down, ‘the AAA’ (i.e. the staff who run AAA) side with Big Content. This article in Nature gives us an all-to-clear glimpse of who (and what) the AAA’s allies really are and what we, in the near future, may become.


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

10 thoughts on “Big Content’s ‘pitbull’ and the AAA

  1. The publishing program has made a number of important steps forward—the search feature of AnthroSource now works, and the AAA offers reduced pricing for ‘third world’ and ‘tribal’ institutions (but not third world individuals or people or others who have not officially met the AAA’s definition of ‘charity case’).

    I was about to send them a protest about this very thing, but you have more clout. I’m the indigent scientist for the Unorganized Borough in Alaska. Actually, I’m the only registered scientist. I’m in the charity case bin because the Anthropology professions have not (with the partial exception of the Canadian Assoc of Physical Anthropologists) made any official effort to clarify that some A-word transcripts are actually natural sciences and therefore qualify for state or federal employment (and re-employment, too.)

    To be fair, even the WHO, BMJ, and other portals available to the genuine third-world don’t apply to US Minor Outlying Islands ( This makes it very difficult to support people whose only hospital and college library don’t offer access to journals, even to those with big bucks for memberships.

    At least the other portals understand some of the outside world difficulties of “grassroots science”. The AAA during the past 25-30 years has always struck me as increasingly self-reverential, (from 4 fields to 1) much to the loss of all the rest of us.

  2. Interesting how “big content” (music labels and others) got taken behind the economic woodshed by “big pipes” (Goo-Tube and the rest).

    I don’t come from your world of peer review, but once your public becomes your peer review — or Amazon review — it’s up to your “big content” player, be they Nature or the mainstream media, to figure out how they can still add value.

    Good stuff — interesting blog! Thanks —

  3. I don’t understand why the AAA leadership is so against open source anthropology. I can’t think of a legitimate reason why they would be so against it. Does the AAA leadership benefit in any way from having closed source content?

  4. The publishers’ monetary interest cannot be denied. Another important factor, however, is how the current rituals of publication fit into the institutions that control academic hiring, promotion and tenure.

    Under the current (old) regime, an author writes a paper and submits it to one journal (submitting to more than one simultaneously is a big NO-NO). The paper is peer-reviewed and, if chosen for publication, revised in response to the reviewers’ comments, then finally makes it into print. The journal in which it is published is ranked vis-a-vis other journals.

    For hiring, promotion and tenure purposes, the content of the paper is now fundamentally irrelevant. It is now, in effect, a poker chip of a particular, known value. Decisions can be made by reviewing the stacks of chips that candidates can place on the table and quantitative criteria established for make-or-break points: “Great, your publications list now exceeds the minimum required for promotion” or “Sorry, kid, we see a lot of articles here, but since they are all in D-rated journals, they don’t amount to much.”

    In a world where many of the people who have to make decisions are, in fact, clueless about what the people they are called upon to judge actually do (a perfectly natural consequence of academic specialization), this is a highly functional scheme. The peer-review, journal-ranking business provides the fig-leaf that people who should know what they are reading have in fact read this stuff and rated it highly enough to get into “good” journals.

    Now ask yourself, what happens to this system in a world where people’s ideas fly randomly around the Internet and various versions of what they have written reside on servers all over the world. How do you count the value of what they have written?

    The techies among us will say, quite rightly, that with online link-tracking and network analysis capabilities, the decision makers should be able to see at a glance how frequently so and so has been cited in online conversations other than those in which he or she takes part (a necessary condition to keep people from spamming up their own reputations). But this is still a largely unknown world to the people in their forties, fifties and sixties who have to make the decisions–and they, themselves, got where they are using the old system, so their own sense of self and self-esteem depends on “I did it, why can’t they?”

    In a decade or two, the whole business of trying to treat knowledge as a collection of thingies, each of which can be exclusively owned and assigned a certain value, will probably seem as quaint as the Kula Ring to everyone except those who remember with fond nostalgia the valuables, a.k.a., intellectual poker chips, that they themselves accumulated. Until the generation that now holds the chips moves on….don’t hold your breath.

  5. P.S. Alternatively, from a broader perspective, if corporations and their lawyers have their way about intellectual property, the thinginess of knowledge may become more enforceable. Then, those whose knowledge has serious value in monetary terms may find themselves living in the world of William Gibson’s Count Zero, with Blackwater-type mercenaries hired to get them away from one employer and into the hands of another. Who knows? If universities went that way….

  6. Mr McCreery is quite correct about

    the current rituals of publication fit into the institutions that control academic hiring, promotion and tenure.

    As for his other remarks–

    But this [Internet] is still a largely unknown world to the people in their forties, fifties and sixties who have to make the decisions—and they, themselves, got where they are using the old system, so their own sense of self and self-esteem depends on “I did it, why can’t they?”

    My, my. They were right. Don’t trust anyone under 30 [who do you think invented the Internet, networking, and cybernetics? Not the under 30s]

    The remaining statement might have been new in 1974. But in 2007? Isn’t there a more relevant way to identify quality than shoving the 41 year old fogies out on the globally thinning ice, all the while blogged on MySpace, goobered, Digged, Technoratied, delectabled, p-cast, and fed?

    Random flights of bytes are just that. Is Google ranking really so different from the Kula? (talk about self-reverential)

    Open source doesn’t mean absence of peer review. Knowledge isn’t a limited good. On the other hand, the tenured establishment is. As long as there is envy of the status quo, the status quo will be jealously guarded. Who wants that?

    Just as people must share seal meat and oil to maintain physical and social well-being, so, too, must they share knowledge–so that their minds will not rot.

  7. I’m generally sympathetic to Rex’s goal of open access, and I believe that the AAA could have handled this discussion better. But isn’t it important to consider the unique economic circumstances of a professional organization such as the AAA and the subfield societies under its institutional umbrella?

    I’m not in possession of the data, but I would guess that the AAA makes little if any money from journal subscriptions once they reckon with expenses. The real issue is that journal subscriptions or login rights are defined as a “benefit of membership.” As such, they are a powerful incentive to pay one’s annual dues. For many anthropologists, I’ll bet, subscription to journals may be the _primary_ motive for maintaining a membership.

    Put another way, what are the odds that the AAA’s membership roster will grow once its journals are available to everyone for free? The Association is still burdened with most of the costs of producing the journals (which might be curtailed but by no means eliminated by abandoning paper editions), but its income is likely to decline. Sounds like a death spiral to me.

    There are, of course, ways that this might be mitigated. The publishing division of the AAA could take a mass-market approach by offering open access for a much lower price–say, $25-30 a year–in the hope that subscribership would increase dramatically. (After all, isn’t it reasonable to think that access to all of those journals is worth as much as a harcover bestseller or 30 iPod downloads?)

    In sum, I believe that the AAA case has less to do with Big Content, for which I have limited sympathy, than about the difficult funding realities of professional organizations.

  8. Just to make the record clear for mbp: I am a 62-year-old grandfather with a Ph.D. (Cornell, 1973) and a few publications to my name. In other respects, I am an academic failure, who got a Ph.D. but never got tenure. I am, however, a principal/partner/co-owner of a moderately successful small business, so that tenure, etc., is on a par with the Kula for me. One of my interests is bringing the same kinds of analysis that anthropologists bring to other people’s lives to understanding the lives of anthropologists themselves.

  9. Michael: I have an article forthcoming in Anthropology News which deals with these objections at length but, very briefly:

    1. No one has ever argued that the AAA give away its content free to everyone and then money will magically appear in their coffers. This is a straw man argument. Can we please move past this misconception?

    2. OA is not a business model, it is a scholarly ideal.

    3. Today the OA community is experimenting with means to approximate this ideal as far as possible given the need to establish a publication program that is sustainable.

    4. These include: electronic journals, print-on-demand, adding value to publications websites via social networking, tagging, personal libraries, etc.

    5. The AAA\’s publication program is NOT running in the black. It is losing money. This problem is only going to get worse (why I think this requires a blog entry of its own).

    6. The choice is NOT between a known-working charge-for-content model and a utopian and unworkable OA-inspired model. The choice is between an OA-inspired model which risks failure and a charge-for-content model which is a proven failure.

    7. Incentivizing section membership is complex, as is the funding of AnthroSource, which draws on (some would say \’plunders\’) sectional budgets. Currently AnthroSource gives away ALL sectional journals to anyone with an AAA membership _regardless_ of their sectional affiliation(s). Clearly, this _disincentivizes_ sectional membership unless people REALLY value their paper copy of Nutritioanl Anthropology.

    8. Membership in the AAA is incentivized by many things — mostly because of the way the AAA meetings monopolize the labor pool in anthropology. But also because the cost of joining is relatively low and paid for (for some) by their institutions.

    The AAA has institutional and political ties with the companies that hired Dezenhall. The AAA also has a mindset in which revenues are generated by charging for content. Enforcing scarcity is a logical strategy given these assumptions. The result is that the AAA ignores OA-inspired opportunities to cut costs, generate revenue, and create a sustainable business model. How _is_ membership in the AAA and sections incentivized? Would redundant access _actually_ lead to a loss of subscriptions? We need to have a conversation about the new institutional economics of digital publishing. The AAA\’s unwillingness to have this conversation is _not_ the result of \”difficult funding realities of professional organizations\”. On the contrary, it is the result of the difficulties of getting our professional organization to face the difficulty reality of their new, digital sources of funding.

  10. Rex–I look forward to your _AN_ article, and I believe that many others will, too. You assert that “no one has ever argued that the AAA give away its content free to everyone and then money will magically appear in their coffers.” It would be helpful to have a few concrete examples of revenue sources under the terms of the OA model. If the world at large receives AAA publications for free, where does the revenue come from (aside from relatively rare instances of licensing fees associated with the reprinting of AAA-published articles)? Are you implying a shift to micro-payments of some sort? Sounds promising, but I’d like to know more.

    The arguments about value-added via networking leave me unconvinced because of an interesting feature of academic publishing: an inherent conflict of interest between authors and publishers. As an author, I welcome free distribution of my work because I gain no economic advantage from the status quo, nor do I bear any responsibility for overhead costs. So I say, give my stuff away for free! But the publisher must generate revenues to offset fixed costs. It’s a classic free-rider problem. Even if there is a moral dimension to this–and I don’t disagree with your assertion that organizations like the AAA are under a degree of moral pressure to make knowledge available as widely and inexpensively as possible (your scholarly ideal)–the AAA isn’t obliged to commit financial suicide. Your claim is that AAA’s current publishing model _is_ financial suicide. You may be right, but I’d like to know more about the financial terms of the alternative strategies.

    Let me close my contribution to this thread by identifying what I take to be points of agreement between us:

    –The current system of academic publishing is unsustainable even on its own terms. (This is far more true of professional journals published by the likes of Elsevier than it is of the AAA.) OA alternatives should be seriously considered if they can prove their viability.

    –The AAA and similar organizations should make their publications available for the lowest price that is consistent with prudent management, however defined.

    –Organizations like the AAA must learn how to inspire member loyalty and generate membership dues by emphasizing services other than journal publication. These include lobbying for us in Washington, providing accurate and timely information about policy issues of concern to the profession, providing a public forum for anthropologists to leverage our (limited!) political influence, and organizing national meetings.

    Thanks for your contribution to public discussion of this issue, which is of great importance to everyone who toils in the groves of academe.


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