If you keep up to date with “what’s happening” on the Intarweb then you probably read “Boing-Boing”:http://boingboing.net/, and if you read Boing-Boing recently (or the “open anthro blog”:http://blog.openaccessanthropology.org/2007/01/26/nature-exposes-elsevier-and-wileys-pr-assault-on-open-access/ or “anthropology.net”:http://anthropology.net/user/kambiz_kamrani/blog/2007/01/26/a_quick_bit_on_the_future_of_open_access_publishing_anthropology_and_public_relations) then you probably saw their link to a recent article by Nature entitled “PR ‘Pitbull’ To Take On Open Access”:http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v445/n7126/full/445347a.html. 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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”:http://www.aaanet.org/press/WhatNew060806.htm over “the protests”:http://www.aaanet.org/press/ASSCletter.htm 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”:http://www.anthrosource.net/doi/abs/10.1525/an.2006.47.5.17.2 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.