With a business model like this, who needs enemies?

The “latest issue of Anthropology News”:http://www.anthrosource.net/toc/an/2007/48/4 is out and features “an op-ed by yours truly”:http://www.anthrosource.net/doi/abs/10.1525/an.2007.48.4.6 on open access publishing and the AAA (you can read “the full text of the piece here”:http://alex.golub.name/res/writing/Golub2007b.pdf). Actually that is not quite true. The piece is not really about open access anthropology — it is about closed-access anthropology, the “reader-pays” model that the AAA currently to fund its publication program. At the last AAAs it became clear to me that the biggest problem that sectional publications (think American Ethnologist and Medical Anthropology Quarterly) were having was staying in the black. In an atmosphere were the costs of publication threatened the existence of journals themselves, no one was interested in talking about open access because “giving it away for free” was perceived as an even worse situation than the one that journals were currently in.

So in fact the focus of the piece is not on open access, but reader-pays business models and the unspoken assumption that many at the AAA that they are a tried and true method of keeping journals afloat when compared to the utopian but supposedly ultimately suicidal open access option. The goal of the piece is simply to point out something that everyone already knows but conveniently forgets when they begin talking about open access — namely, that the current reader-pays model for funding AAA publications is broken and has been broken for a long time.

The key, I claim, is that an ethical commitment to open access has prompted an entire community to develop what I clunkily call “open access-inspired business models”. That is to say, the open access community has developed methods to radically lower the cost of publishing and that these methods are what make some sort of open access a realistic option. The second half of the piece then focuses on what would have to happen for the AAA to attempt to incorporate some of these OA-inspired models in their own publishing program. Personally, I’m not holding my breath. But it is important for people to realize that it is the open access model (and all that it entails), not the reader-pays model, that is financially ‘realistic’. Check it out.


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 rex@savageminds.org

8 thoughts on “With a business model like this, who needs enemies?

  1. Also interestingly (and irritatingly), our library subscribes to AnthroSource, but I can’t access recent issues of Anthropology News (which is a bummer, because I want to read the response to your piece).

  2. Ubikcan — as I say in the post, you can read my piece http://alex.golub.name/res/writing/Golub2007b.pdf

    John — Yes — in order to incentivize membership in the AAA, AnthroSource does not make AN available to subscribers! If you want to read Stacy’s response then you have to join AAA and wait for the paper version to be mailed to you. Brilliant, isn’t it? My impression is that everyone wants this to be changed, but nothing has been done. A perfect example of the lack of ‘capacity’ I talk about in my column.

  3. I appreciate the AN essay and agree that the status quo at the AAA (and elsewhere)is untenable. That said, I’d like to hear more about how an open-source version of AnthroSource would fund itself. My contacts at libraries tell me that the notion that electronic records are vastly less expensive to maintain than paper is turning out to be bogus, especially when one considers that about 10 percent of the digital collection of major libraries has to be migrated to new media annually for conservation reasons and to deal with technological obsolescence. So while there are real economies associated with going digital, they may not be as dramatic as advertised. Where is the income stream that will cover the salaries and servers? I’m genuinely curious.

  4. Well the wonderful thing about short op-ed pieces in popular journals is that you always conclude them with “we need more discussion about this” rather than presenting any realistic positive alternative!

    More seriously though, while I don’t have the numbers in front of me I am inclined to agree with you that AnthroSource as it currently stands probably would not work using an open access. But then again (and this was my point) it doesn’t _currently_ work with reader-pays income streams either.

    I have no idea who argued that storing acid-free paper in a cool dry place was MORE expensive than managing a computer but I can assure you it wasn’t me! My argument is not and never has been about whether digital is less expensive than paper. It is about how to support the costs (which you rightly note) of going digital.

    What I have claimed is that open access-inspired business models are much, much cheaper than the for-profit models employed by AnthroSource. To repeat, this not a point about how open access has no costs attached. It is a point about how bloated and inefficient for-profit models are.

    In other words, if you think buying a terrabyte or two (or ten) of storage media every year is expensive, imagine how much it would cost to pay a private consultant to develop a proprietary software platform to host your content, outsource hosting to a private for-profit company, and then pay them to support your computer and THEN have them buy the extra storage for you.

    The point of the article was not to claim that OA is free, but to point out how tremendously expensive the for-profit mindset is.

    But to answer your question: funding for OA models will come ideally from section memberships as it always has done. As in the past, journals can gain access to resources like bandwidth and cheap labor by partnering with universities (there is a long tradition of this sort of collaboration). Journals can reduce hardware and bandwidth costs by partnering with groups such as scholarlyexchange.org, which provides hosting for OA journals of less than US$1,000 annually. They can use software like LOCKSS to produce (relatively) cheap archiving. I mean they can have pledge drives if they want. They key thing is that if the budget is in a four figure range rather than a six figure range, a lot of things become possible that weren’t before.

    Does that make sense?

  5. As editor of Museum Anthropology (MUA) (and now its experimental OA companion Museum Anthropology Review (MAR)) I am in the middle of several interlocking debates and discussions about the future (of MUA) that preclude me from commenting on this important subject as fully as I would like. I want to register my thanks for everyone who has worked so hard to debate and educate on the subject. In light of the current discussion here, I can observe that the support of universities, museums and other institutions that employ volunteer journal editors, is a real factor that has not been talked about enough. Frankly, this support is eroding and in some cases is going away completely for reasons that can be pretty easily understood. The disappearance of this support is making publishing under the old model AND the prospects of publishing under the emergent model both more challenging.

    There clearly was a time when Deans (to take the university-based instance) saw clear-cut value in the prestige (and the intellectual stimulation) that hosting an editorial office brought to a department, college and university. These and other intangible benefits seem, in some places at least, to be carrying much less weight in the allocation of scarce dollars. My sense is that deans want to know the hard facts and to see clear benefits coming INTO the host institution, not just costs flowing OUT from the host to the journal’s sponsors, section members, readers, etc. The higher the ISI impact factor of the journal, the more generous a dean might choose to be, but most anthropology journals are not even ranked by ISI. Explaining the benefits (successfully) seemingly grows harder and harder.

    As our publishing programs and our host institutions have both become increasingly “rationalized,” with the imposition of business models, cost-benefit analysis, etc., it is not surprising that institutions do not wish to “subsidize” lower-than-otherwise subscription prices, section memberships, complex co-publishing partnerships, etc. Unless an editor can bring resources into his institution, hosting an editor looks less good all the time. Some AAA journals get significant in-kind support from the institutions that host editors. Some get some support, in a cost-matching sort of equation. Some get little or no local support. There are not necessarily any structural patterns associated with these patterns, although certain kinds of institutions remain more willing to support certain kinds of journals more than others.

    If the work of a journal requires, for instance, a graduate student editorial assistant, this is a make or break matter. If, at the change of an editorship for a given journal, a journal moves from an institution that paid for such a position to one that does not, the (in the AAA case) section is suddenly faced with the need to radically recalibrate its budgets (or radically change its journal) in a relatively brief span of time. This is a real-world stress that is currently being experienced by actual AAA sections and it is compounding the other stresses in the publishing system. Finding a person willing to take on an editorship AND able to bring host-institution resources to the task is a significant problem with many consequences. Good people otherwise perfect for an editorship never get the chance, because of the nature of the institution in which they work. In-kind contributions can come to greater prominence than editorial vision. I suspect that some established journals will just run out of gas in the middle of the road because of this dynamic. Finding editors for the established journals seems to be growing more difficult (I could be wrong, it might always have been hard) in part because of such considerations.

    On the OA side, perhaps the problem will be solved by distributing the work-load across teams of people, by leveraging the technology more efficiently, and by winning institutional support by addressing an institutional problem on the consumer side (i.e. runaway institutional subscription costs).

  6. As Jason Jackson points out (but the AAA itself does not understand) most universities are unwilling to cough up a thin dime for in-kind expenses (I am talking about my own university, Trent University, but it is a common experience). Factually I run the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology entirely out of pocket, the main expenses are related to sending books off to reviewers. This means that Wiley-Blackwell and the AAA in effect make quite of bit of their money off volunteer labor, not quite the same volunteer labor that built the pyramids, but close. The fact that the product is made by volunteer labor but sold as a vendible commodity for profit is close to the classic definition of exploitation.

    I think we could easily create alternate modalities of open-access journals (after all, I solicit, review, edit and copy-edit the thing, I could just hit the ‘make pdf’ button and voila, we have ‘published’ it), I’m not talking about the back issues, but new journals. I would like to do so, in fact. One problem is that our notions of prestige are so closely tied to notions of uptake in a market context that publishers, though technically irrelevant, ultimately are seen by many as the source of prestige, rather than the skilled labor of the editors and reviewers that make the product. In effect, the real source of prestige in the book market in particular is the idea that market uptake, the publisher in particular, are the real source of prestige, the same is also true of journals, and, also, ourselves as marketable commodities, as anyone who has lost their affiliation can attest.

    This is changeable, this idea that the arbiter of prestige is the publisher and the market and not the editor, editorial board and the reviewers, but who will take that step and risk their own work to make the point? and which editors will move to create new journals (I take it as a given that the old journals are captives of the ancien regime).

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