The state of Open Access Anthro

(also at Open Access Anthro)

In response to a request from Jason Cross, anthropologist and lawyer in training at Duke University, I’ve been examining more carefully the available open access resources in and around anthropology. The aim is twofold. First I simply want to draw attention to how much action there has already been in making research open access, both old and new, primary (archival) and secondary. There isn’t a lot, actually, compared to a discipline like economics; but there is a growing array:

Perhaps most significantly, I would say about 80% of OA Journals are non-English (especially in Spanish) and non American/EU resources. It makes me dream of a world where the most accessible research in the world is done by people from the Universidad de Los Andes, The University of the Basque Country and The Anthropological Society of Nippon. Given how often the question of “indigenous” anthropology comes up amongst students and colleagues I talk to (i.e. “does it exist?”) I think they would be surprised to discover just how thoroughly it is kicking our cosmopolitan asses in the race to make its research available on the net.

The second point I want to makes (which I do repeatedly) is about the changing nature of scholarship today, and the relationship between publication and the goverance of scholarly societies and universities. Namely, universities and scholarly societies are not (and should not be) about making research available—they are (or should be) about making research good. Scholarly societies like the AAA and its sections do an incredible service that often goes unnoticed; they solicit, filter and make better the research that scholars create. The value in what they do comes not from the fact that they make research available, but because of all the human labor they provide in instigating, thematizing, editing, facilitating, promoting, networking, and otherwise giving life to our research. That’s what you pay membership fees for; or that’s what you should be paying for if you are currently paying only to receive a journal you wouldn’t be able to get access to otherwise; that’s what your funders (universities, governments and foundations) are paying for indirectly. No anthropologist is an island.

One of the spurious claims often raised about open access is that it threatens peer review. The logic behind this argument seems to be that open access is about bypassing the entire academic infrastructure from soup to nuts, and is therefore equivalent to individuals simply posting their research directly online. This argument makes my brain hurt, because to me, and to most OA proponents, open access is about making really good research really widely available. And research doesn’t get really good by being posted on the internet. Quite the opposite usually.

Now, I know everyone likes to believe that what makes research really good is the genius behind it, that cult of the individual artist that, especially in cultural anthropology, has reached a kind of fever pitch over the last 20 years. But in reality, good research is good because it is part of a social process that stretches from good pedagogy to constant interaction with peers, to delivering work at conferences and workshops, to having work peer reviewed to having it edited and checked, and to having it promoted, talked about, cited, taught, thought about and having it inspire others. Without that framework, the effort of making research good is considerably higher–and probably accounts for why so much research by “independent scholars” or people outside of the academy seems at first blush to be so unrecognizable (unless of course you are a surfer/ski bum physicist).

And here’s a little open secret: the AAA and the presses that publish our books are not only valuable because they make our research better, they are valuable because they serve as a proxy for our own assessments of quality. I just know that articles in e.g. American Ethnologist are going to be good, or at least, I will trust them more than something on SSRN, since I know that it means others have looked at it and reviewed it, and the authors have been force to please someone other than themselves. It is not good by association, but good because I know that it represents the whole social process of making-research-good. When somebody random sends me something out of the blue, I start from much lower expectations, and I’m often justified in doing so, because its still in the process of becoming good.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.