Anthropology News: Special “Safety Valve” Edition

One feature of the new AAA website is a “special issue of Anthropology News dedicated to Open Access”: If you want to read these pieces I suggest you download them while you can, since after 1 March they will be “archived” in AnthroSource, among other places. — i.e. disappeared behind a pay wall.

This is, however, a big if. The good news is that Open Access is no longer the purview of the edgy blog set — professional AAA politicos now take the idea seriously. The bad news is that this special issue is, most likely, a safety valve for people to express ideas in such a way that they will have no actual traction amongst those who make the decisions.

There are reasons for this other than tinfoil-hat-type speculations that some black-robed cabal read some Radcliffe-Brown at a recent dark coven in the bowels of the Arlington office and decided to create an institution that would move the association back to what they ominously refer to as ‘the goal state’ — although personally I don’t think we should dismiss this hypothesis.

Seriously, though, while there was some progress in this issue, we still have a long way to go.

First, the photos. Remember how charging us for AN is supposed to result in high-quality ‘product’ in excess of the feeble amateur theatrics of the open access community? I have met every one of these authors with the exception of Lee Baker, and I can attest that they are all quite easy on the eyes. These are the least flattering photos I have ever seen of these people. sigh….

Secondly, the articles seem to revolve around issues that we have already discussed before. Lee Baker points out that OA is in accordance with our professional ethics and a “goal worth working towards” that will require “will require strong, and inclusive leadership”. This sentiment comes from a member of the “Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing” which was, ironically, completely uninvolved with the Wiley-Blackwell deal. I agree with Baker as far as he goes, but then again so does everyone else in principle.

Don Brenneis’s article warns us that “there are very real costs in terms of time, judgment, tact and technical expertise.” To the extent that he is arguing with someone here, it is clearly a strawman. As I point out in my article “With A Business Model Like This, Who Needs Enemies?”: no serious open access advocate thinks you produce zero-cost publications like Moses making water from a stone. The devil, as my article says, is in the details. Which Brenneis agrees with.

Less impressive is his worry about “devaluation of peer review” as a result of OA. This bizarre fear that OA might, somehow, lead to the devaluation of peer review is the kind of idea that you could only believe if you are new to these debates or spent too much time drinking martinis with your Elsevier sales rep. OA is an ideal about the dissemination of research, not a rethinking of whether or not we ought to peer review that research.

Chris Kelty points out very clearly that any idea that peer review would be effected by OA is spurious. “OA,” Kelty points out, “is supposed to be about making really good research really widely available.” And in fact as an OA advocate Kelty is also very clear the financial issues are not dodged by some sort of utopian OA assumptions of ‘zero costs’ but rather directly address the coupling between finance and political power. “The governance and sustainability
issues facing AAA are one and the same,” he points out.

Melissa Cefkin’s article takes up this issue in some detail by arguing that what is needed is “a comprehensive reexamination of publishing and other services within AAA at large” including such basic things as section memberships and what, exactly, our dues are for. Her discussion of these issues, and the distinction between products and services is in some way a fleshing out of the themes in Kelty’s article.

These are all very good ideas (I’m skipping Cross’s essay here because it is sort of introductory — but I don’t mean to slight it. Its a nice over view) but where exactly do they leave us? So far we have:

  1. OA is a good idea in theory
  2. We worry about how we will pay for it or indeed for any of our publications
  3. Now is a good time to rethink these issues
  4. What is really needed is a wide-ranging change to governance and our institutional structures.

This all sounds great. True, it is exactly what we were saying a year ago, but it is now being said by people who serve on AAA committees. So I suppose that counts as progress. But the endpoint of these deliberations is the question of what, specifically we are going to do now to these institutions.

Not only do none of these columns address these issues, there is little point in them doing so, since this sort of change — actual, meaningful change — is something that very, very few people inside the AAA are licensed to undertake. The fact that the ‘Committee on the Future Of Print and Electronic Publishing’ were not serious partners in the Wiley-Blackwell discussion is sign enough of that.

Cefkin argues that now is a good time for us to rethink some basic assumptions about our association, but of course it is always a good time to contemplate these issues if there is no time at which they might actually be acted on. Safety-valve deliberation in AN make us feel that we are engaging these issues. But until they move off the page and into our actually existing power structure they will ultimately be little more than a safety valve to let our discontent exhaust itself.

A year ago (almost) I argued that “this means talking with each other about the effect that AnthroSource and the outsourcing of our production processes has had on our membership. It means demanding accountability and transparency from our staff. It means asking our leaders to lead. It means rolling up our sleeves and having a public discussion about the economics of publishing in the AAA which asks hard questions and is not satisfied with easy answers.”

So far we are still talking about talking about it.


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

6 thoughts on “Anthropology News: Special “Safety Valve” Edition

  1. People seems to forget that the individuals, that is, the writers, the researchers, are the ones who make, through history, a good, important, and famous journal.

    If the intellectuals choose to publish articles in free and open access journals, denying the possibility of publishing in paid publications, I bet that the reality will change and the paid publishing companies will think about the future.

    Science should be free. Science and the publication of investigation, is too way institutionalize, people should make more often their own path, rejecting maintenance of reality just because it was always like that.

    Anthropology nowadays is a mess and a disappointment. Look at us, the biggest problem we’re discussing in our present times, is the anthropologists in war zones, and the theme of open access. It is such a ridiculous era to be an investigator and student. Long live the classic anthropology, cause the present and the future, is totally ridiculous comparing to the past.

  2. Rex–

    Thanks for highlighting these articles and the issues they raise. Two points on which the authors have remained largely silent, perhaps because they are of more concern to academics (strictly) than to AAA, but which nonetheless have significant impact on the possibilities of Open Access initiatives.

    One, to suggest that the alternate model is “reader pays” neglects the enormous burden on the institution’s budget in the form of library subscriptions. Here’s a short and selective list of subscription costs this past year for the University of North Carolina’s library:

    AnthroSource : $1000
    American Anthropologist: $430
    Anthropology News: $100
    American Ethnologist: $340
    Cultural Anthropology: $110
    Ethos: $80

    The second issue, closely related to these costs in academic circles, and perhaps implied in the discussions of peer review but never overtly addressed, is the relationship between publication in these journals and tenure. Unless open access journals are given the same status in tenure decisions as those published by WileyBlackwell (and Elsevier and University presses), the movement is stillborn.

  3. Will —

    Crushing subscription fees are a major motivation for OA advocates to try to change the system. These fees (in general) are high because of concentration in the publishing industry which gives big publishers unreasonable power and lets them charge what they like, not because producing scholarly journals is incredibly expensive (although, to be sure, it is certainly not free). All business models — include reader pays — face challenges. But this just means we will have to think intelligently about alternatives.

    As for the relationship between the prestige of journals, open access, and tenure, these are also important issues. Personally I doubt that we need tenure committees to recognize the prestige of OA journals for the movement to move forward. If anything, the reverse will happen — a few cohort of assistant professors will come of age with a strong sense of the potential open access, but have to publish in closed journals until, slowly, they begin accumulating on powerful committees in their department…

    A key transitional step here is recognizing that OA is a scholarly _ideal_, not a class of journals. American Anthropologist is, in some senses, an ‘OA’ journal in that authors can self-archive their post-prints of articles from that journal (thanks to the far-sighted work of the now-defunct AnthroSource Steering Committee). Sage publications allow opening up your pre-print and, after a 1 year embargo, your post-print as well. We need to preserve these victories and encourage further openness — if American Anthropologist suddently starts loosing credibility as a result you can call say “I told you so” a few years from now…. 🙂

  4. Rex,

    Since in your post you emphasize the need to think about concrete steps that can be taken by anthropologists at this point with respect to OA and AAA’s journals, I wanted to point you to the eLanguage platform (here) organized and supported by the Linguistic Society of America, as a possible model for at least some ways to move forward. The basic idea is that LSA has set up infrastructure, using the Open Journals management system (see also here for some description of the infrastructure), to enable the creation of a set of peer-review OA “co-journals” that run parallel to Language, the LSA’s main publication. The new journals are just starting out, and several ones are in the proposal stage, but it’s really looking like LSA is going to make OA a central part of the publishing model it oversees.

    In any event, I thought you, and other people here at SM, might find the eLanguage platform useful to “think with”.

  5. Thanks for discussing this, Rex. Two points come to (my) mind and here’s one.
    As I keep on ranting to colleagues, AnthroSource is absolutely the most fantastic thing that the AAA has done for independent scholars and practitioners ever (although since Noel Chrisman is the Executive Program Chair for the 2008 AAA meetings, maybe AnthroSource will come in second for practitioners). The fact is that independent scholars and practitioners have rarely had access to academic libraries and we have thus been cut off from the key discussions and developments in our fields unless we forked out a lot of money to join every section we could possibly have an interest in so as to receive their journal/newsletter. I have been delighted with AnthroSource.
    This has also been important for people who work at vastly underfunded small, urban universities whose libraries cannot afford the costs of AAA. I am currently teaching at such a university. They carry NO anthropology journals. In fact, I’m the only teaching anthropologist and I’m an adjunct!
    As a result, I was very pleased to be able to go to AnthroSource whenever I wanted to look things up quickly for a lecture or to answer student questions. (Yeah, I don’t know everything … yet.)
    But the reconfiguration of the AAA web site has had a side effect. I can’t access AnthroSource _under my own login id and password_ at this university. Instead, I get a page that tells me to get my university to BUY AnthroSource.
    OK – we’ve had an entire winter with no hot water in my building because a pipe leading into the building broke; leaking roofs, in my case from the 6th floor all the way to my 3rd floor classroom — I had to ask my overcrowded classroom to simply not sit under the leak; buildings closed for asbestos removal that should have been done 2 decades ago; and no ability to use smart classroom technology because we cannot afford to replace things like the projector lamps.
    Buy AnthroSource? Could we put things into perspective here? I’ve paid for it, let me access it myself when and where I need to. I promise that if this university ever allocates money for a full-time/long-term anthropology position and if I am hired for that position, I will do my best to get the library to buy anthropology literature. For now, I’m happy to be evangelizing the perspective of anthropology to a new population.
    /Rant over/

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