AAA ‘goes OA’: The emphasis should be on ‘first step’

Like Kelty, I think the story of the day is clearly the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) decision to release some of its content open access (OA). And since this is my blog rather than leave my thoughts about the decision as a comment to his entry I thought I’d give my opinions an entry of their very own…

Amazingly, I agree with Bill Davis that this is an ‘important first step in answering the call for un-gating anthropological knowledge’ — although I’d put the emphasis on ‘first step’. There have been two main issues in making anthropology more open. The first is ethical: we in the open access community have been arguing for some time that open access is the right thing to do according to values at the heart of scholarship, and after some time the AAA has clearly gotten this message. No argument there. The second issue is financial: the AAA has been reluctant to open content because it believed its business model hinged on selling content to people. The OA community, on the contrary, has argued that 1) the biggest threat to the AAA business model is the AAA’s lack of capacity to act in any form, and 2) in any case, there is no evidence that making material open decreases revenues. So if the ethical imperative has been clear, there has been debate about the financial end.

My guess is that the AAA has discussed the issue with Wiley-Blackwell (WB) and WB has told them what the OA community has told them — their revenue does not come from selling content, or at least not huge chunks of old content. So WB and OA are probably sending the same message to the AAA: there is no need to restrict all content, and judicious inclusion of OA in your business model is financially sustainable providing.

Is this a big deal? It is hard to say. First, opening Anthropology News is trivial — it should have been done a long time ago, and everyone has agreed about this since the days when I served on the AnthroSource Steering Committee. The AAA should not be congratulated on taking four years to implement a change that could have taken a week.

Secondly, a 35 year window gives the world access to most of American Anthropologist, including some of the most important work in our discipline. At first glance, this is not just good news, it is utterly superb news and the AAA should be commended for doing the right thing. But there are still lots of important questions to be answered: what license will this material be released under? In what form will it be made available? Can it be included in other repositories or only downloaded from the AAA website? Hasn’t the AAA already done this? In sum, this is not as big a deal as the AAA paints it, and there is still plenty of time for this good news to turn sour. We will all be watching the AAA closely to see that this resolution is implemented sanely.

There is one other thing to note: This decision clearly represents the success of the OA community’s decision to hold the AAA accountable, in public, for its actions. I honestly do not think this decision would have been made if the OA community had not called out the AAA and demanded to know what the hell it thought it was doing. In 2003 the AAA was planning to be a ‘change agent’ in the world of scholarship. Five years later, it has become a reactive institution that slowly implements the changes demanded of it by a vibrant and active community of scholars that are moving forward without it. That the AAA responsive is good. That its internal workings cannot be used to produce this sort of leverage, or to become the locus of new and innovative projects remains disappointing.


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

5 thoughts on “AAA ‘goes OA’: The emphasis should be on ‘first step’

  1. I’m a big fan of OA but JSTOR includes Am Anth from the beginning through 2000. Are they ok with this move?

  2. Sue, this is a smart question and how the AAA and W-B are addressing it will have implications well beyond the good (limited or not depending on one’s POV) that the new arrangement can do. AnthroSource as we have known it relies upon the early content in JSTOR. It may be that arrangements can be made to open up AAA content in (via) JSTOR, but this would be most unusual. JSTOR is a not-for-profit effort, but it is not predicated on free. I have never heard of contingencies in the various JSTOR business options that would allow for unlimited ungated access. I do not know (but am very interested in) the specific AAA game plan and am just guessing, but this arrangement may suggest that W-B will be creating (as part of its news content platform and the building of a new AS) a new set of digital files and metadata for the full run of AAA publications, not relying on JSTOR for the older flagship content in (the new) AS or Synergy. This would have all sorts of implications, from deepening our entanglement with proprietary W-B systems to changing the nature of relationship with JSTOR.

    We will all learn a lot more about that nature of our scholarly communication ecology as we see this plan get implemented.

  3. I guess I’ll reserve judgement on the worthiness of the AAA open access until I see their institutional pricing for 2009. If they keep increases low, great. Kudos to the AAA and Wiley-Blackwell. If there is a huge increase, then I can’t help but think this OA business is a smokescreen.

  4. The other key thing will be the authors agreement, and the license by which the old material is released OA — if we can post preprints and repost old material then we are getting close to where we want to be.

  5. Well, the 2009 institutional pricing from Wiley is out:

    US: $1,516 which is nearly a 20% increase over the 2008 price of $1,268.

    In Wiley-Blackwell’s pricing sheet for 2009 there’s no mention of tiered pricing for Anthrosource. Does anyone know if they plan to continue tiered pricing to allow smaller colleges to get access at a discount?

    American Anthropologist is now $458 for libraries and American Ethnologist is $359. Print + electronic in both cases.

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