Open Access and “Open Access”

Breaking News! Stop the Presses!!! OMGWTF!!!!

The AAA has breathlessly announced that it is going open access!! American Anthropology and Anthropology News will now be Open Access. (um, but just those issues between 1888 and 1973).

So, this is great, really, despite my snarkiness. The AAA has realized that opening up 35 year old scholarship is not a threat to their publishing revenue, and it may well improve public understanding of anthropology. This is a huge step forward.

However, two things, 1) isn’t this already the case? Where are we with this decision, given that the AAA seems already to have said that re-publishing content prior to 1964 is not necessarily improper? What am I missing? and 2) It sucks that this is being called “open access”— it is not, not by any contemporary definition of the term. I think it is quite appropriate that the press release says “AAA creates ‘open access’ to anthropological research”– I’m not sure whether that’s an appropriate use of quotation marks, grammatically speaking, but it should make readers double take as to whether or not this is really open access or not.

“This historic move, initiated by the needs and desires of our worldwide constituency, is our association’s pointed answer to the call for open access to our publications. This program, I believe, is an important first step in answering the call to un-gating anthropological knowledge,” AAA Executive Director Bill Davis said in a statement issued today.

“Pointed answer”? Whatever. I hope it is the first of many steps that will start to come a little more rapidly, I sincerely do. I realize it’s almost predictable, for AAA executives, that I and others might react this way, but make no mistake: what is happening here is a dissolution of the term open access and a pretty shameless use of this opportunity to issue a press release that might repair some of the damage the association has suffered on this issue. Fair enough, they are trying. Try harder, I say.


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.

7 thoughts on “Open Access and “Open Access”

  1. 🙂 Open Access to the past I would say. I’s a start, but they should no better. The present is also important to be prepared for the future.
    The Museums seem to start be be in fashion here in cyberspace. One more re-creation of what we have on-site. Not bad indeed, but they can do so much better!

    Isn’t the purpose of research to contribute to a wider body of knowledge. Should it be our first intent to share it / disseminate our finding with the wider community.
    No…it’s still thought that what is good has be kept safe and locked away.
    Reminds me of my old dolls who lived in boxes and were put away in top shelves so I could dream of them without reach without anything else but my eyes.
    When I was allowed to play with them, I had totally lost the interest. They were also quite outdated by then…anyway!

  2. bq. Isn’t the purpose of research to contribute to a wider body of knowledge? Shouldn’t it be our first intent to share it / disseminate our finding with the wider community?

    I am reminded of something I once wrote about advertising in a piece called “Malinowski, Magic and Advertising” in John Sherry, ed., _Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook_.

    bq. As regards secrecy, ads follow a curious cycle. While being planned they are kept secret, lest ideas be stolen and used before they are scheduled to appear. Once published or shown on TV, they enter the public domain, subject, of course to the ownership claims [copyrights, image rights, etc.] sketched above. Then, however, they become, as it were, negative models that reduce the value of similar ads that appear later.

    I suggest that academic publishing is much the same. Reputations depend on being first to publish particular insights or observations. Authors are, thus, reluctant to expose their ideas before they are legitimated by the kind of publication that counts toward tenure or promotion. Once published, however, there is no reason not to–and every reason to–make them as accessible as possible, for now the name of the game is citation and making it easy to find and cite your work is a no-brainer.

    I acknowledge that what is written here assumes a kind of economizing in knowledge dissemination that is alien to the sentiment that all knowledge belongs to the commons. I am curious, though, as to whether the model sketched here seems realistic to those involved in this discussion.

  3. John, There is a parallel to your account in the exchanges centering on Kim and Chris in “Anthropology in/of Circulation” where Kim advocated for diversely structured (granulated and accountable) systems of “access” (and circulation) for a range of primary materials (including no access) and then Chris noted that scholarly publication as we have known it crosses a threshold where only full openness makes sense. BTW, I do not think that this was a debate inside our group. I think there was agreement on both points.

    In assessing AAA governance, I want to note that editors and section leaders were made aware of the proposal that led to this decision prior to it being finalized and announced. We learned of it, I think, when it was moving from CfPEP to the CSC.

  4. This is one occasion in which I can’t help but react viscerally.

    Are they kidding?

    To be perfectly honest, I’m glad at this point that I let my AAA membership elapse.

    On John’s point, it does seem to relate to the logic of advertising, at least in some ways. But the AAA’s tactic makes so little sense when it’s applied to postprints by scholars whose work is supposed to be available to the people with whom they work (the “subjects”) and to the people who fund their research (the public). Advertising follows a similar logic but the people involved are private groups so the logical implications are different.

  5. A 35yr moving wall? To me this smacks of a statistical analysis – as if someone looked at the focus of downloads from Anthrosource by age and then calculated revenue stream impacts.

Comments are closed.