Dear AAA, can I have my $$$ back?

I’m sorry to keep complaining about AAA surveys. But this one is too much… The AAA is now conducting a survey to find out whether or not it would be useful to members to post the AAA Annual Meeting abstracts online. Really? They need a survey to tell them that? But that’s not the worst part, the worst part is that they are using the survey to figure out which fields need to be indexed.

Is there some other professional organization I can join instead?

19 thoughts on “Dear AAA, can I have my $$$ back?

  1. I have argued for the importance of getting the abstracts online and available and thus was excited to see this moving forward. I started doing the survey. I got to the section on funding schemes to pay for it and just got so depressed that I quit.

    Question 10 offers a range of approaches by which this activity could be paid for, but they all imply some kind of complicated, “do it ourselves and make sure that it costs a lot and is hard to access and sustain” approach. The AAA office produces abstract books each year and they hopefully possess the books for past years. I hope that copies of the print books are to be found at the National Anthropological Archives, but I have not checked this. It should be possible, I think, for the AAA to just give/loan the old books to, for instance, Haithi Trust (see: ) and provide permission for them to be made available in full text. This would make them fully open access and available to the world. Professional librarians would insure that they are cataloged properly, and powerful full text searching would enable us to find the people and information that we need, all for the cost of postage to Ann Arbor. A page on the AAA website could link to the volumes. Countless variations on this theme are surely possible.

    If such an idea couldn’t work, I am interested in analysis from the community here, as there are other scholarly societies who have similar needs and who I know follow such discussions when they unfold here.

    (The survey makes clear, I think, where AnthroSouce stands.)

    Kerim–the American Folklore Society wants you!

  2. You could join the European Association of Social Anthropologists, or the Association of Social Anthropologists of UK and the Commonwealth… its just a matter of identity. It used to be joked that the Irish national football team would take anybody who’d ever drank a pint of Guinness (in fact, I think the ruling was something like having to have an Irish grandparent), so I’m sure that identity is sufficiently elastic.

  3. Am I alone in wondering why there is a paper copy of the AAA abstracts anymore? These abstracts are often written hurriedly, at the last minute, to meet submission deadlines; they are written months before the papers they describe, and too often end up having no clear similarities to the paper that is delivered; and the volume of abstracts ends up sitting on a shelf or bookcase for several years, unused again, until the space is needed and the volume is thrown out.

    The ASA limits its membership to “social anthropologists,” and even though this is defined in fairly vague terms, They Know Who They Are. The solution to AAA problems is not to quit, but to elect new officers and hire new staff.

  4. Isn’t this ultimately just the performance of participation? I don’t think it’s meant to have substantive results.

  5. If available, I think that the abstract books are a key resource not only for the history of the field but for the practical work of doing research in particular settings. A scholar preparing to do work in a specific field site will typically want to know not only the published literature related to that setting but will want (in much work of a localized kind) to know who has “worked there” in the past, whether or not they went on to publish much and thereby become known to the field. It is common the world over, I think, to inquire among people in a local place and discover that there was “an anthropologist” who was here 20 or 30 years ago. Sometimes all one has to then go on is a remembrance that “he was tall” or “she had an odd accent” or whatever. Because there are more papers given at meetings than are published and thus findable in the literature, having the abstracts would be a great help to the kind of detective work that many ethnographers often have to do in order to reconstruct the histories of research in specific places among specific peoples over time. (I know these same issues apply in some kinds of archaeology, where only a small fraction of research gets published in a full sense.)

    Such discovery can then lead to such important (both locally and for the new scholar) outcomes as the digital repatriation of otherwise unknown archival collections–photographs, recordings, unpublished manuscripts etc. While not applicable to all kinds of ethnographic research topics and settings, such situations are still common in the work of anthropology (across subfields), folklore, linguistics, etc. Accessible abstracts would be an amazing help for those who work runs down such paths. There are numerous such scholars in the mix in my own work and I would dearly love to have an abstract for many conference papers about which I know nothing other than the title. It goes without saying that there were conference papers of interest about which I know nothing at all. I have, for instance, benefited greatly from study of the annual reports of the Wenner-Gren Foundation where summaries of grant awards can be found.

  6. Jason Jackson’s vision of how AAA abstracts could be used — touchingly idealistic, but let’s assume this really happens — is all the more reason to put them on-line. After all, not all anthropologists are members of the AAA or have access to old volumes of abstracts. And even if that Romanian grad student would like to know what research has been done in the village in Bulgaria where she plans to work, and has access to 50 years worth of AAA abstract volumes, wouldn’t it be MUCH easier to have a searchable on-line set of abstracts to consult?

    My original comment questioned the value of these abstracts in general, but the unstated point was that the cost and trouble of printing them in a book was hardly worth it, when they are all submitted on-line these days and could be archived digitally much more easily and cheaply.

  7. My whole point is that they would be more valuable online and that this could be done relatively cheaply and easily without a lot of fuss. As for the idealism, it seems to me that if some people have used such things in hard-to-get paper form (and I know this to be a fact) then they will surely get more use when it is a matter of a simple online text search, hence the value of the effort. If they are born digital (as they are now) and stay digital (thus no actual printing on paper) that would be totally fine to me. I’d take a PDF over the heavy expensive book any day. Depositing a AAA produced PDF of the program and the abstracts sould be straightforward.

    It is a separate matter to inquire into how much revenue, if any, the AAA’s print publication of the abstracts generates. I am less concerned with this than I am in preserving and making accessible a piece of the scholarly record. My elaborated comments were aimed at countering the suggestion that the abstracts, as documents, were not of any use.

    While making a claim for their usefulness to some, I was not insisting that they are useful to everyone.

  8. i think the reality is that there are people whose job it is to produce the paper abstracts, create silly surveys, and run the AAA, and that if those of us with better ideas wanted their jobs we could have them. But since we don’t want their jobs and they don’t have the ideas, we are nothing but a massive threat to their continued employment. On the one hand, I have massive sympathy for just such people, because no one should have to change all the time. On the other hand, I think we have just witnessed the transition from academic scholarly society to mini welfare state.

  9. It seems the folks behind Open Journal Systems (a free open source CMS for publishing open access journals) also run Open Conference Systems, a free open source project for running conferences:

    How much longer will we need professional associations?

  10. As long, one suspects, as departments are distinguished by discipline and those who hire wish to press the flesh at the annual meat market. (Why is it that my imagination suddenly conceives of meetings with fifteen-minute presentations and lots of milling around in the hallways as cattle pens where the buyers separate the prime from the choice from the dog food?)

  11. ckelty opines: “i think the reality is that there are people whose job it is to produce the paper abstracts, create silly surveys, and run the AAA, and that if those of us with better ideas wanted their jobs we could have them. But since we don’t want their jobs and they don’t have the ideas, we are nothing but a massive threat to their continued employment.”

    Maybe. When I was a graduate student, writing up, living in Washington DC, I applied to the AAA for a position doing ‘research’ for the association — essentially doing those surveys — and I was told by the then-director that they were not interested in an academic anthropologist for that position. There was a large group of association employees who circulated among the several thousand associations in D.C., and ultimately a lot of association staff come from, or join, that network. Academics from (or even members of) any discipline didn’t seem to be regarded as an employment threat to the staff of academic associations.

    And while ckelty may have better ideas, associations have ways to solicit and consider new ideas that don’t require that they hire people who basically don’t want to work in that environment in the first place.

  12. Really, ckelty? I hardly think the AAA would consider your ideas a threat to their employment. The AAA, Executive Board, journal editors, etc. probably have a number of ideas worthy of consideration. I believe they discussed open access and digitizing content at length, but, for some reason or other, can or will not institute such practices. It’s probably tucked away on their website somewhere, but I don’t have the time or patience to tackle that mess.

  13. Well, let me put a finer point on this. I think the AAA is a neurotic institution. It’s run by non-university staff who are supposed to be “governed” (and I don’t really know what that word means in this context) by elected academics who meet once a year (sometimes more) to make binding decisions. This means a certain amount of stability for the staff, as long as they don’t make any big changes. So even if they have the SAME very good big ideas I do about how the world, the website, the publications and so on should be different, they can do nothing about it. Really–my sense is that the staff can do nothing without some elaborate “goverance” process, and this in turn becomes an excuse to do nothing because it reduces the amount of emotional trauma they have to undergo and the amount of work they have to do, makes the academics happy and keeps the staff employed. The only solution would be for angry people like me to get off their asses and do something about it. I already have at least one such job at my home institution though, so I would have to be *really* passionate to do that… and I’m just not. About all the passion I can muster concerning the AAA today is what you see right here.

  14. as to the original issue of whether or not to place electronic copies of the abstracts online, I too was dismayed after taking the survey, at what a costly and needless plan was being proposed – there seems to be a simple solution:

    why don’t they just post the abstracts as a pdf file on the aaa website? as aaa does with the preliminary program…. which one then downloads and can search at will, as I think Jason mentions above.

  15. Does anyone at the AAA pay attention to Savage Minds? The above comments contain several EASY solutions to the simple matter of posting meeting abstracts online, all of which are probably superior to the implied difficult and expensive procedure hinted at in the survey (which I agree was silly and ridiculous). But perhaps Savage Minds is considered by the AAA as a nuisance rather than as a potential source of ideas. Or maybe Savage Minds isn’t considered AT ALL by the AAA.

    I frequently take pot shots at the Society for American Archaeology about Open Access, journals, meetings, etc. in my blog, “Publishing Archaeology” and in letters to the editor of the SAA newsletter. But I never get any reaction from the SAA. I used to attribute this to the obscurity of my blog, but after following Savage Minds for a while, I wonder if the silence may derive partly from the culture of professional associations, who just don’t want to hear new and alternative solutions. Perhaps open access seems too edgy to these people.

  16. For what it’s worth, the problem isn’t limited to academia. I’ve had similar issues with NGOs that waste huge sums of money because the members of the board don’t understand IT and someone knows someone who can do it “for” them (I’d say “to” them) for some multiple of tens of thousands of dollars, when there is perfectly good off-the-shelf software available for a fraction of the price.

  17. Abstracts Update: Just a quick note to observe that AAA Meeting Abstracts for many years are already available in Google Books. Many (if not all of these) were digitized from the UC Libraries, which means in turn that they will soon also be included in Hathi Trust (where at least one year’s book from the UM Library’s collection is already online). One can do full text searches already on these volumes via both services. One cannot read full text. It is my understanding that all that would be required now would be for AAA to release the copyright and they could be read (not just searched) in full text. Unless I am missing something, this could thus be done at no cost to anyone.

    (Again, unless I am missing something….) Full text access to the abstracts has not previously been available, thus we are thinking about a new service. This case provides an almost laboratory-quality test case for open access versus (attempted) for-profit enclosure.* Faced with the already existing ability to make the meeting abstracts fully available to the world at no cost to the AAA or to attempt to enclose them via a complex toll access scheme, which direction will we take? Hathi Trust is a not-for profit undertaking. Its goals are scholarly and in the public interest. If we share such goals, we have an opportunity to partner with them and do good with little effort. Will we?

    I now know that the search term “windigo” apparently appears on page 71 of the 1975 Annual Meetings Abstracts book in Hathi Trust. For the cost of an email to, a duly authorized representative of the AAA could make it possible for me to read the abstract in which this word appeared and, in a matter of months, for all of us to read any abstract in nearly any abstract book the AAA ever published.

    P.S. Thanks for those who have continued to follow this tread.

    *I recognize that enclosed (gated, limited) digital access to the abstracts could be framed as a member benefit rather than as a potential direct revenue stream. Such a sense of the service was implied by the survey. I am not unsympathetic to the revenue and also the membership challenges faced by scholarly societies, but the realities of this situation together with recent AAA history suggest to me that building a complex abstracts vending machine is not worth the time, expense, and internal conflict that it would entail. I would feel better as a member knowing that my association was collaborating with public-interest partners than I would knowing that my association was investing precious resources in rube goldberg machines designed to make me a happier member.

  18. Thanks, Jason, for pointing me to this thread. FWIW, I posted some thoughts on this issue over at The Ideophone without being aware of the discussion here.

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