Anthropology & Academic Publishing: Update

Well, if there’s one thing that George Monbiot’s piece about academic publishing has accomplished, it has certainly created some discussion around the internets.  First of all, Lorenz over at has a great post that provides a good summary of some of the debates, reactions, and discussions about this whole issue.  Lorenz also provides an excellent selection of related links at the bottom of this post.

There are two specific posts that I want to highlight out of all this.  The first is Jason Baird Jackson’s post “How enclosed by Large For-Profit Publishers is the Anthropology Journal Literature?”  This one is definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in this whole publishing conundrum.  Jackson also talks about some of the possible avenues for anyone who is concerned about where to publish: “Recent commentators in the anthropology publishing discussions have wondered whom they should be publishing with in light of their concerns over the state of publishing in the field?”  Check out his post to see what he recommends.

The other post I want to highlight is by Kent Anderson, who writes for the SSP (Society for Scholarly Publishing).  His post, “Uninformed, Unhinged, and Unfair–The Monbiot Rant” argues, first of all, that Monbiot’s “fundamental economic misunderstanding is that price is the defining problem when it comes to the accessibility of scientific information.”  So if price is not the issue when it comes to accessing academic information, what is?  Anderson argues that the actual problem is “specialty knowldge,” meaning that most academic articles aren’t going to be understood by anyone outside of a very small circle:

There is no price in the world that’s going to make that scientific paper, or thousands of others, intelligible, relevant, or meaningful to me in any way that’s going to affect my ability to function in a democracy.

Anderson continues his argument by putting forth a real gem:

And people who do need to see those papers can see those papers, probably know the authors, probably heard the poster session or talk at a meeting, and will know about the published report if it’s at all worth reading.

I could not disagree more with that line of reasoning.  There is a point to be made about the accessibility of [some] academic writing, but I think Kent Anderson has taken things way too far in his effort to shift the discussion away from the economics of the situation.  He has taken an issue that does indeed merit consideration (i.e. how academics write and present their work), and made an incredibly reductive argument, as if the general public cannot possibly understand anything that academics/scientists write. Since there’s no way the general public “gets it,” the argument goes, all of these other questions are superfluous.

I do think that academics can and should rethink how they present their work–this is an important issue.  At the same time, I think there is plenty of good science and academic writing that is absolutely of interest to wider audiences–but much of it happens to exist behind some pretty expensive pay walls.  Kent Anderson has effectively used this issue of “specialty knowledge” as a way to dodge the questions of cost, price, and economics altogether.  I’m not buying his argument, at all.  And I am absolutely not buying the idea that those who really “need” access to already have it.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

14 thoughts on “Anthropology & Academic Publishing: Update

  1. I’m a freelance scholar, often without a U library connection, and I’ve bumped up against paywalls a couple dozen times a year. I have friends who email me stuff, but I don’t like to lean on them too often.

    I especially resent the for-profits. As far as I know Taylor and Francis et al contribute nothing to scholarship, pay authors nothing, pay very little to university departments, and soak libraries for everything they can get.

    I’d like to see the contracts and know their history. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to suspect sweetheart contracts and kickbacks, or clueless journal editors or faculty secretaries signing away ten years of articles for nothing.

    It looks like classic robber baron rent-seeking.

  2. The comments by Anderson and Emerson are spot on. I would add that rent-seeking based on monopoly is not good marketing. If we stop to ask who are the most likely readers of academic publications, except for the academically employed and their students, the answer has to be graduates of their own or related programs who are now making their livings outside of academia. I can’t speak for John Emerson, but speaking personally, I would love to see reasonably priced individual subscriptions to JSTOR. I can also imagine departments keeping alive the interests of their graduates with e-newsletter alerts about recent publications and links to where free PDFs can be found. The point would not be to extract immediate nickel-and-dime payments but to maintain relationships that might later be tapped for more substantial returns.

  3. Excellent post. The question that I have that seems unanswered is this: what are the alternatives (for authors, publishers, and readers)?

    If we want to take open access seriously, we need to develop a way to make this feasible (economically and socially, the latter in terms of journal status for promotion).

    In the spirit of creative thought and problem solving, why not start with something like this:

    I know very little about journal publication. But, as I understand it, in anthropology at least, the bulk of the work is done by editors and reviewers, primarily unpaid (editors seem to be “paid” by course release in some cases, and there is often an editorial assistant who is paid). The costs thus seem to be in the act of publishing — in paper or electronic form. With the increasing use of online journals, these seem to be much smaller. I could imagine AA, for example, publishing an online version for free (or nearly free), and charging for the physical journal (not PDFs) for those who still feel a need to have a paper copy of each issue.

    I may be missing some elements here of publishing (obviously contracts with Wiley are a big issue in the short-term, and paper copies will still be pricey), but I’d love to know why this model (or another one) wouldn’t work to increase access to academic journals.

  4. The largest chunk of publishing cost (journals or books) is payroll, not printing on paper. The editor who selects articles generally does not copyedit them, lay them out, and proofread them. That is usually handed off to freelancers. Nor, I think, does the editor handle the accounting or oversee paper/e distribution.

    Publication, even e-publication, costs money, if not as much as the monopolists charge. Some open source journals raise the money by charging submitters … which works to discourage submissions from poorer scholars. An alternative might be to raise money for non-profit foundations that would underwrite publication costs.

  5. Sigh. We’ve been talking about this for years.

    Of course OA is a viable dissemination model, but it is difficult to take hold because of lots of inertia. Few scholars, especially junior researchers with little job security, want to publish in outlets where they are not dead certain that the journal / publisher’s brand will lend prestige to their contribution.

    Occasionally a recognized publisher will publish an OA book (see “Archaeology 2.0“. But I think these are “loss-leader” experiments, not real attempts to change business models. I think existing publishers rightly see that there’s very little financing mechanism available in our current situation. We’d need access to cash-streams to pay for expert copy-edting and layout if we want to finance nice high production value works. But researchers currently expect libraries to indirectly pay for that via subscriptions and sales (plus 40% profit margins!), and researchers won’t want to pay for these things through their salaries or research budgets.

    Anyway, what will probably have to happen is that libraries will have to catastrophically cut subscription access to the journals faculty care about. Faculty are just too insulated from all of this, and just don’t see how unsustainable our current publishing regime really is. Cut their subscriptions and I think we’ll see OA take off.

  6. I’ve read that the profit margins for T&F type publishers are enormous, and why shouldn’t they be? Academics are not businesspersons.

    It’s hard to see what function paper journals serve any more. Hard copy storage in libraries, I guess. Access is provided electronically better than it ever was on paper.

    What the journals themselves provide is validation and gate keeping. If a journal has a reputation for publishing consistently important and good papers, people will read those papers. In this sense maybe the space limitations of paper copies are functional, since if a journal only publishes 4 articles and 6 reviews a quarter, they’ll make sure they’re the best ones. Electronically there are no space limitations, but a bigger journal would defeat the purpose.

    I wonder how much of the cost of publishing journals is an artifact of unnecessary standards for having things look a certain way. Create a demand by setting a standard, and then charge money for meeting the standard.

  7. What the journals themselves provide is validation and gate keeping. If a journal has a reputation for publishing consistently important and good papers, people will read those papers.

    Could this be a non sequitor? Personally, I never read articles because they are published in this or that particular journal. I read articles that I am pointed to—by friends whose judgment I trust, citations in material I am using for my research, increasingly by aggregators like Zite or Arts & Letters Daily. There may have been a day when everybody read everything in, for example, american ethnologist or Cultural Anthropology because that was part of playing the academic game. But for me that hasn’t been true for decades.

    That could be because, as an independent scholar who makes his living outside of academia, I don’t have a dog in the fight when it comes to jobs, tenure and promotions. What say the others who read SM? Do you go out of your way to read everything in what you or your superiors consider essential journals?

    This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’d appreciate your answers.

  8. Hm. My comment was eaten.

    I’m an eclectic generalist, so journals don’t rule my world. When I start thinking of getting back in to one of my areas of relative specialization, going to the relevant 5 or 10 journals is the way I do it. If I were plugged in to the fields via personal contact I wouldn’t need to do that, but I’d be dealing with people who were doing that.

    There are times when a journal becomes the focus of tremendous excitement. For example, for decades Annales in France was a must read for anyone in European history. Whether that happens any more, with the proliferation of journals, I don’t know.

    I know that people in the biz deciding what to read think about the proportion of very good articles as well as the proportion of mediocre to poor articles. People aren’t willing to wade through the poor ones in order to get to the occasional great one. I quit reading one journal because it seemed mostly be very blah articles that the author needed to have published for reasons of tenure, etc.

    I believe that there are metajournals aggregating the most-read most-cited articles from all the journals in certain fields, and that kind of thing could replace the journal function up to a point.

  9. Speaking of the devil, I just came across an article of central interest to what I’m doing now, and it’s $35 at Springer. (And I did find it in one of the three-to-five best journals in the field.

  10. @ John M:

    “Do you go out of your way to read everything in what you or your superiors consider essential journals?”

    That’s a really good point you bring up. I definitely do not read everything in American Anthropology or any other journal just because those are the so-called premier journals. My method sounds pretty similar to yours: I find new readings through suggestions from colleagues & contacts, from citations, and from wide searches across various journals.

    And when it comes to finding an article by X or Y scholar, I am not all that concerned about *where* it’s published…I am just glad when my university has access! Thanks for bringing this up John. It’s actually pretty interesting to start looking at how we actually use and access all of this media compared to how it is organized institutionally.

  11. Academic journals fill many of the functions described above. That there is a profit to be made in selling these articles, even in the small quantity that some of these command should be questioned. The price of $35.00 per copy mentioned above is not unusual. But why does it cost that much in today’s electronic/digital world?

    The argument is made that it is payroll costs of the publishers. But where is the payroll? Certainly it is not in the production of the article, since the authors are not paid a royalty for producing the document no matter how earth-shattering. The cost of publication itself may have been covered by paying a publication charge by the journal (funded by tax payer — grant money) which is no different from self publishing except that in self publishing you retain the copyright. Often the editing and review are done for free by colleagues. It is often cheaper to buy a book on the subject than it is to buy a copy of one of the articles cited in the book.

    I have run across students and others who have said that when the cost of purchasing the article or book exceeds the cost of xeroxing (hard copy) or scanning and printing it, they will opt for the latter. This raises real questions about the value and sanctity of intellectual property rights.

    From an ethical perspective as defined by the American Anthropological Association, these charges impose an “unethical” barrier to the free and open distribution of scholarly and scientific information especially to the nonacademic professional community. Yet the AAA wished to bind each and every anthropologist to this ethically principle.

    Finally, as remarked by several commentators, who are not employed in the academic arena, the value of journal articles themselves has been greatly diminished as a tool or resource for the student who is no longer in the womb of the academy. Especially since they are not written for such an audience.

    Meanwhile, for those select few with free access to the ‘publishers” through their college or university library’s institutional membership with Wiley, Questa, etc., things are different. They become members of a closed inbred club or tribe, speaking their own language and establishinhg its own tradtions, tucked away in their tiny ecological niche in the ivory tower jungle (mixed metaphor I know).

    From a marketing point of view, this is incestuous and suicidal especially in terms of the current economic environment and the changing nature and structure of higher education. In a time when old paradigms and their boundaries are being broken down, such practices of building walls seems out of place and regressive.

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