Anthropology & Open Access: An Interview with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1 of 3)

During the last few weeks I had the chance to conduct an email based interview with Jason Baird Jackson about Open Access (OA), academic publishing, and anthropology…

Ryan Anderson: Thanks for doing this interview, Jason. My first question is really basic: What IS open access all about, and how is it any different from standard academic publishing?

Jason Baird Jackson: Its a pleasure to have this chance to talk about open access (hereafter, OA). When I am asked to recommend an explanation of what OA is about, I usually point colleagues to the basic introductory documents assembled by philosopher and OA strategist Peter Suber. His one page “Very Brief Introduction to Open Access” is a great place to start. It begins noting: “Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.” There is much more that scholarly authors, societies, publishers, and libraries need to know about OA, but this is a good start. The features that Suber notes in this sentence comprise the basic differences that you are searching for.

OA evokes different things for different people and interest groups. I suspect that we will touch on some of the range of concerns that these actors bring to the topic. For a time, it made sense to speak of OA as an alternative to standard academic publishing but I do not think that this framing works any longer. While OA represents a significant set of transformations in what we might think of as the inherited scholarly publishing domain, OA is now at the heart of standard academic publishing. That does not mean that there is agreement about the issues or about emergent practices or even about the definition of basic terms. My “its all one system now” view just acknowledges such facts on the ground as the reality that we now have academic authors publishing in “gold OA” journals without even realizing that such a nameable kind of publication exists as such. On the other side of the ledger, the largest commercial publishers are fully, if sometimes begrudgingly, involved in open access through their having acceded to public, university, and funder demands for what is called “green OA” and via their author-pays approaches to gold and “hybrid” OA”. (We’ll touch on these modes, perhaps.) While people like me tend to talk about OA as a means towards a dramatic transformation of scholarly communication, one aimed at making it more sustainable, accountable, ethical, public, etc., commercial publishers increasingly describe OA as just another business model. We are debating and rebuilding the same publishing system even if, at times, and in some senses, it seems like OA advocates are creating an alternative infrastructure for the discovery, circulation, evaluation, and reuse of scholarly research outputs.

It can be treated as a different topic, one that we need only acknowledge and not discuss, but I just used the terribly clumsy phrase “research outputs” as a way of highlighting the parallel transformations that we are experiencing in the system of scholarly genres. Running alongside the OA transformation, the canonical genres—journal article and scholarly book—are being remixed and destabilized in countless ways. For anthropology, these generic changes are different from those that followed the field’s “writing culture” debates. Earlier, we wondered what we could say in a book. Now we wonder what a book is. In your own corner of the new territory, I could ask: Is your anthropologies project a journal, a scholarly website, a weblog? Do your authors know? Such questions are increasingly present and point to what a time of experimentation we are in. OA advocates in anthropology have been particularly attentive to this related-but-not-the-same issue of genre. That said, the core of the OA discussion has been the journal article as we’ve known it and few would deny its continued centrality as the currency of the academic realm.

RA: These are really fascinating questions, and I want to see if we can get into them some more. This whole subject of genres and different media or publication outcomes seems like a crucial issue to me. In some senses, I think that anthropology is trapped in a very old model–we all just look to produce books, and articles in top-rated journals. As for your questions about what the anthropologies project is–I wonder this all the time but am not sure what to tell people. (See Michael E. Smith’s recent post about this very issue, and Jason’s response.)  What I have noticed is that calling it a blog can potentially lead people to take it less seriously–as in, “Oh, it’s just a blog you’re working on, I see.” The irony of course is the free blog platform has the same POTENTIAL as The American Anthropologist does to display words, ideas, and images. The difference between them is the social and political systems in which they exist and are used and understood. I mean, the same words show up, so the limits are actually imposed by us.

So, I have two sets of questions that come to mind with all of this. First, what’s the difference between Green OA and Gold OA? Does this difference really matter? Second, what’s the difference between the “just another business model” view on the one hand (i.e. the way that some publishers are looking at this) and the position of OA advocates in anthropology who are rethinking what you call “scholarly research outputs”? Are these positions fundamentally at odds with one another?

JBJ: Your first question, about green and gold OA is a good place to start because it represents the kind of basic factual information that all academic authors need to know. We can learn a lot from resources easily found online. Peter Suber’s slightly longer “Open Access Overview” is one great resource among several. Understanding green and gold “paths” to OA is one of several key distinctions necessary for making sense of the shifting academic publishing landscape. I have used the phrase “terms of art” when talking about such key concepts previously and I fear that folks have not realized that I was making a specific point in describing them in that way. The phrase “term of art” refers to words or phrases that have, in a legal sense, a very precise meaning within a subject area. To not know them or to have vague understandings of them stops or derails conversation and effective action. We see such counterproductive slippage when our friends in anthropology use the phrase “open source” (a software development strategy) synonymously with “open access” (an approach to the circulation of scholarly research). When I am at my most frustrated, I think that an unwillingness to master the basic terms and concepts has contributed to the muddled mess that conversations on anthropology publishing have tended to become. Then I calm down and try to go back to trying to learn more as a student of such things and to teach better as an interested community member.

Suber notes that there are two main vehicles for “delivering OA to research articles, OA journals (“gold OA”) and OA repositories (“green OA”).” The journal that I presently edit–Museum Anthropology Review (MAR)–is a gold OA journal. Every item published in the journal is openly available online at no cost. There are many issues in the mix, but for now it is enough to note that in a gold OA journal, the content is born digital and, more relevantly, born open. When people speak of an OA journal, journals like MAR, First Monday, or Asian Ethnology are what people have in mind. Like their “toll access” counterparts, OA journals usually engage in peer-review (for articles), have editors and editorial boards, regular publication schedules and all the rest of the inhered apparatus of scholarly journal publishing. They have different business models (of which there are several) than toll access journals because they do not rely on restricting access and collecting subscriptions, pay-per-view fees, and other tolls.

The universe of “green OA” centers on a kind of database known as a repository. Repositories are usually organized around a discipline (arXiv [physics] and PubMed Central [medicine] are examples) or a research institution (DASH [Harvard University] and TopSCHOLAR [Western Kentucky University] are examples). Repositories could be created by funders or other interested parties, but for technical reasons that I’ll set aside for now, institutional repositories are the most prominent and promising type.

When university faculties impose “OA mandates” upon themselves (as Harvard’s faculty and hundreds of others have already done) or when a funder makes “OA deposit” a condition of acceptance for a grant, these actors are not insisting that a scholar-author must publish in an (gold) OA journal such as Oral Tradition or Cultural Analysis, they are insisting that the scholar-author make their work freely available online via a repository. What does that mean, literally? It means that some version of the scholar’s journal article is uploaded (as a file with associated metadata) and permanently archived in a central digital database (repository). Such repositories make the work discoverable and accessible to interested readers. The metadata associated with such works can be harvested by broad search tools like Google Scholar and narrower projects such as Open Folklore (the OA promotion and portal project for folklore and ethnology that I work on). Such search tools lead users to the actual work where it lives and is accessible in its home repository.

What does the “archived” or “deposited” work look like? Here we go again with some unavoidable terms of art, but first I need to make clear that green OA articulates with the toll access journal landscape. When we say that subscription-based journals such as Comparative Studies in Society and History, Ethnohistory, or Economic Botany “support” OA, we mean that they have policies that allow their authors to make their work openly available as an individual matter outside the main publication channel provided by the journals themselves. The normative (and best) way to do this is via repository “deposit.” Here come the key terms. The phrase “green OA” means that SOME version of the article can be made available in OA form via a repository (or some other means, such as a personal website). To make sense of what is and isn’t allowed under the terms of individual journal author’s agreements, one needs to know the difference between a “pre-print” and a “post-print” and an “publisher’s version.” My favorite source for explicating this differences is the informational page accompanying the RoMEO database. RoMEO is a resource for learning about the OA policies of different journals. In a nutshell, a pre-print is the version of an article as it exists in manuscript form prior to its being peer-reviewed and accepted by a journal. A post-print is an article manuscript as it has been modified by its author(s) on the basis of peer-reivew. The post-print version is the final version that an author submits to an editor in anticipation that the work will then enter the journal’s production processes, which will include such steps as copyediting and typesetting. If you look at a pre-print or a post-print, it has the hallmarks of (and usually is) an author-produced document. These versions look and feel different from the publisher’s version, which is the final document that is actually published. To look at them, such versions have been typeset or formatted according to journal standards. In a digital context, such versions have often been “marked up” with technical coding that allows for various enhancements. Underneath, they may also carry digital rights management (DRM) technologies that prevent, or seek to hinder, unauthorized uses (piracy). If you download an article in PDF form from JSTOR or ProjectMuse or Wiley Online Library, you are looking at a publisher’s version.

A journal is “green” if an author is allowed to freely circulate at least their accepted post-print. Some journals also allow authors to freely circulate and deposit the publisher’s version, but this is uncommon. Most publishers see all of the work that they put into turning a post-print into a published article as their investment and they are not inclined to give it away. In contrast, some publishers (again, the minority) ask authors to deposit the publisher’s version because they see it as the version that will best reflect upon the quality work done by the press in question. It is my understanding that this view is behind the OA policies of the University of California Press Journals program. The important thing to note here is that two toll access journals can both be “green” but can allow or not allow different things vis-a-vis repository deposit by authors. I have touched on it elsewhere but I want to stress again that many nice people in anthropology are breaking the law (i.e. are out of compliance with their signed author agreements) because they have made publisher’s versions of their articles available online via personal or departmental websites when they are not allowed to do so.

What is the difference then between green and gold? We can answer that question from the perspective of different actors. For an interested would-be reader with internet access but without access to the information resources paid for by a major research library, both paths are great. Everything in a gold OA journal is readily discoverable and available in neat and tidy form. If an author publishing in a toll access journal had made her work accessible via the green OA path, then that work too is available to our interested reader. In post-print form, it may not look as tidy as the published version, but the ideas are there and useable, which is worth a lot. If our author is employed by a university that has imposed an OA mandate, then vast amounts of valuable information is being made available. Because so few academic authors know about these processes, our reader is much less likely to be able to gain access to writings by authors affiliated with non-mandate institutions. Still, one need not (as an author) be subject to a mandate in order to participate in OA publishing along either path.

For an author, the differences between green and gold are likely to seem significant. If a junior author has been told, in unambiguous terms, that she needs to publish in journals X, Y, and Z in order to be favorably evaluated for tenure and promotion (and I am simplifying and exaggerating for rhetorical purposes), then she is likely to aim for those journals regardless of whether they are gold or green (or even yellow [pre-print only] or white [no OA allowed]. Much here depends on the journal landscape within a field.

If well-established journals in a field give up their subscription-based business model and convert to gold OA [two close to home examples are Asian Ethnology and Oral Tradition], then the status of those journals is usually not diminished by this move. After 155 years, The Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society are no more or less prestigious because the APS allows the whole world to read its content for free. Still, many gold OA journals are “start ups” and authors may have anxieties about journal stature. Here, the passage of time is sorting out the quality questions. All the old evaluation criteria, like acceptance rates, editorial boards, and “Is this content any good?” still apply. Despite the rise of bibliometrics, different fields still have different attitudes about journal prestige. Cultural anthropology, and folklore studies even more, have historically been very flat relative to other fields in which there is a clear pecking order. Few of us would want to defend an argument that the Journal of Anthropological Research is somehow categorically better or worse than Anthropological Quarterly. They have their own communities, traditions and histories, but they belong to a broad peer group that would include numerous other titles. Cultural anthropology’s indifference to (mainly) or resistance to impact factor rankings stems from such perceptions.

Be that as it may, for authors, where you publish usually matters a lot for a lot of reasons. If a stressed out, untenured person is working under the shadow of journal hierarchy talk, she is going to choose accordingly. If she is committed to OA for ethical reasons (like social justice) and/or for selfish reasons (like self-promotion), she may need to publish (for the present) in toll access journals. She can usually choose those with green OA policies and then utilize a repository at her home institution to make available post-prints of her work. In the absence of a repository at her home institution, she can hopefully turn to one at an institution at which she can muster some kind of secondary affiliation. Alternatively she may be able to find a subject repository suitable to, and willing to take, her work. In a worst-case scenario, she can make her post-prints available on a personal website (up until the time when she can gain access to a repository). [If a journal’s author agreement does not allow automatically for green OA repository deposit, she can still negotiate for such rights individually using free and easy to use legal tool like the Scholars Copyright Addendum Engine from Science Commons.

For publishers and libraries, the green-gold distinction is huge. If, and how, a publisher engages with OA is fundamental to that publisher’s business model. There are a growing number of different ways that publishers, both for-profit and not-for-profit (including scholarly societies) are making it work. Publishing costs money, hence every kind of publisher has to have some workable business model. We may touch on business models before we are done, but here I will just note that under present conditions, green OA (as we have it now) is seen as compatible with the preservation of the older subscription-based toll access journal system. We are not presently at a stage in which green OA has made scholarship sufficiently accessible in free-to-end-users ways as to (in and of itself) cause subscription cancelations by libraries. The later possibility is why toll access publishers are generally so opposed to OA mandates. Letting the occasional author post a stray article here or there has not been a game changer. If everyone everywhere started doing it, the story would probably be different. I am already going on and on and probably cannot do justice to what we might call the deeper “structural” issues that are visible from the vantage point of the two great parties whose relationship can now be fairly characterized as antagonistic–libraries and publishers. My Indiana University colleague David Lewis (Dean of Libraries at IUPUI) has recently authored a very interesting analysis of open access journal dynamics in light of these structural issues. I strongly recommend his paper for an account of these issues and some predictions on where things are headed.

One last set of points about green and gold. While it is not perfect (as evidenced by Museum Anthropology Review not being included within it), the Directory of Open Access Journal (DOAJ) is the main resource for discovering gold OA journals across disciplines. To learn about, and compare, the OA policies of various toll access journals, the place to look is the SHERPA/RoMEO database. (Among other things, SHERPA/RoMEO tells you whether a journal is green or not.) To find out what universities, departments, research institutes, etc. have adopted OA mandates, consult the Registry of Open Access Repositories Mandatory Archiving Policies (ROARMAP) databse. To find the OA repositories that exist in the world, the place to look is the Director of Open Access Repositories (OpenDOAR).

To be continued… (See Part 2, here).


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.