Anthropology & Open Access: An Interview with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 2 of 3)

See Part 1 of this interview, here.

Ryan Anderson: So what are the major stumbling blocks holding up a transition to Open Access in your view? What’s keeping most people from making this jump? Lastly, what do you think about the system employed by the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) where authors can post working papers? Can a system like that be a stepping stone to OA?

Jason Baird Jackson: At the author level, one stumbling block is a pervasive lack of basic knowledge about these issues among scholars and policy makers within our field (and in most fields). I am sympathetic to everyone’s plight. It is all very complicated and uncertain therefore doing what we have always done has proven the easiest path. Most of us do not understand copyright or the Creative Commons system. Most of us do not understand journal business models or how it is that librarians have made so much (expensive) information so easily available to those of us with the luxury of university affiliations. In the face of much confusion and anxiety, just sending our manuscripts to the editors and journals that we know in the way that we have always done has seemed sensible and prudent.

Related is the situation in which we perceive that we understand the changing landscape better than we do. A clear instance is when we post the final published versions of our writings online because we wrongly believe ourselves to have the right to do so. The increasing prevalence of such accidental piracy fosters the misunderstanding that such practices are the right way to do open access. Such piracy is counter-productive on many levels and is unnecessary given that there are legal and technically better ways to pursue OA.

Such author-centered issues are the major stumbling block for green OA. The fact that many scholars do not have direct access to a home institutional repository is another factor. I tried to suggest that there are usually workarounds for this in my earlier comments. Your mentioning of the Social Science Research Network represents another possible solution that anthropologists should investigate more actively [see Adam Leeds’ comment about SSRN here on Savage Minds a while back]. I have not yet given it the attention that it deserves as a possible option for anthropologists.

The biggest factor driving green OA are funder and especially institutional OA mandates (touched upon above). Those who are most eager to promote OA in anthropology can work locally to establish mandates in their home institutions. When a university such as Kansas or California or a college such as Oberlin, or when (hypothetically) a research institute, applied anthropology agency or museum, establish a green OA mandate, this has the almost immediate effect of educating the entire research community at such an institution about the issues that we have been talking about, above and beyond the obvious direct benefit of bringing a large portion of that institution’s research output into the OA domain. Such mandates can be established at the school or department level in instances where an institution-wide mandate cannot yet be achieved. The most prominent and persistent advocate for green OA and for green OA mandates is cognitive scientist Steven Harnad, who makes the case consistently and forcefully, on the basis of much evidence, at his website Open Access Archivangelism.

On the gold OA front, the problems center on the business model question. Publishing costs money. In a reoriented scholarly publishing system emphasizing open access, where will that money come from? Alongside some misleading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) campaigning on the part of commercial publishers and their allies, there is a lot of hard work going into finding ways to address the business model issues. The money issues are real and I do not know of any serious advocate for change in scholarly publishing who does not acknowledge the need to address them. There is much work to do in many domains but no scholarly field needs to reinvent the wheel alone. There are many allies to be found and many solutions are already well underway. We now have actual gold journals—some quite prominent—about which we can questions like: How are you making this work? Who is paying your bills? What are your submission and acceptance rates? How much labor or money goes into formatting your articles? What is your preservation plan? Your succession plan? Your intellectual property strategy? Etc.

As Chris Kelty has stressed most prominently, the changing publishing system is forcing (or will eventually force) scholarly societies to reconsider their roles in intellectual and public life, as well as the ways in which they support themselves financially—above and beyond their work as publishers or co-publishers. Scholarly society leaders really have no other choice but to do the hard work of thinking about the future in a world in which much is going to be different. This is not solely about publishing, but because so much of the life of scholarly societies has been wrapped up in publishing–as an activity of substantive importance and as a source, for some societies, of basic operating revenue—the future of scholarly publishing is deeply entwined with the future of scholarly societies. This relates to OA but is not limited to OA. For instance, separate from OA considerations, the AAA sections are seeing shifts in membership that are surely due in part to the restructuring of AAA’s publishing program in the digital era. What benefits, above and beyond access to a journal, will a scholarly society provide? Are these rich enough to motivate individuals to join and remain members? These are the leading edge questions for scholarly societies now, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. I teach at a major research university and effectively no longer have any access to funding to support professional travel. Fewer and fewer have access to resources with which to attend professional meetings. How much longer can physical meetings and print journals be the center of gravity for any scholarly society? I do not want to suggest that society leaders are unaware of these dynamics. As a board member of the American Folklore Society and as a person who follows the AAA and several other societies closely, I know that they are. I am just echoing Chris in observing that it is not possible for society publishers or co-publishers to tackle publishing in isolation from other dramatic transformations of the present moment.

Partnerships with for-profit publishers as well as with not-for-profit organizations like JSTOR and ProjectMuse have made journals an important revenue stream for those who publish or co-publish them. This is the sticky wicket. While I think that I know how a group of dedicated individuals working with the backing of a publishing society or organization could (along with library partners) sustainably move a major legacy journal out of the toll access column and into the gold open access one, my present efforts and advocacy have mainly focused first on the easier to solve problems and on experiments designed to as proof-of-concept efforts. For instance, at nearly no cost, the Open Folklore project has made the section journals published by the American Folklore Society (along with other journals in the field) openly available through a number of means, including through the HathiTrust Digital Library. Those journals had not yet been turned into revenue generating machines, thus it was much easier to make them more open without any financial consequences. Other societies have similar scholarly content that could be made open without organizational consequences. The state-level anthropology society journals are finding their way into open access collections in this way. An example is the rich and important journal Florida Anthropologist published by the Florida Anthropological Society and now made available via the University of Florida Libraries.

In the proof-of-concept space, Museum Anthropology Review is very much a thriving experiment designed to learn how gold open access journals in anthropology and neighboring fields can work. I have learned a lot from MAR and am trying to use that experience to help other journals that are trying to make gold OA work in a sustainable and responsible way. Such project-by-project work can bring together pragmatists and ideologues of various stripes in the common work of increasing the amount of the scholarly literature that is openly accessible. We do not need to solve the most difficult problems first.

Let me return quickly to your special interest in the prospects for using the Social Science Research Network. As I say, I do not know enough yet about it to be an advocate (or critic), but I do know a little. Anthropologists are already making use of it. Legal anthropologists such as Annelise Riles (because SSRN is big with the law school community) are already there, making available their work in post-print form. Thus SSRN is not a potential stepping-stone to OA, it is one extant, working means of doing OA now. I am uneasy with the SSRN business model and technical infrastructure, but it is the main way that green OA is getting done in some institutions and disciplines. It is prominent part of the green OA ecology that we talked about earlier.

RA: Can we return now to the second part of my earlier question about 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: Many commercial publishers are now engaged in what is called hybrid open access projects. These are based on providing authors with the option of purchasing full gold-like open access to their articles on behalf of their readers. There are also numerous journals in other fields that are fully gold open access journals that are built around the collection of author’s fees. Some of these author fee-based journals are non-commercial journals that use fee revenue just to cover expenses while others are for-profit publishers. In the latter case, author fee revenue contributes, above and beyond expenses, to the overall profitability of the firm. In both the hybrid and commercial gold OA cases, authors are paying additional sums (separate from the older practices of paying page charges that began in the pre-digital era) for the purpose of making their work openly available in final form while also publishing in the particular journals in question.

This is all rather foreign to most anthropologists. Pages charges were (and remain) rare in anthropology [Economic Botany is the only journal for which I was ever assessed page charges] and the costs associated with hybrid and author-pays gold open access publishing are beyond the ability of almost all anthropologists to pay. This system is predicated on a large grant, big lab system of scientific production that is rare in anthropology and impossible in the humanities. Recognizing this, some major universities have developed funds to subsidize such costs but this is also not at all a complete solution for anthropology. Anthropology, and folklore studies even more, are fields to which many different people working in many different settings can and do contribute regardless of ability to pay.

So for commercial publishers, author-pays forms of OA are increasingly seen as another viable/profitable business model, but for most anthropologists and folklorists, it is a business model that does not seem to make sense for their fields, even if in other fields it has produced remarkable and largely positive effects.

Not all OA advocates in anthropology think alike about inevitable and/or desired changes in scholarly communication. They possess a diversity of motivations and experiences and they sometimes advocate different goals. Some are more reform minded and some are more revolutionary. Some are animated by technical, intellectual, or organizational interests, while others are driven by questions of fairness, research ethics, or social justice.

My own individual engagements touch on a mix of concerns and experiences, but my greatest partners and teachers have been librarians working on scholarly communications issues and projects. As an ethnographer working in historically disadvantaged communities, I am very sensitive to the ethics of OA but I am also very much aligned with librarians and the work they do for scholars and in the public interest. My OA work aims to reduce (rather than increase) the ways in which large (ever more consolidated) multinational corporations control the dissemination of our work. (Many OA advocates are not at all focused on such macroeconomic concerns. As I say, different motivations are at work for different individuals and groups.)

Somewhat separate from OA, I want to strengthen those university press [and small scale commercial] publishers who have long supported our fields and I am especially eager to champion those university presses who are experimenting with open access themselves.

I have long cared about the serials crisis and now that the world is thinking more critically about student debt, I want us all to realize the direct relationship between the scholarly communications system, and the scholarly society system, and the neoliberalization of the American research university. Skyrocketing tuition is a consequence of public disinvestment in public universities like mine and yours. Leasing (we no longer purchase) toll access scholarship at ever higher costs from exceedingly profitable commercial firms (and their society partners) is not helping close the inequality gap in higher education. It is hardly the only factor involved (ex: think health care costs) but it is one of the few factors in which faculty and graduate students have a direct role to play—as authors, as disciplinary policy shapers, as peer-reviewers, as editors, etc. As contributors to the scholarly publishing system, we have choices available to us. We can make our work open in a number of ways and we can support and encourage those whose values and commitments align with out own. As I noted in my remarks to the 2010 AcademiX conference on open access, the main problems that we face now are not technical; they’re human factors problems of the sort that we have been discussing. As I’ll try to suggest in my presentation on the Open Folklore project at the upcoming AAA meetings, librarians remain among our greatest partners and allies in this work.

To be continued…  (See Part 1 here, and Part 3, 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.