Is there support for an OA interest group among AAA members?

Shortly after Bill Davis’s letter to the White House provoked debate here at Savage Minds and other anthropology blogs I joined a conversation in the comments section of one post about what actions advocates of OA ought to take. In this post I’d like to continue that discussion: what should we do next? I will suggest that one option is the formation of an “interest group” and I’d like some feedback from readers on the topic.

One reader suggested that “section groups” within the AAA might organize in order to jointly fund a new OA venue. Unfortunately the section groups have an uneven track record when it comes to cooperation, especially when money is involved. If you’ve witnessed factionalism play out in your home department then you’re no doubt aware that academics are all too willing to collectively poke themselves in the eye instead of cooperating.

But what really nixes the deal is that section groups do not have direct control of their finances. Of course they may set dues for their membership and their executive boards oversee the allocation of those funds for various objectives such as awards, publications, and section conferences. However, the sections do not keep their own bank accounts separate from the AAA. The parent organization holds the section group’s money for them. If funds are needed they must request that the AAA write checks on their behalf.

This passage, 4(h), from the AAA bylaws on the permissible actions of sections is also illuminating. A section, “May engage in publishing and program activities appropriate to its purposes; it may appoint editors and other agents of the Section and set publication and program policies for the Section, so long as the policies are not inimical to the interests of the Association” (my emphasis). Are we so sure that the Executive Board does not perceive OA as inimical to the interests of the Association?

Interest groups offer another way for AAA members to organize themselves and may prove helpful to our cause, at least in the near term. Interest groups differ from sections in terms of their size (minimum membership for a section is 225, for an interest group 25). Interest groups may not set dues, so any AAA member may join one at no cost – although the interest group can charge fees for services provided if the AAA Executive Board okays it. Whereas sections are required to have elected offices and a President, there are no hierarchical political structures imposed on the interest groups. Sections must compose a charter that defines their governance, but interest groups do not.

The major difference in terms of the two is that sections have more political clout within the Association because each of the sections send a representative, usually the President, to a council of sections. Although it is an uneven playing field (the larger, more prestigious sections have more clout) this committee does send a representative that reports directly to the Executive Board. Interest groups do not participate in this.

Sections also have the ability to sponsor conference panels, another way in which they can steer intellectual debate and communicate new knowledge. Interest groups cannot do this on their own, although I see no reason why an interest group could not collaborate with or otherwise persuade a section group to sponsor a panel or roundtable on their behalf. For example, after 9-11 there was a Justice Action Network of Anthropologists that (I think) overlapped with the leadership of the Society for the Anthropology of North America.

Are there 25 people out there interested in forming an OA interest group within the AAA?

The purpose of such a group, at least according to its description in the bylaws, is “networking and/or informal exchanges of information.” So we could hang out together, basically. It could be a way to meet others who are into OA too. We could submit an abstract for a roundtable at an annual meeting of the AAA. Certainly the fact that its free and without an organized leadership is in sympathy with the principles of OA.

Who knows, maybe if we really rocked this interest group thing it could be a stepping stone to a section group somewhere down the line?

And really, what’s the worst that could happen? A flash in the pan that is unable to sustain itself as a lasting organization? If its the case that we can’t effectively organize ourselves in meatspace, then we just go back online and blog. No worries.

I bring up the idea of forming an interest group because at this point I’m still searching for an answer to the underlying question of what to do next. Are we better off pushing for OA within the AAA, or should we seek to promote OA independent of our professional association? We could, for example, seek to build alliances with someone else, the SFAA or CASCA perhaps, and continue to support existing OA venues or start new ones.

But if we visualize a day when American Anthropologist and Cultural Anthropology are free and open to everyone we’re going to need a way to get our foot in the door at the AAA and try to turn, however slowly, that big ship around.

You can read the AAA bylaws here.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

23 thoughts on “Is there support for an OA interest group among AAA members?

  1. In partial payment for my childhood sins of helping Elsevier encompass linguistic anthropology, I would be interested in being involved in an OA group.

  2. The problem with forming an OA interest group within the AAA (as far as I understand how those groups work) is that people who can’t afford AAA membership – say, adjuncts, grad students, and independent researchers… people who would benefit most from OA – wouldn’t be able to join up.

  3. On the subject of whether open access is “inmical” to the AAA: I cancelled my AAA membership the day I read Bill Davis’ submission. At the time I notified them of the reasons for this.

    A few days later I received an email from “Damon Dozier”, Director of Public Affairs, where he states (among other things):

    “I think you would be interested to know that AAA is NOT anti- open access. In fact our Executive Board has just released a statement on the dissemination of research which states that the organization “..opposes any Congressional legislation which, if it were enacted, imposes a blanket prohibition against open access publishing policies by all federal agencies.” You can find the statement on our website here:”

    This might be relevant. It also validates the principle that money talks. At least for those of us outside the US job market, boycott is clearly a viable method for getting heard.

  4. Hello Matt – I would be interested in being involved with the group. I’m working right now on a strong statement about the need for AAA journals to be OA that will appear in the September issue of American Anthropologist (due to the inevitable delay caused by the production process). My editorship ends June 30 so I will have more time after that to help push for this. Recent developments in the last couple years make it increasingly urgent that we find creative and practical ways to make this happen.

  5. I have to agree with Kristina. There were already some round tables at the last AAA meeting in Montreal that focussed on transnationalising and opening access to publications. A majority of people who attended, however, were heads of publications and national associations. Hardly a single person who would actually benefit directly from OA was at the discussions that at least I attended. And aside from the World Council of Anthro Associations ( and the heads from the developing worlds’ associations that are all trying to push for open access, no one seemed to be too optimistic about the prospects of OA. Perhaps, because as Kristina said, the people currently thinking about it won’t directly benefit from this.

    Still, having an interest group listed in the programme, will at least serve to seed the issue in peoples’ minds and perhaps bring a bit more awareness to the issue.

  6. @KK & MJ – Given that there are many arenas in which people outside the AAA can participate in the OA movement and that people who can afford AAA membership are perhaps those who will benefit from it least is our time and energy better spent somewhere else (supporting existing OA venues, making new ones, or striking up a coalition with some other professional organization) or should we “damn the torpedoes” and try to make something happen within the AAA?

  7. Thank you Matt for getting this rolling.

    I had been previously in touch with a couple people from the anthro blogosphere who were thinking of organizing a “Digital Anthropology” interest group. While I don’t want to take the edge off an “Open Access” interest group, this might be a way to incorporate some of the Open Access concerns, while not being quite so “inimical” from the start. This might also be a way to broaden to other concerns like highlighting anthropology blogs and getting some server space from the AAA. Again, I don’t want to dilute the idea if others prefer an explicitly Open Access interest group.

    With regard to Kristina and others very important concerns, would definitely not want to see this group as yet another pay-wall point, but as simply a vehicle to express Open Access issues within the AAA, and in the hopes of eventual transformation on these issues. I imagine that all joiners would simultaneously be working in other non-AAA forums on these issues, but this is to officially establish a AAA forum to concentrate on such issues.

  8. I’m definitely interested, Matt. Count me in. Also, I don’t think it would be a bad idea to have people working on these both inside and outside the structure of the AAA. Thanks for posting this.

  9. If such an interest group begins to self-organize, it will be important to go into the discussions with historical awareness that there was, for a time, a Scholarly Communications Interest Group within the AAA and that it was born, as I understand it, out of interest in OA among other, related concerns. It was even discussed in a 12/3/06 SM post by Kerim.

    I checked the check box to be a part of it, but back in those days I could never attend its meetings because I was too busy going to editors meetings.

    The important thing to know is that it disbanded or was disbanded. I never learned the context or circumstances of this. (perhaps someone who knows can explain). At any rate it does not appear on the AAA Interest Group list on the AAA website.

    Organizers of such a new group would surely want to track down the leaders of the old group to find out what happened. I know that subject area librarians for anthropology were among its members. Many such folks were involved in AnthroSource planning in the early period.

  10. I think that may have been my posting, Matt. I’ve discussed the idea of having a digital anthropology interest group with Daniel L. and Jason A. I tend to like a more broad-reaching title that can survive shifts in focus, and get more people involved. I think Open Access is tied into the current dialogues of blogs and twitter and data sharing – since discussions about research now go on throughout online communities, and not simply in publications and at conferences, I see it all as intertwined. After the 1st AAAFail several of us signed off on a letter sent to the AAA because they didn’t seem to think any viable discussion of their mission statement was happening online, and we wanted to correct their assumption.

    I think Jason J.s point about the other interest group is a good one. What would make us different? If we were to create an interest group, I think having an active online presence and making our events at the AAA meetings accessible for further discussion via a blog, twitter, etc… would be important. As an interest group we can get server space from the AAA, so we could have a site/blog that could work as a focal point and draw in other anthropologists.

    Also – according to the bylaws I believe you have to start as an interest group anyway, so the idea of a Section is probably a moot point. I think we’ve got 25 people with a shared interest. I’d suggest we crowdsource ideas for the objectives of the group and then have a few individuals work out a Mission Statement. Then we post that in multiple places and get feedback, tweak and submit.

  11. Wouldn’t it make more sense to go beyond the AAA, and get anthropologists from other regions involved? What about joining forces with groups in the Open Anthropology Cooperative? Can a AAA interest group be a component (or at least a subset) of a larger organization that transcends the AAA?

    Also an OA focus would be a good component of a broader digital anthropology organization/movement.

  12. Michael – one thing we’d have to watch as an interest group – the AAA has some pretty strict oversight of IGs, limiting what they can do. IGs have two explicit prohibitions, according to the AAA:

    1.Interest Groups may not publish journals, reviews or books.

    2.Interest Groups may not issue advocacy statements, take advocacy positions on issues, or act contrary to the AAA Bylaws, though, as with any AAA subentity, they may make recommendations to the Executive Board.

    You also have to be a AAA member to be a member of an IG, so I think any sort of larger organization would be impossible. It would be a good idea, though, to have active engagement with these other organizations. Part of this depends on what we see the role of the IG as – I see it as a group that will make recommendations to the AAA E Board and increase awareness and discussion of OA issues among anthropologists (you don’t have to be a member to visit the blog, right?).

    Here’s the requirements to start an IG:

  13. ME Smith wrote:

    “Wouldn’t it make more sense to go beyond the AAA, and get anthropologists from other regions involved? What about joining forces with groups in the Open Anthropology Cooperative?”

    I agree that it will be important to go beyond the AAA. I really like the idea of thinking about the interest group as a subset of a larger group/organization.

    Also, good idea about looking for ways to join up with folks at the OAC.

  14. My feeling is that we both:

    1. An interest group within the AA that can help organize events at AA meetings.

    2. An online presence.

    I am happy to participate in both, but I no longer have the time or the energy to be an organizer of either. I earlier managed the Open Access Anthropology blog, website, and Google Group, but all are dorment now. I would be happy to hand over the keys to a new owner if such an organization is formed. Just let me know.

  15. @Megan – you say after the first AAAfail you and some others signed a letter to send to the AAA. Here at Savage Minds we’ve been working on a letter too and hoping to come up with something we could build a coalition around, almost like a petition.

    Maybe we could transform that into a mission statement for a potential “digital anthropology” interest group instead. It seems like you, Jason, and Daniel, have been having similar ideas. I think we should join forces. Do you already have something drafted?

  16. I think it would be great to get a AAA section together that focuses on digital anthro, open access, new platforms, and the like. Could provide a common meeting place and time for anthro’s going to the AAA meetings and wanting to interact, talk, and brain storm more. So I hope Megan and Matt get something going!

    I also see a need for a larger effort, one more aimed at organization and at getting an OA journal together and being able to link between anthro’s of all stripes. But that’s a separate thing, something in more direction reaction to the problems of AAA as an organization and also that a lot of us are seeing common interests and new ways to interact come together.

    I hope the larger initiative does get started, but a section group is certainly something that could provide us a bit of a forum to talk and interact more.

  17. Matt,

    We have nothing drafted at all – we were just discussing this 2 days before you posted and looking through the requirements to start an IG and figuring out what would need to get done. I’ll forward you the e-mails.

  18. @Matt:

    “Maybe we could transform that into a mission statement for a potential “digital anthropology” interest group instead.”

    That’s a good idea.

  19. As Kristina says, there are a lot of people outside the AAA, but I think it could also be valuable to work from within. I’m wondering if an interest group for Digital Anthropology could be developed with OA a key platform point, as well as connections set up with OAC and other groups.

    I’m also curious if a listserv has or could be set up for OA Anthropology. Digest emails about new OA publications, calls for papers or reviewers, and OA events could be set up that get news into peoples’ inboxes with a minimum of fuss. Is this already going on somewhere?

  20. A couple of things.

    1) I really like the idea of working toward something that extends beyond the AAA. Several people have already mentioned why this makes sense. Especially considering the rules and restrictions that the AAA imposes on IG’s (as Megan points about above).

    2) At the same time, I agree that starting something within the AAA can be a good start. It can be a focused subset that’s part of wider initiatives. This could be a good place to start, at least for those connected with the AAA.

    3) I also think it’s important, as Daniel says above, to ” link between anthro’s of all stripes.”

  21. I second what Ryan says. I think any OA activities will necessarily have to both work within the AAA (and other associations) and also go beyond those existing associations. I don’t see those as mutually exclusive, but as mutually reinforcing. I don’t know enough about the structure of the AAA to be able to say what the internal aspect would look like.

    I have to say, though, that all of this sounds remarkably similar to the conversation that began the OAC a few years ago. The only difference being that this is a little more focused on OA, and the conversation back then was more general frustration with the AAA. I was part of that initial conversation (on twitter, then on Keith Hart’s website, then on Ning), and it seems this kind of frustration comes back again and again – wasn’t really resolved by the creation of the OAC. I’m not suggesting we start another alternative association, but that maybe we need to pool some resources external to the AAA, put those into relation with some academic departments, and get some movement in the discipline as a whole to support some projects. Any ideas on that?

    I’ve mentioned before that the first thing we need is a website that brings all of this information together – what OA journals are available, where are they, why should we support OA, and what can we do to support OA? Kerim mentioned his various past projects – I’m not the one to take this over either (due to time and know-how constraints). There must be someone out there who could, though. Maybe we can find a grant? I don’t know… just shooting ideas out there.

  22. Are you considering only the application of OA methodology to your own research, or also open to thinking about anthropology as related to the understanding and furthering of the open access/open science movement more generally? I’m very interested in the idea of having an interdisciplinary group thinking about the whole set of issues involved with opening up research, and addressing these problems potentially engages a variety of disciplines. For some background see , particularly section Education and incentives in Discussion.

    As a side benefit of such a group, you might find engaging the more technical types useful in advancing your own efforts.

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