Not that kind of “living in the past”…

This is bad. The Archaeological Institute of America has published a statement in its popular magazine opposing open access. And by opposing, I mean totally hating on the concept.

We at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), along with our colleagues at the American Anthropological Association and other learned societies, have taken a stand against open access. Here at the AIA, we particularly object to having such a scheme imposed on us from the outside when, in fact, during the AIA’s more than 130-year history, we have energetically supported the broad dissemination of knowledge, and do so through our extensive program of events and lectures for the general public and through our publications. Our mission statement explicitly says, “Believing that greater understanding of the past enhances our shared sense of humanity and enriches our existence, the AIA seeks to educate people of all ages about the significance of archaeological discovery.” We have long practiced “open access.”

Really? No. Really? But wait, there’s more:

While it may be true that the government finances research, it does not fund the arduous peer-review process that lies at the heart of journal and scholarly publication, nor the considerable effort beyond that step that goes into preparing articles for publication. Those efforts are not without cost. When an archaeologist publishes his or her work, the final product has typically been significantly improved by the contributions of other professionals such as peer reviewers, editors, copywriters, photo editors, and designers. This is the context in which the work should appear. (Almost all scholarly books and many articles lead off with a lengthy list that acknowledges these individuals.)

And then there is this:

We fear that this legislation would prove damaging to the traditional venues in which scientific information is presented by offering, for no cost, something that has considerable costs associated with producing it. It would undermine, and ultimately dismantle, by offering for no charge, what subscribers actually support financially—a rigorous publication process that does serve the public, because it results in superior work.

I was going to write a really scathing response about how evil this is. But really, I don’t think i can do it. President Bartman and the archaeologists are running scared, just as the AAA is. The issue comes down to something much more fundamental than open access, and I direct this at faculty, students and other members of scholarly societies:

Do you want your scholarly society to survive?

I mean this honestly. I, for instance, do not. I no longer give a flute about the AAA. I’ve tried my hardest to make the error of their ways visible to them, but failed. I’ll miss the meetings and the swag, but they now do nothing else but suck money out of my university library and give it to Wiley Blackwell. Game over.

But I undestand if you don’t feel that way, and if you don’t then it really is a problem that our scholarly societies can only exist by making our research less accessible and available. We need to find another way.

Here are some issues to consider if you are an archaeologist (or belong to any scholarly society):

1) No one is imposing anything on anyone yet. AIA is writing this in opposition to the recently re-introduced FRPPA legislation that would extend public access to federally funded research at all agencies, not just the NIH (which currently requires that published research funded by taxpayers be available to taxpayers 12 months after it is published). They owe it to their membership to explain this, rather than spreading fear and uncertainty by being vague and threatening. But instead, it falls to me to clarify it. If there are in fact any archaeologists who do their work with taxpayer money, and if that legislation passes, then yes, those faculty members would be required to make a version of their research publicly accessible. It does not force publishers to do anything at all, and it certainly does not affect the quality they claim to create.

2) Holding public lectures and events, and publishing journals, while laudable, is not the same thing “open access”. It is disingenuous and misleading to confuse the issue this way. Open access, as it is used by the other 99.9% of people who use the term, refers to nothing more than whether or not academic research publications are openly available to the public. Having a mission statement that says “we intend to educate people” is also not the same as open access.

3) It is absolutely, 100%, totally and completely correct that high-quality publishing is expensive. BUT THIS IS NOT THE POINT OF OPEN ACCESS. If I could make my letters more all-caps I would. No one is saying that open access makes publishing cheaper. This is also misleading.

4) Follow the money. Where does all that money come from that makes AIA’s publications so fantastic? From university libraries. It is libraries who buy subscriptions to academic journals, not individuals, not businesses, not people at Barnes and Noble, or people passing a news-stand in Kinchasa. Elite university libraries pay for those articles to be great. Who writes and reviews those articles? University researchers. Not independently wealthy archaeology connoisseurs, not well-paid corporate researchers, but university researchers. Add it up: the content is produced and reviewed (and read) by university researchers. The subscription fees are paid by university libraries. Scholarly societies publication programs are 99% dependent on universities for their revenue. What they make in dues and other fundraising, especially in the case of something like AIA and AAA, is dwarfed by this publication program. Now ask your local librarians how much more money they have to support scholarly societies whose publications are getting more expensive, more difficult to access, and more tedious to negotiate… you’ll get an earful.

5) What’s the solution? Maybe the solution is for faculty to work with their universities to find ways to support a scholarly society without the condition being the restriction of research availability. There is enough money in the system to be creative about this, but not so long as our scholarly societies are extracting it from our libraries and giving it to for profit publishers who, unlike the AIA, do not make our work superior.

It’s unfortunate that scholarly societies are in this position, but it is evil that they are opposing something that only enriches the already super-rich for-profit publishers who are busy buying up scholarly society publications. It may already be too late to save our scholarly societies and the publications they offer. I hope not.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

14 thoughts on “Not that kind of “living in the past”…

  1. As an archaeologist who has worked in both CRM and is currently in academia, this is so disappointing. They know full well that most archaeology jobs are in the private sector, which means, guess what, no access to the majority of archaeology journals. All this leads to is further dismal reports that rely on boiler plats with research from two decades ago, and maybe a few more recent things thrown in based on personal subscriptions and what you had time to pay attention to. For shame.

  2. You point out a few factual errors in the AIA editorial. Do you see these as evidence that the author is generally ignorant of what OA actually is and the issues it purports to address, or do you interpret this as more of a willful misrepresentation and deception?

  3. While I agree completely with your sentiments here, I don’t hold out much hope for our anti-OA associations. But there is a much quicker way to achieve open access: self-archiving. Universities and other institutions should be setting up repositories, and researchers should be posting their papers in the repositories. Those of us who don’t have a good repository can post our papers on our own websites (as you do, Chris). This is something that researchers can do of our own volition, without waiting for capitalist firms and so-called scholarly societies to act in ways they see as counter to their interests.

    I do a lot of exploring in disciplines far from my own, and there are few things more useful than finding a prominent scholar in an unfamiliar field who has posted all of his/her papers on their website. I wonder how many SM readers have posted their papers? Perhaps some enlightened groups (like anthro bloggers) could start using peer pressure to get our colleagues off their butts to upload their papers.

  4. The issue comes down to something much more fundamental than open access: Do you want your scholarly society to survive?

    What is it that lies behind the drive for open access in this crisis for academic publishing and indeed for the universities? It is true that the loudest voices are American anthropologists fed up with their scholarly society. But these are temporary reactions to bureacracies being even mor totalitarian than usual. Proposed antidotes usually add up to no more than a software patch which leaves most of the problem unaddressed.

    Reliance on a variety of expressions using “open” is part of the problem. It is a weasel word tied up with all the conflicts that come with seeking greater democracy in a historically specific unequal society. The pairs open/closed, free/necessary, public/private (linked to commons), equal/unequal are all entangled in ways that are conceptually confused. So open access means for some no payment. The big divide between free software and open source was over free speech not free beer (libre vs gratuit); and then when Linux went commercial some saw this as the end of the world, mostly Americans and Germans who operate with a gift/market opposition.

    All of this is now tied up with Facebook. Then there is the threat to freedom of the i-cloud, of Apple’s, Google’s and Amazon’s monopolistic behaviour. The academics have sold the farm because they bought into the idea that commercial publishers decide who deserves promotion. But then someone who writes English as a second language needs good professional copyeditors to get their work into the English language sphere. It goes on and on, round and round. It needs Occam’s razor to cut through it all.

    Three years ago the Open Anthropology Cooperative was formed in response to a similar cri de coeur to yours, Chris, and Matt’s, only that time from Kerim. We now have 6,000 members from around the world, but we are just now coming round to using our anthropology to understand what went wrong and how, if at all, to fix it. We thought we were a social movement at first, but became an inferior administration without the will to power. We are a lot more open than Savage Minds and there is enormous potential in the OAC.

    So far, however, like most other reactions against the AAA and Wiley, we have been let down by our anthropological education which was meant to reflect the world, not to change it. We haven’t given up though and I for one still look to SM for inspiration, if not for the revolution we need.

  5. I do not care over-much about the debates about issues like these within the anthropological community. Too often the participants in these debates are simply positioning themselves in the weird power struggles within the discipline, and after all their blah blah blah theoretical bullshit of self-righteousness, they go back home and watch The Big Bang Theory and forget that for 99.99% of the rest of the world cannot see what they do.

    I’m all for open-access, and do not give a wank that dichotomies like open/closed are weasel words that are hard to pin down. Less talk, more action (and thank you for starting OAC). Put your papers up on line so that the rest of us can see them. Blog and link, create repositories. Start new journals.

    Trust me, its important to the rest of us; we want to be part of the conversation too. This is a ‘Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular’ type of moment.

    Now, excuse me while I go throw eggs at the university library that closed its doors in my face.

  6. Ich kann nicht anders. Nice simile. Yes, let a thousand flowers bloom. I always used to say that ideas are cheap. What matters is building new social forms and for that we have to dump the unrecognized clutter from our minds. After twenty years of activism and networking, I have come round to seeing that how we think matters and these weasel words lead us into big mistakes and a lot of wasted effort.

  7. You say that no one disputes that high-quality publishing is expensive, but as an editor, I will go ahead and dispute that. The archaeologists here repeat a well-known meme that the AAA bureaucrats also launched at us, the editors, when we began to criticize the Wiley connection. It’s actually all boilerplate and it is all nonsense, and it relates to the myth of the immense commodity chain that is publication and how none of it can be done for free, it goes like this:
    “While it may be true that the government finances research, it does not fund the arduous peer-review process that lies at the heart of journal and scholarly publication, nor the considerable effort beyond that step that goes into preparing articles for publication. Those efforts are not without cost. When an archaeologist publishes his or her work, the final product has typically been significantly improved by the contributions of other professionals such as peer reviewers, editors, copywriters, photo editors, and designers.”

    Speaking as an erstwhile AAA editor, who knows a lot of other editors at various publishers, let me just say that (1) no one is paid money for the peer review process with manuscripts, this process is free from beginning to end, it is indeed done at NO COST, (2) the same goes for preparing the articles for publication, a AAA editor signs a memorandum of understanding which stipulates that the editorial office, which has a budget of zero dollars (that was our budget and we stuck to it) will provide a manuscript that is 80=90 percent copy-edited to the publisher, and that all permissions are in hand, and that the photos are ready to print. (3) I like the fact that they wrote in ‘copywriters’ instead of copyeditors, but actually most copy-editing is done by the editors and the typesetters at many journals, if Elsevier does any copyediting I will eat my hat. Many journals and other publishers do little or no real copyediting. Copy-editing is probably the last persuasive sticking point, and it actually doesn’t cost that much. (4) Lastly, photo editors are people I have never heard of, but they didn’t exist in our production chain, we had a free program that we used that checked whether a photo would print or not, and if it wouldn’t I used some other freeware photo editing program to monkey with it until it would work, and (5) very lastly, designers do not work on individual issues, they are brought in at some cost if you get budgetary approval to to a make-over of the journal, it’s a one time thing, it costs, say, about 2000 dollars.

    So basically, the reason publishing is very expensive, you will have to look elsewhere, because you will not find any real expenses in the production process.

  8. Please forgive my lack of background in this issue. With your forbearance, I have two questions whose answers might help me understand this more fully:

    The first question regards the cost of peer review and disemmination.

    Is it true that, in the hard sciences, the cost for publication is included in the grant provided to the researcher?

    Even if this is so, given the pace of research in the hard sciences (rather than ideological reasons) important scientific journals publish online either simultaneously or ahead of the hard copy format. From what I understand, neither format is open access.

    We can, with a visit to a university library that is open to the public (read “public university”), read any journal that they house or subscribe to online for free. Of course, the wealthier libraries subscribe to more journals.

    Therefore, open access online takes this to a whole new level. Who pays for the cost of research peer review, and publication (site maintenance, etc) in this form of publishing?

    Since the 1980s, the federal government has withered away in terms of sponsoring research, especially in the humanities and social sciences, while the pressure to publish has intensified enormously. Therefore, asking where the money comes from matters a great deal.

    In addition, universities are under pressure for finding opportunities for undergrads and grad students to conduct research and publish throughout their careers–not just at the end. Again, grants in the hard sciences provide monies to bring undergrads into labs for work, to publish under the name of the teams, and to travel to conferences. The humanities and social sciences do not.

    What does providing open access do for the financial straits of the “soft sciences” in research and publishing?

    Paying for such research out of dues is increasingly difficult as salaries don’t keep up with STEM salaries or those in professional schools. And the increasing trend to hire adjuncts at much lower costs does not help a profession survive. Therefore, the profession itself is short of funds in all aspects.

    Thanks for your help in orienting me to the debate.

  9. @Michael Smith Absolutely! and I’m all for Peer pressure. Everyone should post their papers on their websites or in an institutional repository wherever they have the right. And if they don’t have the right they should get their university to pass an OA policy. But this doesn’t actually address the problem of whether we need our scholarly societies anymore…

    @J K Hart, It sounds like you are just about ready to make OAC into a professional society 🙂 If you hold a conference, I will come. But of course, we all know how daunting it is to actually run an organization, as opposed to just being an anthropologist within one, which is what most of us want to do, so maybe we also need to ask the question, “who runs the AAA and why? What do they get out of it? Why do they do it?” If we can figure that out, then maybe we can find ways to make them change and be more like OAC.

    @Paul Absolutely– but you are talking mostly about ongoing costs. This is why WB is so evil: they buy up journal after journal from scholarly societies, they streamline them to the point where they don’t have to spend any new money from issue to issue and they make You and Me do all the work. For this they charge our libraries an enormous fee to access it. It sin’t just that you are exploited as an editor or me as a peer reviewer– we are then exploited again via a libraries who are forced to pay money they might otherwise use to make our resources better at a local level.

    However, it does take money to make changes, to improve, or to start a journal, and the AIA is right about this so long as they are serious about actually responding to and working with their editors. If they act like WB, then I say to the devil with them… but if they actually work with their editors and are responsive, and make changes that academics think are necessary, then that is costly. There are also a lot of sunk costs in the salaries of staff who, though they may not appear to do anything, are working stiffs like you and me trying to do a good job. Their labor may be invisible to us, but it is there, I assure you.

  10. Just a word of thanks to Chris and to those leaving comments. The issue of what scholarly societies are and where they are heading was a topic of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education story (“Scholarly Groups’ Choices Yield Diverging Fortunes”) as well as an earlier jointly authored scholarly article that was spearheaded by Chris and published in Cultural Anthropology. That paper is “Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies” and can be accessed here:

  11. I’ve just posted some comments on Open Access from current candidates for the AAA Executive Board. On the one hand, it seems most candidates are espousing a perhaps more active position than previously, although it leaves open the question how much the EB can accomplish and of the possible gulf between membership and administration.

  12. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is not opposed to open access. I would like to refer your readers to our recent AAA Executive Board motion (, which states, in part, that the Association has a “commitment to ‘a publications program that disseminates the most current anthropological research, expertise, and interpretation to its members, the discipline, and the broader society” and “the AAA opposes any Congressional legislation which, if it were enacted, imposes a blanket prohibition against open access publishing policies by all federal agencies.” To learn more about AAA’s publishing program, please visit the Publishing FAQs:

  13. Let’s not mince worlds: saying the AAA is not opposed to Open Access is like Saying Israel is not opposed to a two state solution. You can find lots of expressions of good will, but actions speak louder than words and in this case the AAA has left no doubt about what it will do in practice, even if it refuses to admit this in theory.

  14. What Rex said.

    Let’s also be clear that what the AAA Executive Board says or believes is not the same thing as what the staff of the AAA says or believes. The former is supposed to guide the latter. It is clear that this rule is honored only in the breach. If the AAA was actually in support of OA they would have been listening to its members 5 or 10 years ago.

    When I hear AAA staff members stop talking about how hard it is to imagine a world with OA and start talking about the real sacrifices that need to be made, then I will believe that they support it.

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