AA Editor: We Need Gold Open Access

Open Access week is well underway here on the Internet, and so it’s time to return to a topic I touched on before but didn’t give enough attention to: Tom Boelstorff’s recent call for AAA journals to go completely open access. As the editor of American Anthropologist, our flagship journal, his editorial on this subject is particularly important and deserves more attention than it got in the original news cycle in which it was released.

In essence, Tom makes three arguments for making AAA journals ‘gold’ open access: first, anthropology can’t be relevant, public, and important if it is behind a paywall. Second, if we are serious about making anthropology a truly global endeavor that anthropologists all over the world are a part of, we need to make our work accessible to people outside of America. Finally, we shouldn’t be donating our academic labor to a corporation so it can profit.

Few people would argue with Tom on these points. After all, who honestly thinks only Americans should read American Anthropologist? Or that the poor should, in principle, not be allowed to read? Rather, the usual objection we hear in response to claims like Tom’s is: “that’s great in theory, but how are we going to pay for it?”

Tom has several answers to this question, but one of them isn’t a radical experiment in journal production. In his piece Tom praises the work of the production staff who have collaborated with him on AA and insists that our journals need all of the value added that professional, skilled copyeditors and designers provide. At the same time, he’s optimistic that solutions can be found — he points out, for instance, that the editors of Cultural Anthropology believe they could free that journal if every member of the society for cultural anthropology paid US$30 extra in membership dues a year. Solutions are out there, he says, we just have to find them.

At the same time, Tom makes its clear that going gold will “entail painful choices” — something serious will have to change at AAA. Perhaps our meetings will be biannual, or perhaps some sections will have to face the fact that they cannot continue to exist without riding on the coat-tails of other sections. In the end, Tom argues, going gold will only work if anthropologists take ownership of the AAA’s publishing program. For too long, he seems to be saying, we’ve let staff at AAA run the show — if we want major changes then we ourselves have to step up to the plate and get it done. This will mean spending more time on ‘service’ than professors are told they ought to, but if we are serious about shaping our discipline and its publications then we should be willing to step up.

Overall, it’s a great argument from a key figure in our discipline. There’s lot of lead-time to start acting on Tom’s advice as well: our current contract with Wiley will expire in 2017. With the AAAs around the corner, perhaps its time to start thinking hard about that date and where we want to be when it comes around.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

4 thoughts on “AA Editor: We Need Gold Open Access

  1. Thanks for the shoutout! I was just at a conference with Danny Miller in Manchester and we’re going to try to work together on this more. It’s a topic that busy scholars often (understandably) don’t have time to consider, but I’ve really come to believe it’s important and thanks for keeping the topic going.

    Speaking of which, Ryan Anderson and I did a collective conversation piece recently here on this blog (/2012 /08/29/opening-our-anthropological-conversations-an-interview-with-tom-boellstorff/). All comments welcome!

  2. Rex, thanks for your consistent attention to this important issue, and to Tom for tugging and pulling on the delicate balancing act. SavageMinds readers may be interested to know about AAA’s Open Anthropology project, developed by AAA President Leith Mullings and the Executive Board. To be launched early in 2013, Alisse Waterston will serve as Editor. AAA’s Open Anthropology will be an online compilation available to the public free of charge that presents a curated collection of AAA articles that have appeared across the 22 publications in AAA’s publishing suite. It will also include review articles, book and audiovisual reviews, and reports and comments on topics of general interest. The only new content in OA will be an editorial with each issue that synthesizes the material in the issue, and helps translate anthropological knowledge to the larger public in accessible terms.

  3. Ed, that’s such exciting news. At the end of every PopAnth article we suggest ‘further reading’ and try to link to publicly accessible material wherever possible, but keep finding that it’s hard to avoid articles and books that are behind paywalls. Good to know that we will soon be able to suggest accessible AAA journal articles to our readers. The accompanying editorials are an excellent idea.

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