How to turn ‘free samples’ into ‘open access’

About once a year Sage opens up all its content to the public — you create an account with them, logon, and download away. What’s the difference between Sage’s periodic giveaways and the AAA’s new Open Anthropology publication? Sage knows that what it’s doing is advertising, while ‘Open Anthropology’ is pretending to be an academic journal.

Who could possibly be fooled into believing that Sage’s periodic ungating of its content is part of a move towards open access? The idea is ludicrous. Everyone knows that Sage is giving away free samples of its product — one of the oldest marketing techniques on the books. And I don’t mind. In fact, I usually use the opportunity to download as much of Sage’s total corpus as possible (after about 100 downloads you get an error screen telling you to wait thirty minutes and try again, btw).Sage doesn’t love me, I don’t love them, and none of us pretend otherwise.

What makes the AAA’s latest attempt to get up to speed with digital publishing so worrisome is that they are passing off advertising as outreach. The AAA’s recycling of old content into a new publication is exactly the sort of thing that Wiley-Blackwell or De Gruyter fill my in-box with everyday: “download the top five article from the X Journal of Y now!” Could CFPEP (The AAA committee that hatched the scheme) really have come up with this themselves, or was Wiley whispering in their ears?

That said, since one CFPEP member has asked for suggestions about how to make their ‘Open Anthropology’ publication not suck, I thought I would make some positive suggestions about how they ought to undertake the project. Admittedly, our many legitimate complaints about other CFPEP projects have gone completely unanswered, but whatever. Hope springs eternal. Since this new project is basically an ongoing virtual issues project, I’d suggest you go back and re-read my two-year old post on virtual issues. But here are the highlights:

Do not regate content once you have opened it. I repeat: do not regate content once you have opened it.

Make sure the essays around the curated content really add value to the content. In general, these sorts of introductory essays tend the be very short and go in either of two directions: first, they says something very beautiful and essayistic about the theme connecting the curated content or, second, they summarize the argument of the content. This really is not particularly helpful. Do you know what would be helpful? No regating the content once you have opened it.

These curated issues should basically be like articles in Annual Review of Anthropology – they should present the history of a topic or idea, explaining the reception of articles, the sociology of the scholarly network that produced them, and how each one led to the development of the next (ARoA, btw, does this less often than it should). Each number of the new publication should be viewed as a small, light anthology of the sort we use in teaching. Or, to put it another way, a written version of the ‘tell me your vision of medical anthropology?’ question that is usually asked at job interviews. I think this relatively new format could be a way to think seriously about what anthropology’s canon is, or should become. Especially if you didn’t regate the content once you’d open it.

The problem with doing something substantive like this is that it would cost money, which is something that the AAA doesn’t have. While ‘Open Anthropology’ as a publication is a good idea in principle, its biggest problem is the institution hosting it. The systemic failure of the AAA organizationally and — especially — financially means that new initiatives like these will likely never get off the ground. They are competing with their own institutions, and any non-suck version of them (for instance, one that did not regate its content) is basically not in the interests of the AAA itself. There’s a term for this out in the business literature — when small innovative groups create products that challenge the business model of the corporation that houses them — but I can’t think now of what it’s called.

So in the end, there is a way to move from free samples to genuine and valuable open access, but the AAA can’t do it and, if I’m right, couldn’t be the home for any group that did. Which is sad and distressing but, imho, irrevocably true.


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

6 thoughts on “How to turn ‘free samples’ into ‘open access’

  1. “What makes the AAA’s latest attempt to get up to speed with digital publishing so worrisome is that they are passing off advertising as outreach.”

    Nailed it right there.

  2. A view from the margins – living and working in central Africa *Burundi* where there are so very few web resources available, the open access of SAGE once a year is really fantastic. Yes, adverting, but is that so bad… From my perspective, their-s is a great service – also.

  3. Well of course acts of ‘kindness’ are how corporations increase the loyalty of their customers. I love Sage’s periodic ungatings and I go on a download fest (I guess I’m too old fashioned to just illegally download those articles from where ever the young whippersnappers download ’em these days) but make no mistake about it, this free samples strategy is also how Sage defines what is kindness and what is not, and helps reaffirm that the definition of business as normal is ‘closed access’. It’s a carnival, a digital ritual of reversal that helps underline and legitimate the ‘normal’ order.

    But yeah — free PDFs! Perhaps I complain too much.

  4. I’m a little curious — and I mean this seriously — about what the author of this piece would like to see as the funding mechanism for AAA journals. Currently, all of them are funded by subscriptions, and most of them either lose money or break even. Only AA and AE make a significant amount of money, which helps subsidize the smaller ones. Open access would mean at the very least a sharp decline in those subscription revenues — why subscribe to a journal you can get for free, whether you’re an individual or a library? Without that income, how would the journals’ costs be covered?

    In the sciences, most open access journals charge authors publication fees. The funding for that is often built into the grants that support the research. Most anthropology work doesn’t have access to that kind of funding, and most anthropologists aren’t especially well-paid — they would be unhappy to pay the kinds of publication fees that open access journals in the sciences charge.

    So where will the money for the journals come from? I mean that seriously.

  5. Pete —

    Your question is easy to answer: there is no way that the AAA can fund a journal publication program. The organizational framework is so fundamentally flawed that there is no way to keep it afloat. As you may know, the journals have gotten so expensive to produce that it is likely that Wiley will not renew its contract with AAA when it expires. The problems are these:

    1. to its credit, the AAA wants to do the right thing, so it cannot ethically crank up its costs to bleed libraries dry.

    2. AAA members do not want to take the time and energy to run journals themselves. This means we need a large administrative staff we cannot afford.

    3. The AAA is a baby-boomer sized institution in a post-cold war era of shrinking budgets and a shrinking professoriate. Sections wilt on the vine and an already over-extended centralized institution is bankrupting itself to keep them afloat.

    4. Sections that do have new ideas and excited people who want to find new publishing solutions cannot because of the legal agreements that keep them ties to AAA.

    The solution is something like the following:

    1. Anthropologists need to start doing service — a lot of it — to support their organizations.

    2. Sections need to be free to try new things — and to fold if it turns out that no one cares enough to keep them around. I’m confident grad students who work hard to keep sections together are much more likely to develop the karma/repute necessary to get an academic job than are the ones who submit to dime-a-dozen Sage journals.

    3. The costs of journals can be subsidized (and the journals can be opened) by libraries and other institutions, but only if 1. we remove journal publisher’s profits from the budget 2. We find cheaper technological solutions to publication (like OJS, which already exists) 3. we use the human and technical capital of unis and libraries. Above all we need to befriend, not predate, those who pay for journals.

    Overall, we need to return to the pre-80s era, when there were numerous smaller anthropology societies.

  6. Almost 100% scientific publications in Brazil are open access and nobody suffers because of that. We already write and review for free, the papers are put online are a government funded portal, so the only costs are editing and printing. Circulation of printed copies is kept to a low scale, so the editions aren’t expensive.

Comments are closed.