Inside baseball with Tim Elfenbein, managing editor of Cultural Anthropology

Recently I Skyped with Tim Elfenbein, managing editor of Cultural Anthropology to talk about the journal’s transition to open access distribution. Elfenbein, 39, took over the position of managing editor in July 2013 after a stint as assistant managing editor in Duke University Press’s book division and switching from the UNC – Chapel Hill Anthropology program to Information Science. The first OA issue of Cultural Anthropology debuted earlier this month.


­When did the SCA decide to go the open access route and what was motivating them?


Cultural Anthropology may have been one of the earlier AAA journals to start our own website. Kim and Mike Fortun were responsible for the initial site. They wanted to know what extra materials they could put up that would supplement the journal’s articles. I think that experience probably spurred the idea that there is some of this publishing stuff we can do ourselves. The Fortuns are also heavily involved in science and technology studies (STS), where discussions about open access have been occurring for a long time. When Anne Allison and Charlie Piot took over as editors of the journal, they continued to push for an open access alternative in our publishing program. The Crow report is what really spurred the AAA into action. Last year, the AAA decided to put out a call to all the sections to see if anyone would want their journal to go open access. The SCA formed a task force to evaluate the AAA’s proposal and the feasibility of shifting the journal. At the time, we were the only ones who put our hands up and I think it is probably because we were the only ones who had been already been seriously thinking about this.

From my perspective, the most important thing that has happened here is not that Cultural Anthropology has gone open access, it’s that we are now a society-published journal. Taking over the responsibilities of a publisher means a number of things. First, it means we must take on the production process. Here is the basic article workflow: We get a submission, the editors review it, if it is a possibility they send it out to external reviewers, there might be a round or two of back and forth with review and resubmission, and there is usually some writing development that the editors work with the writers on. The production of the journal, from my perspective, starts when I get the manuscript after all that development work has happened. We took responsibility for organizing copy editing a couple of years ago, so this is not new. Those copy-edited manuscripts go back to the author to review. Either the copy editor or I review those documents, adjudicate any last issues, and clean up the manuscripts so that they look like final files. (For the February issue, I did the majority of the copy editing, so these roles often overlap.) In the past, we would take these final files and that is what we’d send to Wiley.

Wiley would get the final manuscripts typeset. They had a way of organizing the entire proofing process, so authors would again be involved in proofs but we did not need to coordinate this. We would just send any corrections and let their production department update the galleys. Wiley would take the final proofs, clean them up, turn them into XML and HTML to get them on the Wiley Online Library, get them uploaded into all the different metadata streams, and would send them to the printer. So that whole backend of production is what we have taken over.

What I had to answer in the past six months is what are all the pieces of the infrastructure that we are going to need to publish the journal? What can we do in-house? What do we need to go to outside vendors for? What kind of XML DTD (Document Type Definition) did we want? What would be the effect if we used the standard schema or if we tried something different?  What would be the translation issues when we got to XHTML? There is the whole infrastructure in publishing that pushes out metadata to indexers, libraries, retailers and other discovery systems. It’s a lot of standards and standards bodies that you have to contend with. Folks like CrossRef, they’re the ones who assign persistent handles for material on the web. DOI’s are assigned by CrossRef. Getting our data systems and relations up and going was a big part of development. (My master’s thesis was on metadata, so luckily I was already familiar with some of this terrain.)

Beside the workflow and procedures for documents and metadata, I had to figure out what internal developments we needed for our submissions management system and reading platform: OJS (Open Journal Software) and our website. OJS is not bad open source software, but my sense is that their imagination of what a journal is, who works on journals, and how they are organized is a little bit too inflexible. It takes some time to learn and to understand its quirks and limitations.

The new Cultural Anthropology website, which was built from scratch last year and launched over the summer, was originally designed to continue its supplementary role to the journal, as well as allowing us to experiment with forms of non-peer-reviewed content. When the decision was make that Cultural Anthropology would go OA, suddenly the website wasn’t going to be the supplement; it was going to be the place where the journal actually lived. That required us to rethink what was going to appear online and how it was going to be organized. We had already created pages for just about every article for the whole history of Cultural Anthropology, so we didn’t want to break all these pages because we had already put the effort into getting them up. As with any media organization, from publishers to libraries, your legacy content places important limitations on what kinds of changes you can make to your platforms. We are in a different position than a newly launched journal because we have twenty-eight years of back content. We’re already a well-established journal and in a sense that means our time horizon has to be longer. It also means we have this great tradition to build on.

This is one of the hard things about striking off on your own. When Wiley adds another journal to their collection, they’ve already got an incredibly well tested platform that it’s going to live on. It is pretty easy to just throw more content in there. The cost of building that platform and the rest of the publishing systems is spread across a huge number of journals. For us, everything is being built anew and this means that stuff breaks all the time. We don’t have an IT department supporting us. This means that we have a lot less flexibility if there are problems. For instance, there was a typo in the title of one of the article in the new issue. And you would think it would be really easy to fix one character. It’s not! The way we have set up our systems, I place our corrected data into OJS and then feed that data to the website. But we are experiencing some problems with our feed and so it makes it impossible to make a correction, at least for this piece of metadata. It took us several days, and the intervention of our web developer, to correct this. It could take us years and a whole lot more investment to fix all of the bugs in our systems.


Has the relationship with Wiley been completely severed for Cultural Anthropology? In his announcement Brad Weiss said it’s going to remain on AnthroSource.


Cultural Anthropology will still appear in the Wiley Online Library and AnthroSource. There are a couple of ways of looking at this. I think that the AAA is very smart in knowing that a collection of journals is far more valuable than any individual journal. There is a good reason we want to keep our collection together. I’ve been involved a little bit in looking at the next version of AnthroSource, which is hopefully coming online this year. You’ll be able to look through the collection in better ways. Cultural Anthropology is still going to be receiving revenue when people view our articles through AnthroSource and Wiley’s library. That’s quite important because we don’t have many revenue streams right now besides SCA memberships. These are among the benefits of being with Wiley, as well as continuing to be on a platform with a much better search interface than that presently on our website.

The downside is that we’ve taken on all the costs and all the labor of production and then we are handing over our files to Wiley when we’re done. For some, that seems unfair, but I actually think that the benefits of being on the Wiley Online Library are probably greater than not. But again, I don’t have anything against Wiley. We may not like their business model, we may not like that they are making money off of what we feel is not a commodity. I can even say I agree with that. But for me it is hard to be angry at publishers because I know publishers. As students and scholars, we have been relying on the work they do for a long time and we rely on it every single day. Even if we want to strike off on our own and try new things, we need to recognize that publishers are providing much of the infrastructure that produces and circulates scholarship. If we want to rearrange how that’s paid for, that’s great. But that is something different. Part of what frustrates me about the conversation about open access is that most of it is coming from the perspective of scholars. There’s a whole lot that I think people don’t see. I am trying to figure out right now how to make the labor and infrastructure that goes into publishing visible.


A couple of days ago on Twitter you were having a conversation with @savageminds, something to the effect that most advocates of open access don’t acknowledge that there’s this full slate of possible consequences which could be good or bad. What were you getting at?


We have a couple of very particular problems in mind when we look at open access as a solution. It is overwhelmingly focused on access as the main problem. Discovery and findability, in my opinion, are becoming greater problems than access. I can put something up on the Internet and call it published and if nobody can find it, it doesn’t really matter. A whole lot of what I do in my day is not just figuring out how to get something up, how to publish a text, but how information about it is going to circulate, where it’s going to be findable, and the whole infrastructure that supports this. We are no longer printing up bound journals and sending them to readers: we are sending information to potential readers and asking them to then do the work of navigating back to our site, where the published content lives. This is a important shift.

Hopefully, Cultural Anthropology will have a long life as an open access publisher. We’re not there yet. There’s a whole lot that needs to be done before that can happen. And hopefully we will be a good open access publisher, meaning we get all the other things right. Whether it’s findability, whether it’s information organization, whether it’s basic file quality. There are all sorts of quality issues. For me, we need to start talking about these issues just as much as access. I’m really excited that we have been able to get this far, that we have taken what is one of the more influential journals in anthropology and managed to make it an open access publication. That’s very exciting but it is really just a start.


Barbara Piper left a comment on Brad Weiss’ announcement asking how the problem of archival storage and digital media is going to be considered. After all one hundred years from now print is going to be accessible but not necessarily a PDF.


The nice thing about a print book or journal is that once it is printed, it’s in a pretty good archival state. It is going to be around for a while. Whereas with digital files, there is no end to maintenance. We have got to make sure that when we update the codebase of our website, or when the next version of XML comes down the line, we are set to update as easily as possible. We are going to be doing this from here to eternity—updating files. One thing that certainly helps, the Duke libraries hosts our OJS installation and they are also helping us with archiving. We are already looking into what archiving has already been done for the journal. There are two main archiving services for electronic journals, Clockss and Portico. These are services that accept your files and keep them in a dark archive until something happens. Let’s say we went out of business or something like what happened with Savage Minds. Your server goes down. They are there to insure that if that happens, we have got a bunch of copies elsewhere that will be put back into circulation.

Most of the content of Cultural Anthropology is in one or the other of these archives. We will look to fill in any holes in past coverage and will be making submissions for our new issues. We still have to set this up, but this is part of the plan. If you’re planning for the creation of new content you have to be planning for its preservation. One of our primary defense mechanism is our XML files because you can use those to produce new galleys or new HTML files. We just need to make sure we keep them in a safe place.


The back catalog goes back twenty-eight years but we’re only going to get the previous ten years made available on a permanent basis. When is that going to happen? And what about the rest of it?


Our next big project is getting that back content ready and onto our website. The AAA owns the PDFs and the final files of everything that has been published from their section journals. What Wiley delivered to us was their PDF files and all the XML files they had. They only had XML files going back to when they started publishing the journal. Right now we don’t have a database that has all of our information about all of our files, all of our articles. We will be expanding how we are using OJS: so far we’ve been using OJS just as a submissions system. Which has been fine, it’s always been the backend. But the problem with this is that an author makes their initial submission and by the time it has gone through everything and become a published article, the title may have changed, the keywords may have changed, the abstract may have been edited. All sorts of things have changed. We never had a reason to go back into OJS and update this information. There has been labor expended on perfecting that data and where it ends up is on the PDF. We’ve got to take that information and get it back into our system. So part of what we’ll be doing is getting good data and getting it back into our content management system. Once we do that, we can fairly easily push it to our website and publish it. I’m estimating it’s going to be at least three months, maybe a couple more till we’re able to get everything up. Maybe less, I just don’t know yet.

I think the AAA made the agreement with Wiley that we would get to publish ten years of back content. So that is what we’re aiming for, we have to get all that up and then we’ll see what we can do with the rest of it. I don’t know if we are going to be able to post more or not. Although we have the PDFs, it is not going to be cheap to create XML files going all the way back to 1986. We would have to use old, ugly PDFs to create new XML if we want to do all of our back content in both PDF and XHTML.


You said the AAA owns the PDFs. With the transition to OA have there been thoughts about changing the copyright, maybe going to copyleft or a Creative Commons model?


I know that the initial push was to do a Creative Commons license. I think the AAA is not quite ready for that yet. Up until the last two weeks, we’ve been trying to figure out our copyright language. There is a page on the site guide that spells out our copyright. All the content on our website is licensed under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share-alike, license. The journal, however, is not under a Creative Commons license. The AAA still wants to retain the copyright. To me this is an open question: there is a value in us, as a society, trying to keep our content together. I would be a little worried if each journal had a different copyright regime. This is something that is a bigger discussion that I think the society has to have. But I was happy with the expansiveness of the license that we did get for what readers can do with our articles, as well as the more expansive rights granted in our new author agreement. Our move to open access is requiring the AAA to think through the implications, to rethink older practices.


What kind of role is the AAA staff playing in this transition? And is the AAA footing part of the bill, or is SCA paying for the whole thing?


The main person I’ve been working with is Oona Schmid. I have a lot of interaction with Oona and others at the AAA because none of the sections are themselves legal entities. We are all part of the AAA, so every time I have to sign a contract with a vendor for a service, I need to go through the AAA because they are the ones that have to sign all the forms. This is a little bit of a pain, but it is the way we are organized as a legal entity. Half of the time I send questions to Oona, she will respond with, “Wow, we’re in completely uncharted waters here.” My sense is that the AAA staff is just as interested in figuring out what’s going to happen as we are. In terms of funding, the great majority of Cultural Anthropology’s transition is being paid for by the SCA but there are certain things that the AAA is helping to fund, such as typesetting costs. The AAA really wants this to work, in part because they want to see whether it’s a viable strategy. In this, they are invested in the success of SCA.


What about print on demand? How’s that going to be priced?


We’ve signed a deal with Lightning Source, which is part of Ingram, the largest book distributor in the world. The two viable candidates were Ingram or Create Space, which is Amazon. So we are in no way no longer in bed with the big corporations, for good or ill. In the next couple of weeks, I should be sending in our first files to Lightning Source and it takes about a month for the metadata to go through their system into retailer and wholesaler catalogues. We are trying to make sure print issues of Cultural Anthropology will be as globally available as possible. Many libraries in South Asia and East Asia still want print, and we have also received some requests from European libraries. We do need to remember that there are some places in the world where the Internet is not a great connection. Just being up on the Internet does not ensure access to everybody. The print-on-demand agreements are quite complicated: there are printers in the US, the UK, and Australia. The Australian printer can’t sell anywhere but Australia and New Zealand, so if you’re ordering a copy of our journal from China, we’re going to send it to you from the UK, etc. It gets very complicated, but we are wading in.

Right now, we are not thinking of making a whole lot of money off of print: we mainly want to make sure the copies are affordable. Our retail price will be around $13, which we hope means that if you are an SCA member and really liked getting your print version that it’s still affordable for you to purchase it. We understand that paper has affordances that electronic does not and want to make sure people can get the medium they want. Print will be coming soon, but I don’t see it as a huge source of revenue.


Is there going to be a move to find other external funding sources?


Yeah, so that’s one of the next big steps: at our spring meeting we will be getting together another committee that is doing some strategic planning. We need to nail down a little bit more what we think the costs are going to be and what possible revenue sources there are. So we’ve still got some residual revenue that we get through AnthroSource, which is not a small amount. We’ve got our membership fees and thankfully we are in a good position because the SCA is a big section.

Another small stream of revenue is through our submission policy: If an author is a member of the AAA but not a member of SCA, he or she must become a member of the SCA to submit to our journal. If an author is not a member of the AAA and wants to submit to the journal, he or she must pay a submission fee of $21. We put this in place in part because we are trying to communicate to authors that we are no longer supported by libraries in the way we traditionally have been through subscriptions. If we want to conceive of what we’re doing as a public good, then folks need support for it. Authors should be some of those who support it. I use the word “support,” taking this directly from NPR, which is asking for private support for a public good. That’s how I’m looking at it. In a sense, we are saying to authors, readers, institutions, everyone essentially, ”If you think this channel of communications is valuable, you need to figure out how to support it.” (See my comment on the Scholarly Kitchen’s post about Cultural Anthropology.) We’re going to have to look for other sources as well, whether its grants or through more support from institutions. No matter what, we are going to have to find more support to make this journal viable in the future.

And I have to say, the most expensive thing about publishing is labor: you are looking at the big ticket item, me, the managing editor. I’m by far the most expensive thing that goes into this. As you can probably tell from what I have said, there is a whole lot of labor in publishing that is not the labor of scholars. Scholarly labor is absolutely vital: this whole enterprise doesn’t happen without scholarly labor. But the enterprise doesn’t happen without publishing labor, which is very hard to do on a volunteer basis, at least to do it well and for the long haul. I don’t have another job that supports my work as a publisher. This isn’t something that I do in my free time as a gift to the discipline. This is my vocation and it means that I have to be able to make a living doing it. To this point, there has been very little discussion about the practicalities and ethical obligations entailed in this: if publishing labor is a necessity, how do we fold these kinds of considerations into the larger debates about the future of scholarly publishing?

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.

2 thoughts on “Inside baseball with Tim Elfenbein, managing editor of Cultural Anthropology

  1. A key link for readers of Tim Elfenbein’s conversation with Matt Thompson is Kim and Mike Fortun’s essay “Liberating Cultural Anthropology? A Thought Experiment” published in 2012 by Ryan Anderson in Anthropologies, Issue 12.

  2. Thanks for mentioning the Fortun’s article Jason. Here is the link:

    I think most of their observations are fair, and a majority of the process they envisioned has indeed come to pass, although I think it misses some components and they underestimate the additional labor requirements and costs. For example, I could learn the basics of typesetting but it would likely cost the journal as much in my labor costs as it does for us to have an external vendor do the work. I would also have to get these manuscripts converted to XML and XHTML. I can assure you, our typesetter does all of this much better than I ever could. The division of labor needs some respect here. The subtext of this comment is that there is a lot of skilled labor involved in publishing (even in this day, with the flourishing of new tools and technologies).

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