Open access is organic: on the Journal of Material Culture

Back in December Haidy Geismar, the incoming editor of The Journal of Material Culture (published by Sage), published an editorial mooting the future of JMC as an open access journal and asking readers to weigh in by taking an online survey about the future of the journal.  To date, sixteen people have responded. Sixteen. That’s pretty embarrassing — for Geismar and for the JMC, but also for the open access movement more generally. So after you read this, go take the survey.

The apathy of the JMC’s readership is worth dwelling on because it demonstrates what  is really at stake in debates about open access. Its not about open versus closed access, or for-profit versus non-profit publishing. Its about organic, flourishing publishing tied to vibrant intellectual communities versus mechanical mass production of journals. My use of the term ‘organic’ is intentional: just as consumers and farmers today are increasingly becoming aware of and taking responsibility for the production of the food we eat, so to is open access part of a broader movement to take responsibility for the production of scholarly content.

You see, in some sense it doesn’t really matter what the authors and editors of the JMC want for their journal, because its not their journal. Sage owns the name. So if Geismar et. al. decamp for a new Open Access Journal Of Material Culture, Sage will just get new editors for the JMC and all of the back issues will still belong to the company. This issue regarding who owns a journal is a big one and affected how Cultural Anthropology went open access. This issue is bigger than the JMC. It is about the ownership of our means of production.

The published version of the editorial about open access seemed misguided to me on several scores: right about the Finch report, but wrong about the ‘dangers’  of green OA. What can I say? Haidy and I can hash out these issues later. What’s germane now is the apathy that greeted the editorial.

To be frank, I think Geismer (and her co-author Küchler) were their own worst enemy. They write so diplomatically that it is often difficult for the reader to understand just what they are saying. The complexities and jargon of open access debates (green, gold, Finch) compound this problem. Geismar also buries the lead in the editorial, asking readers readers to work through two thousand words of editorial before actually getting to the URL for the survey. Even the title of the piece “On Open Access and Journal Futures” makes the classic sophomore error of telling us the topic of the editorial, but not the claim. Perhaps titling the piece “the future of this journal is in your hands, please take this important survey” is too brusquely American for the well-healed staff at JMC, but I think it would have helped.

But these are minor issues. I think the real cause of apathy amongst JMC’s reader is not Geismar’s prose (she’s written great, important pieces in other contexts and I recommend her work) but reader apathy about journal production. There are many sources of this apathy. Some professors still see journal production as ‘beneath’ them. Others are pressed for time. The value proposition of for-profit publishers is that they can do it quicker and better than us. Keeping us ignorant and unskilled is key to staying competitive with their clients.

The best part of Cultural Anthropology’s decision to go open access was the process by which the decision was made. It was organic. It involved a change in sensibility, strong leadership, and a rich deliberative process by members. The people who make CA have a lot of time and effort invested into it. As a result, they care what happens to it. This includes the staff who work on it, the interns who are beginning their academic careers, the assistant professors who publish in it, and the full professors who run it and whose biographies are deeply intertwined with it. The journals are metonyms of scholarly movements and networks — that’s why we describe the Annales and Année Sociologique movements use journals as their metonyms.

But it didn’t happen overnight. It took ten years of open access advocacy to grow awareness of this issue. The network behind JMC isn’t as tightly integrated into these conversations, despite occasional grandstanding, as the stakeholders of the AAA. JMC is still working on developing this history.

There are many more examples of these sorts of journals, both closed and open, for-profit and non-. In all of them, a flourishing intellectual community has developed around publishing as a scholarly project. They are like communities like farms that grow, process, and eat organic produce and livestock: informed, knowledgeable, and engaged in all aspects of the production process. Not everyone is an expert at everything, and a lot of people would rather just eat fresh produce than spend time weeding in the fields, but they all have a connection with the forces that reproduce their lives.

Many journals, in contrast, produce the scholarly equivalent of industrially-produced meat that is cheap and comes to you wrapped in plastic. Where does the meat come from? Who owns the factories? No one knows or cares. The editorial boards of these journals are like chicken farmers who have been working their land for generations, are genuinely committed to it, and yet can only survive by becoming appendages of Sysco or ConAgra.

My advice to the the JMC would be to give up their brand (and, alas, archive) and start a new open access journal from scratch. Developing an editorial chain would be an incredible challenge, and building your brand from scratch would suck. But doubling down on an organic form of publishing would create a project — publishing — that would galvanize commitments and provide focus. Less people might read it (or would they?) but the people who did contribute would be genuinely invested in it, and this investment would be reflected in the seriousness with which the community around it read the work published in it. And of course, when you make it open access, that community can grow to become the size of the entire Internetosphere.

Some people object that open access will result articles with typos in them, and that this is unacceptable. I get a CSA bag every week, and as a result have experienced from of the most gnarly and deformed carrots imaginable. Sometime there’s even dirt on them. But let’s face it: the organic stuff tastes better and is better for you, even if it isn’t as unblemished and shiny as the corporate stuff. And at any rate, journals like HAU — the Niman Ranch of open access anthropology — demonstrate that the correlation between openness and poor quality spurious.

Open access is an important, ethical commitment about the distribution of knowledge. But, even more importantly, it is an ethical commitment to the production of knowledge. I’m sure there’s a way to produce organic scholarly content and make a profit, just as I’m sure there’s a way to involve corporations. But what’s best for consumers is ultimately what’s best for producers: a cultivated community of intellectuals who know how their knowledge is grown, from farm to fork.


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

9 thoughts on “Open access is organic: on the Journal of Material Culture

  1. “Some people object that open access will result articles with typos in them, and that this is unacceptable. I get a CSA bag every week, and as a result have experienced from of the most gnarly and deformed carrots imaginable. Sometime there’s even dirt on them. But let’s face it: the organic stuff tastes better and is better for you, even if it isn’t as unblemished and shiny as the corporate stuff.”

    That’s a great analogy Rex. I’ll take the deformed carrots, anytime.

  2. Wanting to be helpful, I just took the survey. Couldn’t help noticing the assumption that nobody but an academic could possibility be interested in it. As I noted at the end, I might be willing to kick in, say, US10$ at year, which I do already for the University of Virginia’s Hedgehog Review. But pay to publish? Or pay what most academic journals want us to pay? Get real.

  3. One of the great strengths of anthropology is that in observing peoples’ everyday behaviors and in talking to them about the ideas they have about how the world works we are able to identify certain areas where practice and ideology diverge. To continue the food analogy, few people eat only organic food. While lots of people may profess to eating healthy, most folks have a weakness for some junk food here and there. I eat organic when I can, but I’m not opposed to a quarter pounder with cheese, fries, and a Coke when that’s the best option available.

    I think an apt food analogy for OA would be a potluck dinner, in order to join you must show your value to the group by bringing what you have to the table. The thing is, it would be really weird if you just showed up to somebody’s potluck unannounced and uninvited however awesome your casserole. This is very different than the commodity exchange of a restaurant. You can with confidence walk into a place — regardless of whether it is a Mom and Pop or corporate cookie cutter — and, provided you have the dough, get anything you want with a relative degree of certainty that you’ll be treated like everyone else. People become aware of the existence of potluck dinners through their social network and relationships with others. There is no relationship involved with me going to Olive Garden.

    I like potlucks as much as the next guy, but they’re also exhausting. And sometimes you’re in a place you’ve never been, you don’t know anybody. Then what?

    With all due respect to the editors of JMC it is not the case with surveys that “if you build it, they will come.” In order to collect really significant quantities of data it is necessary to aggressively market them. If we want more people to come to the OA potluck we’re going to have to go out of our way and make the effort to invite them.

  4. I like Rex’s organic food analogy, which is revealing. Organic food in the U.S. is, so far, a privilege of the well-to-do, a more expensive option that offers a spurious sense of self-satisfaction when Whole Foods moves into a gentrifying neighborhood, and reminds us that the economics of OA have yet to be resolved. John’s experience is typical.

  5. Thanks for linking to the survey Alex – even if it is several months after it first came to your attention in October 2013 when it was initially published as green open access on material world blog ( – we now have 43 replies.

    I can keep your readers apprised of the perspectives that come through if you would like.

    I talk in more detail about the survey in a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago for Material World Blog, which is what you are referring to here, but which you have not linked to either.

    Here it is:

    I do find it strange, given the topic, that you only link to what I have written that is published behind a paywall, not the open access content!

    And Please note material world blog is NOT associated with the JMC other than a shared interest in material culture and my involvement in both. Aside from that one editorial there is NO shared content.

    I would love to have a meaningful discussion, for instance about the differences OA faces in the US and the UK, about the challenges facing a journal like JMC (which is a smaller journal, without a learned society, or the single disciplinary focus of say Current Anthropology or Hau), the value of a journal’s archive, or the practice of green archiving (which I address in the post you don’t link to). We are at the start of our open access journey and are certainly trying to sort our house out, with no money, and little buy in from authors or even our entire editorial board. Rather as I imagine CA was 10 years ago minus the finances. This is absolutely a personal investment on my part and over the past year has occupied time I should have been spending on other research projects for which, in the British system, our university funding depends upon. And for the record: I’m committed to open access in my own published work (Duke published my 2013 book under a cc license and I ensured that my first book, coauthored and edited with community members, was translated into Bislama and that 1000 copies were circulated for free in the places I worked with, see

    Thanks for the editorial advice you give — to write less diplomatically and put our intentions up front! — but I’m disappointed that you don’t engage with the actual issues I raised in each piece, whilst flinging out epithets like “well-healed” [sic], in comment on my/our personal backgrounds which is not only inaccurate but inappropriate. We (and our authors) then end up getting compared to mass produced, shrink wrapped, battery farmed meat and vegetables.

    Harsh words for fellow travellers.

    Also – please use the organic metaphor with care. As seen by the comment on dirty carrots, whilst the form of journals does undoubtedly shape the content, it is a tad silly it to say that all content behind paywalls, or published by for-profit presses, is bad for your health and of inferior quality. It is also silly to suggest that we are being kept deliberately deskilled by for profit publishers. I have many, but not all, of the necessary skills but I do not have the time or resources to take on the job as publisher as well as editor of the JMC on top of my full time job and other commitments. Notwithstanding that I’m embarking on some ambitious changes, but I need to do it in collaboration with a wider support infrastructure, as CA has done. It is the intellectual property regime and economy of academia, alongside commercial publishers, that have also alienated academics from their own labour. Gaining control of the mode of production is one thing, rethinking its structure another, and following through with an eye for the long term something else again. As in the organic farming analogy, sustainability, and a healthy understanding of diverse environmental factors is essential. Let all flowers bloom.

  6. I love the way people play with the upside — and downsides! — of the ‘organic’ metaphor in these comments. One reason I chose it was the way it would resonate with (to be frank) bourgeois liberal sentiment, so being out-liberaled by a concern for gentrification is particularly artful.

    I think the potluck is a good metaphor. Food exchange is exhausting — that’s why humans use it to build comity. It’s a commitment to a way of life in which you are all-in on that way of life. Sometimes you are all-in because you have a value-rational commitment to that community and want to support it. Sometimes you’re all-in because you can’t afford any other way to be. Food exchange creates community. So yes: there is a strong existential commitment to making it work, and that commitment is exhausting. Does that mean I want a world without Olive Gardens? No. I just want a world where Olive Gardens are the exception and potlucks the rule, rather than the other way around.

    Haidy: Thanks for including those links to articles that I discuss but don’t explicitly link to. When I go to the JMC site for your editorial, the full text pops up automatically. Are you sure its closed?

    I apologize if you don’t consider yourself well-healed (or well-heeled) and if what I said was inappropriate. I also apologize for not blurbing the survey sooner — as you may notice I’m not super active on twitter and generating content for the blog (and my actual family and career) keeps me busy.

    For the record, I in this editorial I was not comparing you and your authors to shrink-wrapped meat. In the metaphor above you are the “chicken farmers who have been working their land for generations, are genuinely committed to it, and yet can only survive by becoming appendages of Sysco or ConAgra.” As I point out in this article, you’re work is excellent. You also undoubtedly have a strong personal commitment to OA that I admire — as you point out, you’re opened up more of your scholarly work than I have, including your monograph. I hope you can see that I never suggest otherwise in what I’ve written above.

  7. The potluck supper is a great metaphor. Growing up Lutheran in Virginia in the 1950s I attended a lot of potluck suppers at the churches my parents helped to found. Reflecting on that experience, the anthropologist in me observes that potluck suppers didn’t happen in a vacuum. They were part of the life of communities in which a lot more was going on, church on Sunday, Sunday schools, choirs, coffee hours, weddings, funerals, confirmations, and the building fund, to which people like my parents, a shipyard machinist married to a nurse happily contributed what they could, on top of the ten or twenty dollars they dropped in the offering plate every week. Nowadays, when I hear people write about “online communities,” the first question I ask is when, if ever, will their members sit down and share a meal together, let alone be engaged with each other on a regular basis in so many other activities.

  8. Yes I think that’s right. Although I’ve pitched this in terms that would be familiar to American liberals, I think a critique from the right which advocates for the hard work of real community building as against facile consumerism is also very much at work here. Just ask anyone singing in a choir on Maundy Thursday, good Friday, Easter vigil, and then Easter itself — community is exhausting! But focusing on the project (choir, potluck, journal) integrates biographies together.

    As we move around in metaphorical space, I think its also important to note that despite the bougie overtimes of idioms of ‘organic’ food, anthropologists know that most humans for the past ten thousand years or so have been more-or-less organic farmers. So anthropologist who are from or have done work in places where people grow their own food and build their own houses, this metaphor should make sense.

  9. Rex: most metaphors are imperfect, and there is no need to belabor this one — and I have been doing research over nearly 40 years in West Africa among people who have grown their own food for a very long time indeed, so I appreciate the work involved. I think the point of your analogy was clear, and was one with which we can all agree. The processed slickness of corporatized journals is evident; Open access is one response, but I’m not sure that it’s a response to problems of quality (the point of organic versus non-organic, surely) rather than problems of cost. To use a different analogy, Ford pioneered the assembly line to make cars cheaper — opening access to cars for people who could not afford cars built one at a time by small-scale craft producers — but he had to sacrifice quality in order to make cars accessible. Those of us who support open access simply want to make sure that the balance of cost and quality remains appropriate.

    I won’t mention the journal by name in this public forum, but I do know of at least one academic journal that went online only, open access, and the production side collapsed almost immediately; the editor claimed no knowledge of ‘production,’ and with no budget to pay someone else to handle everything from line editing to page layout the editor simply up-loaded pdf copies of the papers accepted to the journal’s website. That’s not exactly a journal anymore, more of an online repository of papers. Nothing wrong with that, but my guess is that authors, especially junior faculty doing smart, innovative work while building a dossier for promotion, are going to be drawn to publication venues that a little more professional-looking, and the quality of this journal will drop as a result.

    Finally, and then I’ll shut up, I promise, I think one of the biggest problems you alluded to with the journal of material culture is that the editorial side lost ownership to a large printer/publisher, more or less as I gather the AAA journals have. The short-term attractions may seem desirable, like going public and selling stock to raise money for expansion, but if you end up with a new set of masters your vision can get pushed aside — Steve Jobs trying to get the NeXT cube viable after losing control of Apple. This, I think, is exactly where your food analogy is perfect: Perdue is more concerned about profit than quality. But the options shouldn’t have to be limited to Colin, the organic chicken from the first episode of Portlandia….

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