Open Access: it’s about more than just open access (a conversation between two early career anthropologists)

The following is based upon a conversation about the implications of Open Access that Jeremy Trombley and I have been having over the course of the past few weeks.  Please do add your own thoughts below.  Jeremy blogs at Struggleforever.

Ryan Anderson: So I just finished grad school, and I’m focusing on publishing some articles. I remember a while back you mentioned that you want to commit to publishing all Open Access (OA) articles, and I am right there with you. I think it’s important to push OA forward through our own work. Have you started looking into this?

Jeremy Trombley: OA is always in my mind, but I haven’t had the opportunity to publish too much yet so it hasn’t been a major issue. I have one co-authored with my advisor in a journal called Estuaries and Coasts, which has the option of publishing OA. But now I’m in the process of writing three(!) articles, and I’m thinking about where to publish them — if I ever get around to finishing them.

So that’s where I’m at, I guess. I think it’s a real challenge as a grad student trying to get publications so that I can get noticed so that I can maybe — if the stars align, and I pick the right lotto numbers, and my I Ching comes out well — get a job when I graduate. At the same time, I’m increasingly wondering if I should even bother with academia or focus on learning skills that might be useful in the “real world” — which I want to do anyway, but it’s hard to balance with all the writing, reading, etc. I have to do otherwise.

RA: I hear that. I spent so much time with anthropologies and Savage Minds during graduate school that I didn’t make much time for publishing in journals. I did have the chance to be the co-author with Jason Jackson on a piece about open access for Cultural Anthropology, which was a great learning experience. Looking back though, I’m actually glad I took the route I did, because being so active with blogging really shaped my thinking and engagement with anthropology. It was a vital part of what I learned and what anthropology came to mean for me. Being connected to all of the people on the Open Anthropology Cooperative and here at Savage Minds really shifted anthropology around for me. I wasn’t just talking to people in my seminars, I was also getting into conversations, debates, and arguments with people all around the world about everything from the role of anthropologists in war to this Open Access business. It was great, really. I think I was so hooked on the anthro blogosphere and all of this online activity because it connected me to these wider conversations and issues that I would never have experienced otherwise. It opened things up for me. Made me rehink a lot of what I was doing.

I did all of that despite all of the pressure to publish in journals and other official venues. For me, the timing wasn’t right to try to send something to a journal at that time, since I still needed to finish my research. The pressure to publish is insane, if you ask me. I’m all for publishing and I think it’s a vital part of what we do — but I think the overarching political economy of academia has seriously warped the publishing process. Sometimes I feel it’s all so overwhelming that we’re all scrambling trying to just get something accepted to satisfy the beast. This is especially the case for grad students and recent PhDs. We’re freaking out about publishing, because, you know, it’s impossible to get considered for jobs without publications. Everyone knows this. But, if you think about it, what’s the point of that in the long run? I’m not sure it bodes well when the primary motive is keeping up with market demands and competition. Somewhere in all of this the actual point of publishing — sharing ideas and knowledge — gets lost, if not outright abandoned.

And then there’s the job thing. The market is pretty grim, just like pretty much every article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed I read in grad school said it would be. It’s fun to get to this point and realize, hey, well, at least now I know Sarah Kendzior and Karen Kelsky weren’t kidding. I’m being sarcastic, but none of this is actually funny.

I’m not banking on a job in academia. Who knows what will happen? I’m trying, but I feel like I have to look beyond the academy as well. Cast a wide net and all that. Be creative, keep an open mind. That means I have to think carefully about where I focus my time and energy. I know what you mean about the difficulties of trying to balance writing with everything else. There’s the pressure of picking up skills and experience in the so-called real world, and then there’s all the time and energy that’s required to move through the ranks of academia. It’s a total catch-22 situation.

JT: It certainly seems as though the OA issue, and publishing generally is bound up with all of the issues we’ve talked about in the past so that you can’t really fix one without seriously considering and working on the others: the issue of jobs, funding, and debt; the issue of broader relevance outside of academia; even the issue of diversity since publishers and editors are, in a lot of ways, gatekeepers determining who gets published where, which is an essential part of who gets hired where. It’s not to say that OA solves all of those problems, but that addressing access will require addressing those problems and addressing those problems requires, in part, addressing the issue of access. That’s why the OA is important, but also why it’s so difficult.

After I said I would avoid publishing in non-OA journals, a number of issues have come to mind. First, there’s the issue of co-authoring. So much of what we do as graduate students is co-author with advisors — these are generally our first experiences with academic publishing — and we often don’t get a say in what journals we write for as co-authors. There is a degree of recalcitrance — justified, I think — on the part of some established faculty members with respect to OA. They are concerned about the quality of the publications, the notoriety or ranking of the publication, and other very practical concerns — particularly for early career academics. So much hinges, not just on getting published, but getting published in the right journals. It affects our job prospects, tenure, promotions, etc. This is another issue I’ve been thinking a lot about, and it seems that most of the OA journals out there now don’t have the status of the more traditional journals. I think that is changing with HAU and now Cultural Anthropology going OA, but the field is limited and the competition is intense.

Anyway, I don’t think OA will be the solution to all of this. But I think it is part of the process of figuring out a solution. I am also encouraged by many of the para-academic experiments I see around.

That’s a lot to process, and only scratches the surface, of course, but I’d like to hear what you think. I suppose an important question is this: If we agree that OA is an important part of fixing these broader academic problems, how do we promote it? How do we make it so that publishing in OA journals is a good, and viable option for established anthropologists who can afford to take the risk, but also for early career anthropologists, or minority anthropologists who need to work especially hard to be noticed?

RA: There’s the big question. In order to address the problems you mention — and I agree with you that this is about much more than just publishing — Open Access has to work. It has to draw excellent submissions, just as much as it has to pull in readers. I think Hau is doing things right. Hau works. Museum Anthropology Review is another excellent example. Cultural Anthropology is right in there. All of these are good models. But then, all of them also completely replicate traditional journals, and I often wonder if the solution — or, at least, another part of the solution — might be something very different, far more open. We really cling to this model in which we want to see articles posted under the banner of one particular journal or another with a big name, all sanctioned by peer review. Maybe we need something else entirely. I am also concerned about the connection between publishing, status, and getting jobs. In my view one of the goals of open access publishing is to break down some of the hierarchies that permeate academia.

But there’s another issue you brought up earlier — there actually aren’t that many choices when it comes to Open Access in anthropology. There are some, and Matt Thompson here at Savage Minds recently compiled a list. But I don’t think it’s enough to sustain a massive shift. There are a few good venues that I know about out there, but then the herd sort of thins out and it’s hard to tell which ones are running strong and which are, sorry for the extended analogy, infected with some sort of malady and destined for failure. In short, I think we need more places to take our work. But the other issue is that these venues also have to have the infrastructure in place to actually curate this work for the long haul. As Tim Elfenbein reminded me a while back, that’s no small issue. But then, I don’t think that should completely determine how we think about all of this.

In my case I was planning on sticking with all open access publishing, but I’m not sure if that’s actually viable. But maybe that’s just the issue — at what point do we all decide it’s time to really make this work? How will it ever be possible to make a dramatic change if all of us just keep milling around in the lobby waiting for someone else to start the show? Maybe now is the time. And this is where I think your question about “promotion” comes into it, and that may be a matter of finding, sharing, and building upon a core collection of discipline-specific OA venues so that more and more people not only publish OA, but also read it. Maybe part of the solution is changing what we think of as the “right” venue?

JT: I remember something Zizek said in response to Picketty’s Capital. He said that Picketty has it right, but that, if we were to reach a point where the people in power would accept the kind of equality-based measures that Picketty was proposing, then we would have already won. In other words, the structural changes that would be required for them to accept those kinds of policies are the real challenge. Now, you can agree with Zizek or not, but I think something similar may be true for academia and open access. The structural changes that would be required for really good open access to take hold would themselves manifest many of the changes we are seeking through open access. Again, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t pursue open access within the current academic system, but that we can’t expect the high quality open access that we want until some of those broader issues have been addressed. As a result, the push for open access means struggling against the neoliberalization of the University, struggling for employment in academia and beyond, struggling for diversity within the discipline, struggling for better relationships between Universities and the communities in which they are located, and so on.

In the meantime, I think we work on doing open access as best we can, and hope that it pushes those other issues a little further along — as you say, helping to break down the hierarchies that permeate academia. And in some ways I think the fight for open access means acting beyond or outside of academia, and this is why the para-academic projects interest me so much. You and I have both been engaged in academic blogging for a while now, and it has been a formative aspect of my academic career — allowing me to engage with anthropologists, philosophers, and a variety of others at varying stages in their career. Figuring out ways to integrate those activities more into our formal academic lives might be a good start. I am also fascinated by para-academic publishers like Punctum Books — Eileen Joy’s commitment and stamina organizing that as well as the Babel Working Group is inspiring, but not something everyone can do. And then there are models of para-academic — or maybe extra-academic — research. Organizations like the Public Laboratory or the Institute for Community Research are doing great work, and provide great models for others interested in non-traditional research practices.

It’s possible to critique all of these activities by pointing out that they still depend, to varying degrees and in different ways, on the traditional academic structure. But we can’t really know what the academy will look like in 10 years — it could be completely dead, and growing in place of its rotting shell, a number of for-profit colleges whose only interest is their bottom line. Or it could be that some of these para-academic experiments might begin to group together and take on a life of their own — a genuine alternative to the neoliberal University. We can’t know.

RA: It is hard to know where things are going with all of this. I have no idea. But I’d rather not just stand by and watch it all happen. As Phil Ochs once said:

I can’t add my name into the fight when I’m gone,

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

The time is now. That’s what that song is all about. I get inspired when I see people doing things differently when it comes to higher education — the folks at the Saxifrage school are doing some particularly good stuff. I like the whole idea of paring intellectual learning with the practical skills of actually making things. I also like the idea of taking underutilized spaces and turning them into alternative places for college-level learning. We need more of this kind of thinking. Along similar lines, I also find the folks at Deep Springs College very inspirational — I first heard about them on the CNN documentary Ivory Tower. Granted, Deep Springs is very, very small but I think it’s another example of thinking about college differently.

So the alternative thinking is out there. This brings me to the essay by Eileen Joy that you sent to me. That piece is just brimming with creativity and resistance to the corporatization of academia — and I love it. First, she talks about the idea of “biodiversity” in intellectual matter and media. This is a powerful point that people often gloss over in the rush to innovation and the digitalization of everything imaginable. Joy says we should not just ditch the past and push forward. Instead, we need to grab onto the old and the new in order to create the “most richly tapestried and noisy public commons we can.” We need printed books, we need articles, sure — but we also need all the various forms of illegitimate (or “bastard”) forms of communication she talks about as well. We don’t just need some trickle down knowledge economy in which the authorities (ie academics) preach to the commoners from the mountaintop. Joy advocates a “rowdy democracy,” and Open Access that means more than just allowing people to read the articles we write. For her, Open Access means that more people have the ability to use and take part in the system of publication and production itself.

Beyond all of that, I am especially drawn to Joy’s arguments about authority and prestige. Forget authority and prestige, she says. Stand up for bastard thought — for the kind of writing, communicating, and sharing that is about something more than market demand and competition. She’s openly defiant of the idea that the university should be seen as a business — and I agree with this. Hers is a call to reinvent the academy in direct opposition to the forces of “professionalization,” which reduce the intellectual project to little more than a way of measuring productivity through individual competition (in part via publications). Again, the university has to be something more than a business, she tells us. And publishing is part of that. Joy reminds us that the reason to publish, ultimately, is because we are “existentially obligated to others.” Publishing isn’t just another product. Or, it shouldn’t be. It’s about communicating, which means it’s also about building community.

US academia loves to pretend that community is still at the heart of its mission, but I have my doubts. It’s about exclusion as much as anything else, and the way the publishing system works is just one small part of it. So, getting back to something you said earlier, I think Zizek is right. The problems that Open Access is meant to address do exist at higher levels. It is a bigger fight — and that leaves us wondering what we can do in the here and now. This brings me back to our musings about publishing. We all know we need to publish to be even remotely considered for jobs. But how can we push back a bit? I think a more strident dedication to Open Access can be part of that. I am all for publishing and sharing ideas, but I think the terms in which we produce and disseminate our ideas need to be challenged.

JT: Yeah, I don’t mean to diminish our agency on the issue by calling attention to the broader issues. In fact, I think it extends our agency, while also, potentially, spreading it a little thinly (Where to start? How can anyone do it all?).

To start with, there are things that have to do directly with open access. You and I have both committed to publishing open access, if not exclusively then at every opportunity. I think that’s a great commitment, and I’d like to see more people take that chance — some can’t, some simply won’t. It would be great to get more later-career anthropologists to make that same commitment, but in addition to that, to weigh open access publication, and other forms of “outreach” more heavily in hiring and tenure considerations. Another possibility is focusing on citation practices. Lynne Bolles, for example, suggests citing women and anthropologists of color primarily as a political practice. The same could be done for open access, as long as it doesn’t detract from the politics of race and gender that she and others are working to promote. Then there’s the issue mentioned before of the lack of open access journals for publishing — if more people are going to start committing to open access publishing, these already underfunded and often struggling groups will become oversaturated. So we need to start more of them, and let the options proliferate — creating the biodiversity, as Joy points out. I personally would like to see more student-run and organized journals for students (like Imponderabilia) — that’s not just a call to students to get to work making those journals, but also a call to departments and faculty to support students in that process.

Those are some possibilities in the open access arena, but I think there’s a whole lot more we can do, too, that will not only make open access more… accessible…but also make the University a much better place in general. Things like fighting for better funding of Universities, revising hiring and tenure standards to embrace outreach, engagement, and alternative forms of publishing, and, generally, building community as you point out. I see this as a collective effort, and we all need to support one another and put in our share of the work if it’s going to amount to anything. It’s easy to fall into cynicism, particularly as a graduate student with steadily increasing debt and uncertainty about what comes after, but there is a lot being done, and change won’t happen instantly. I am guardedly optimistic that change will happen, though, and that we’ll have a better University because of it.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

2 thoughts on “Open Access: it’s about more than just open access (a conversation between two early career anthropologists)

  1. One addition: I definitely don’t want to downplay the importance of Hau, CA, and Museum Anthropology Review. It’s amazing to be able to freely access content of that caliber. In fact, I just sent articles from both CA and Hau to a student, along with a bunch of other refs that require some form of institutional access. I suppose my point was that we need MORE of these outlets (as Jeremy argues), and perhaps also something that works in a bit of a different way. I can’t think of what that might be–I keep thinking along the lines of mass, open repositories, but then something like that can quickly run into the problem of content overload plus the difficultly of parsing out the quality of scholarship. I keep thinking along the lines of Joy’s call for more biodiversity; more, and different, forms of writing, publication, etc.

    Anyway, Hau and others are definitely leading the charge. Maybe more need to follow…

  2. Hi guys, thanks for the shout-out! I really enjoyed reading your conversation, I felt like I was there in the coffee house chatting with you two. The title of the piece hits the issue right on, OA is about more than OA, it has all these broad implications.

    In fact the people who create content for publications are only one of many stakeholders involved. Beyond the authors of woks there are also publishers who add value by making works findable and readable, users who read works and cite them or put them in syllabi, colleagues and administrators who evaluate the merit of works in review committees, etc.

    It might seem weird to some who adopt the point of view of creators to think that you are “merely” a creator of content when in reality you are but one node in an information ecology. From the point of view of scholars, the content of an article is the most important part of it. But we should not forget there are other stakeholders too and they latch on to the publication for their own reasons. There’s a lot more to a book than what’s between the covers!

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