Open access: What Cultural Anthropology gets right, and American Anthropologist gets wrong

Two different editorials about the future of open access appeared recently. The first, Michael Chibnik’s editorial in American Anthropologist, was gloomy about the prospects of the journal’s going open access in the future. A response from the board of the Society for Cultural anthropology ( ‘SCA’ the publisher of Cultural Anthropology) also recently appeared on the website. So what are these people saying, what is at stake, and why should we care?

In many ways, there are good reasons not to care about this debate, because it is the same debate that anthropologists have been having about open access for a decade: The Chibniks argues that there’s no way to fund an open access anthropology journal, while the SCA folks claim that we can publish open access journals, but only if we do things differently. Perhaps the biggest news here is that the last AAA editor argued for open access (right before finishing his term as editor) while Chibnik (also about to finish his term) argues against it.

Chibnik’s argument is a familiar one: We don’t have large enough grants to support author fees, other AAA publications will sink if not buoyed up by revenue from American Ethnologist and American Anthropologist, and we need the secretariat and expertise that Big Content provides.

In fact, I agreed with Chibnik: There is no way for the AAA to run an open access journal. It simply lacks the time, money, and people to get the job done. In fact, Chibnik does not go far enough.  Not only is there no way for the AAA to run an open access journal, there is also no way for it to run a for-profit journal. The institution is simply not configured to function in that way.  Examples are legion. Amazingly, and heartbreakingly, the anthropology news website is run by people who have no idea how to host a website, or even hire a web host (scroll down to the comments).  In 2011 I pointed out that AAA members cannot immediately read the latest issues of AAA journals because they go live on the Wiley Blackwell site first before hitting anthrosource, a problem that has still not been solved. And, in an ultra-classy move, Chibnik’s anti-open access editorial was itself closed access (until we complained and, to their credit, the AAA opened it up). As I wrote in “With a Business Model like This, Who Needs Enemies?“:

If you think that making money by giving away content is a bad idea, you should see what happens when the AAA tries to make money selling it. To put it kindly, our reader-pays model has never worked very well. Getting over our misconceptions about open access requires getting over misconceptions of the success of our existing publishing program. The choice we are facing is not that of an unworkable ideal versus a working system. It is the choice between a future system which may work and an existing system which we know does not.

That was in 2007. In 2012, I argued that the AAA publishing program was in a “zombie death spiral”, which is like a normal death spiral, but one condemned to walk the earth because of the unholy power of Wiley Blackwell money pumped into its veins. The answer, it seemed, was revolution, not reformation: We didn’t need a reformed AAA publishing program, we needed an entirely different program.

So what has changed between 2007 and now? In a word, Cultural Anthropology. It is one of just many experiments in open access publishing that have proven to be successful. In their editorial the SCA board make it clear that what we need is a “new collective ecology of publishing”. This is a vision that is not only freed from the constraints of the AAA, but which is actually creating an entirely new structure for scholarly publishing. This means not only new ways of putting the journal together, not only new ways of funding it (something the SCA is still working on, to be fair – so donate here!), but also new forms of writing and publishing itself. The SCA board is also very clear that this new collective ecology is not the easy thing to do, but it is the right thing to do. They clearly have the courage of their conscience and are willing to innovate, even though the future is uncertain.

And SCA is just one of many experiments to move beyond cold war publishing institutions like the AAA. And I don’t just mean journals like HAU. The projects that SCA cites — Collabra, Open Library of the Humanities, Knowledge Unlatched, and SciELO — blur the distinction between journal, platform, and community the same way Duke Ellington blurred the boundary between composer, performer, and conductor. Today, no one can credibly say “It can’t be done”. Instead, what has become clear is that the AAA can’t do it.

The AAA wasn’t always structured the way it is today, and it may not be structured this way in the future. The question now is whether the AAA can change quickly enough to be relevant, or whether institutions like the SCA are the true future of our discipline. These are issued tied up with a lot more than just publishing: The shrinking of academe, the growing role of nonacademic stakeholders in academic practices, and much besides. Does Cultural Anthropology face a lot of issues down the road? Absolutely. Is complete and total failure on the menu? Yes. But I reckon that in ten years when I sit down to reblog this post, we will look back on this debate and say: The people who did the right thing and took a leap of faith fared far better than the ones who clung to a broken solution. Cultural Anthropology acted like Netflix, while American Anthropologist acted like Blockbuster. Except, of course, no one will remember what Blockbuster was.





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

2 thoughts on “Open access: What Cultural Anthropology gets right, and American Anthropologist gets wrong

  1. For what it’s worth, I just discovered a couple days ago that the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (the main bio anth journal) has an editorial on open access and digital publication. It is, of course, behind a paywall and curiously unpublished (it’s available early view here: “Embracing the Digital Future”

    Since many readers may not have access, here are the salient points:

    AJPA and YPA (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology) will be digital-only publications starting in 2016.
    AJPA has “gold” open access already, for a fee, but all articles are eligible for “green” open access, which means the accepted version can be put in an institutional repository after an embargo of one year.
    All YPA articles are going to be made permanently free immediately upon publication.
    AAPA is working on making an archive that will allow members (who already have access to all of AJPA and YPA, mind you) to access articles along with talks, lectures, and data sets. This may be at least partially in response to NSF’s requirement that results and data need to be made freely available.

    So it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s some sort of compromise. I’m not sure why we need an AAPA-designated repository for our lectures and data, since there are other solutions for that (like or GitHub), but I appreciate their thinking that one massive location for bio anth data would be useful.

    I guess I need to go complain that the AJPA editorial is not open-access, huh?

  2. “In many ways, there are good reasons not to care about this debate, because it is the same debate that anthropologists have been having about open access for a decade”

    It was, I believe, Edward Said who remarked that disciplines only remain alive so long as their perennial issues still attract debate. [Irony intended]

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