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From So-called #aaafail Back to Publishing

In the Chronicle of Higher Education Hugh Gusterson has published what I think is a clear and useful account of the recent “science” in anthropology dust-up from his perspective as a member of the American Anthropological Association Executive Board.  Many excellent scholars have devoted themselves to trying to make sense of this recent event (generally known by the rather harsh twitter hashtag #aaafail). I appreciated those (especially anthropologists writing online) who addressed the issue thoughtfully.

In addition to being another contribution to the AAA science discussion, Gusterson’s piece is useful as a brief (ethnographic) description of the work of the board in a practical sense. Discussing a range of issues that were on the board’s plate at the time that the revised plan document was approved (issues that seemed more pressing and important that the fateful language changes), Gusterson says the following:

…most of our time in the executive-board meeting, was given over to issues that many of us saw as more urgent than the long-range-planning statement: a detailed review of the association’s budget in a time of national recession; a discussion of our publishing model in a context in which most of the association’s journals operate at a loss and their content is increasingly available free via the Web; an analysis of our publishing partnership with Wiley-Blackwell; a briefing on the introduction of a multimillion-dollar computer program to facilitate the association’s business; a conversation about recurrent issues in organizing the annual meeting and issues that had already arisen with regard to next year’s meeting, in Montreal; a discussion of the search for a new editor of our flagship journal, American Anthropologist; a performance evaluation of the association’s executive director and the staff he oversees; and a tricky discussion about whether, or how, to make available as an archival document a 10-year-old official report of the association’s that had since been repudiated by the membership through a ballot.

This is a complex statement in a complex narrative and I urge readers to consult the original for context. I am interested here only in the passage given in bold (emphasis added). It is unique as a rare glimpse into Executive Board discussions of the AAA publishing program.

It would be possible to discuss the “journals operate at a loss” part. Much discussion among concerned observers of the AAA publishing program has gone into the financial side of this statement and pondering what it would mean to say that the journals operate at a loss.  It is a complex matter and I am not going engage with it here. (Put simply, there are ways of talking about the program that frame it as profitable and there are ways of talking about the program that frame it as loosing money.)

The much less discussed matter is the “their content is increasingly available free via the Web” part. This issue is hardly the focus of Gusterson’s essay and thus I do not want to go overboard, but his account does suggest that this too was a focus of extensive board discussion. If so, that is interesting.  What might it mean to say that much AAA journal content is available free on the web?

The AAA and its publishing partner Wiley charge for access to AAA journal content. The AAA itself is not making it freely available on the web. Officially, the AAA has (as a result of the work of member-advocates during the AnthroSource planning period) a “green” author agreement that does allow authors to post manuscript pre-prints and post-prints online (in institutional repositories, most importantly). It does not (unless something has changed) allow the posting of final publisher’s versions (ex: the final typeset PDF). (See SHERPA/RoMEO for details on the status of the agreement and the meaning of “green,” “pre-print,” and “post-print.”)

More and more AAA journal content probably can be found on the web, but almost none of it has been placed there in accord with the terms of the (rather generous) AAA author agreement. A growing number of AAA authors (some knowingly, some unknowingly) have chosen to make available publishers versions of their articles (etc.) via personal websites or, in some cases, to slip such materials into formal repositories (contrary to repository policies on respecting copyright, in most cases). I have no way of knowing, but my perception is that only a tiny proportion of AAA authors are using tools such as the Science Commons Scholar’s Copyright Addendum Engine to produce and utilize addendum to the AAA author agreement to allow the kinds of uses of the publisher version that are easily found on the open web.

Possibility one is that the AAA Executive Board, as reflected in Gusterson’s comments, recognizes and is discussing the matter that I have just evoked. That would be interesting. If so, the matter is probably still under consideration (given that there have been no visible actions on this front). From a process point of view, the Executive Board could: (1) change the author agreement to bring it into line with the (not actually legal) practices of more and more AAA authors, (2) begin a process of (a) educating the membership about what they are allowed to circulate on the open web (pre- and post-prints) and not allowed to circulate (published versions) and (b) going after those who are in violation of their signed author agreements (cease and desist letters, take down notices, prosecution, etc.), or (3) recognize the growing gap between law and practice but stay silent about the matter and accept the costs (lawlessness, confusion, erosion of the adopted business model) in exchange for avoiding a new domain of conflict within the association.

A different thing might be happening too. The discussion that I am imagining might be underway might not actually be under way yet.  It might be that the board–like most of the membership–does not yet understand such distinctions as those between pre-prints, post-prints, and publishers versions and their association with terms of art such as green or yellow OA. In this scenario, the board may not realize the massive levels of non-compliance with the author agreement that are becoming characteristic. That there are AAA insiders who themselves appear to be out of compliance with their own author agreements suggests that this may be the case. If this is so, it is unfortunate (but fixable) because knowing the actual terms of art and the actual frameworks in which our publishing work happens is a prelude to effective discussion and policy making.

If Gusterson is right and AAA-owned articles are freely available on the web, then it has to do with the implementation or non-implementation of Executive Board policy. The conversation would be different if 100% of AAA authors were carefully and lawfully exercising their rights to post pre- or post-prints and the field was discovering that it could get along without the value added work associated with final journal production. This might lead to a situation like that found in parts of physics, where a real open access culture built around the circulation of pre-prints had arisen (see Arxiv). What we have now is a situation in which Gusterson is kind of right, but that this situation is a consequence of a mix of misunderstanding or disobedience in an environment in which too few rank and file anthropologists understand the framework in which they are operating.

Elsewhere in the scholarly communications system, copyright holders are increasingly using strong digital rights management technologies to stop the proliferation of in-copyright journal articles on the open web. As an advocate for open access scholarly communication, that is the last thing that I would wish to advocate for the AAA, but I also am a believer in having, knowing, and following sensible rules that we can all live with. If AAA authors are going continue doing what they are now doing (and it has numerous upsides and numerous downsides), I would like them to know that they are breaking their author agreements or, if the AAA Executive Board does not see what they are doing as breaking their author agreements, then the Board should clarify (in SHERPA/RoMEO and in public declarations) that the AAA policy explicitly allows the free circulation by authors of their publisher versions in not-for-profit ways on the open web.

If the Executive Board wishes to slow or even stop the circulation of AAA owned intellectual property outside the subscription and pay-per-view frameworks that it has put into place, it has the power to do so. If it instead wishes to foster such free circulation, there are strategies that can be adopted towards such ends as well, but they are out of alignment with our business model. Now we have, in some ways, the worst of all possible worlds with some people reading and (over) complying with their author agreements (and thus, in practice, not sharing online at all [even though they could via pre- and post-prints]), some people misunderstanding their author agreements and doing things that they shouldn’t, and others adopting an “I’ll do what I want until someone tells me to stop.” approach. Legal anthropologists have plenty of experience with such gray zone situations, but they also are aware of the costs and harm that they can produce.

If AAA copyrighted material are going to purposefully circulate on the open web outside the subscription and pay-per-view framework, the best way for this to happen is in an environment in which rights are clear and in a framework in which authors are encouraged to place their materials (pre-prints, post-prints, or published versions as allowed for) in robust, durable, and interoperable repositories (whether subject or institutional ones) rather than posting them to transitory departmental and personal websites. I understand the case against (and for) the proliferation of such green OA circulation. The state of actual practices, association business choices, and the (often misunderstood) existing author agreement point to an association-wide discussion that is still not happening in any widespread way. As Gusterson’s comment suggests, perhaps it has begun in the Executive Board.

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