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Conflation as Insult (On the Gold Open Access World I Live In)

On Savage Minds, Alex Golub very generously celebrates the recent publication of a large quantity of open access journal articles in anthropology and neighboring fields. I wish to add one point. I am talking to you under-informed, confusion-promulgating open access skeptics.

Not one of the journals that Alex highlights in his new post (to which we can add the remarkable Hau, the focus of other recent posts (1, 2) on Savage Minds) relies upon author fees to achieve this abundance. It is fair to say that the growing embrace of gold and hybrid open access by large commercial publishers (old and new) has very properly accelerated discussion of author-side charges and their very significant downsides. This shift has also erased older binaries and made it harder to talk about open access more broadly. But those wishing to advance the pro-/con- discussion of gold open access have an obligation to understand facts on the ground and to stop prematurely overgeneralizing on the basis of ignorance. The widespread conflation of all forms of gold open access with author-pays gold open access is not only unhelpful, it is an insult to all of those academics (and others) who take time out from their own work to help review and publish the writings of their colleagues in free-to-all-internet users and free-to-author ways. It is also unfair to those generous agencies and individuals in the world who are donating cash and services and attention and expertise to the building out of a progressive open access publishing ecosystem.

The community of people engaging with open access questions critically, and even skeptically, needs to grow and I want to welcome rather than discourage newcomers. But, if you cannot take the time to study the subject of open access in sufficient depth to make evidence-based pronouncements, then you should stop talking and start listening.

Coda: In my world, the conflation is most often an honest mistake by well-meaning people but it is also sometimes intentional FUD. One illustration of the rhetorical steps one takes to malign gold open access through conflation are illustrated by Konrad M. Lawson in today’s ProfHacker post. (See also Open Access: Six Myths to Put to Rest.)

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim Elfenbein #

    Hi Jason,

    I am with you on this. Those folks engaging in “discussion of gold open access [or scholarly publishing in general] have an obligation to understand facts on the ground and to stop prematurely overgeneralizing on the basis of ignorance.” From the beginning of my engagement with these debates, I have always thought that much of the rancor could be dispelled if we all started with a similar base of knowledge. Alas, I don’t see this happening anytime soon, and for good reason. Scholarly communication is an extraordinarily diverse, variegated, quickly evolving, complex, and mostly opaque constellation of people, organizations, labors, genres, practices, discourse, compulsions, etc. My typical response to position statements about such a constellation is, “It’s more complicated than that” (my anthropological training showing through). But this is, I feel, the correct response to most statements about scholarly publishing.

    Overgeneralizations abound in the debates over publishing and open access, and the different factions each have their own endlessly repeated overgeneralizations. The conflation of the various types of existing open access journals with the author-pays variety of gold OA has raised your ire, and rightly so. It prematurely narrows the set of issues that must be attended to, making some answers illegitimately more plausible than others.

    In the spirit of conflation-busting, let me present another one. The conflation of the labor of publishers with the labor of authors, reviewers, and academic editors provokes my irritation. As someone who has worked at a university press and now at a society-published journal, I can tell you that many hands are necessary to produce, disseminate, and market a journal or book, beyond those of scholars (yes, even in the digital age). Those of us in publishing are not taking time out from our regular work to labor on a publication; publishing is what we do for a living. The organizational structures that enables (and requires) scholars to work on publications is quite different from those that support publishing labor. My work is not a gift to the discipline: it is how I put food on my table. Publishing is also what I am dedicating my career to master, as much as such an unruly beast can be mastered. It is my vocation, not an avocation (even if a serious avocation). In my present position as the paid managing editor of Cultural Anthropology, I am the biggest line item on my society’s budget. Dare I say, I think the society would have some serious difficulties with our relaunch as an open access journal without me (but let others judge: I can’t be impartial). I am part of the necessary, non-scholarly, paid labor that goes into publishing our journal (and website). Not all publications need this labor, but most do. By conflating authorial/editorial labor with publishing labor, some are prematurely narrowing the set of issues that must be attended to, making some answers illegitimately more plausible than others.

    We are both, quite evidently, deeply bothered by the shortcuts taken in discussing scholarly publishing. Like you, I sometimes feel these as an insult: these two conflations are preventing the recognition of our earnest efforts. Like you, I usually chalk this up to ignorance rather than malice. The different factions each have their well-developed talking points and blind spots. So, again, three cheers for more thoughtfulness and evidence in the conversation, and we should try to cultivate an ethic of attending to the evidence that makes our arguments less convincing, stable, and solid.

    (As I read this over, it is far more confrontational than I was hoping. My frustrations are obviously seeping out. A better way of making my point is to ask: Can we keep the variety of OA models already in operation as well as the variety of labors and the ways they are organized and paid for in view in our conversations? Recognizing all of these complications is going to be difficult, but perhaps worth the effort.)

    January 15, 2014
    • Thanks Tim for your great comment. I hope that, when I wrote: “It is also unfair to those generous agencies and individuals in the world who are donating cash and services and attention and expertise to the building out of a progressive open access publishing ecosystem.” you could find the members of the Society for Cultural Anthropology in that frame. I see them as contributing the financial resources that make it possible to hire your skilled services and expertise and direct them toward progressive ends. (They are contributing in a lot of other ways too.) The transformation of Cultural Anthropology is a very positive end. I had left the AAA after an awful experience at the meeting in Montreal. I rejoined under the new E.D. and in the wake of the Cultural Anthropology decision so that I could contribute (with my SCA dues and my appreciation, if nothing else) to the positive change you are laboring on.

      January 15, 2014
  2. Tim Elfenbein #

    Thanks Jason. I very much see the members of the SCA, as well as those institutions that have provided financial donations and in kind services, as helping to make Cultural Anthropology’s transition possible. They are who we will rely on in the future to keep us a going concern and we appreciate their support.*

    What I believe I am reacting (more than responding) to is the type of exchange relationship you establish between publishing and those who support it: donation. This is the relationship that most scholars have with publications. I cannot square this with the support of me and my colleagues. We are dedicated to our jobs because we support publishing, but our relationship cannot be based on the gift of labor. Just as professors do not donate their services as teachers (however dedicated they are), publishing labor cannot donate its services, at least not sustainably. Publishers need a consistent and adequate means of support.

    I have doubts about the ability of many open access publications to provide adequately for its laborers, in part because labor is the biggest cost in publishing and open access promises lower costs, in part because our work is undervalued or invisible to most (especially in the conversation about open access). Viewed from the outside, it is hard to see CA’s transition as anything but positive. The view from my desk sees the transition more ambivalently because, at least in its present configuration, our society cannot afford to adequately compensate its publishing labor. The folks at the SCA are wrestling with this and looking for solutions, which is a good sign. What I am asking for in the conversation about open access and scholarly publishing is more explicit consideration of the non-scholarly labor question: who does it, how is it organized, how is it compensated, where do the skills and expertise come from, how will different forms of publishing affect it?

    An undercurrent that I am also reacting to is the notion held by an increasing number of scholars: that the answer to the problems of scholarly publishing is to simply eliminate the middleman and do it themselves. The notion relies on the premise that scholars do all the real work and adds to it that publishing is now a button: in other words, a laborless technological feat (for the idea pushed to its logical extreme by one OA proponent, see this post). This is a growing sentiment in desperate need of criticism, but I am now realizing that this is not at all what you are expressing. You don’t need of my pronouncements. My apologies for getting so far off the immediate topic.

    As always, much respect

    * There is another entity we should thank here: Wiley-Blackwell. Were it not for the money the society made during our years under the Wiley agreement, it is unlikely we would have enough cash to float us until we find new revenue streams or alternative ways of funding our publishing program and other activities. Ironically enough, Wiley is part of the reason we can experiment with open access society-publishing. (For an excellent analysis of why academic societies tend toward relationships with commercial publisher, see Joseph Esposito’s post.)

    January 16, 2014
  3. iwu823 #

    NB Main journal referred to in the blog you link to, ‘Cultural Anthropology’, actually is a subscription journal, apparently with some content made free. It can’t be used as an e.g. of ‘gold OA’.

    January 16, 2014
  4. Note: Cultural Anthropology, a journal of the American Anthropological Association published by the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) will be published in an open access manner beginning with 2014. Discussions of this are available on the SCA website.

    January 16, 2014

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