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Questions for Anthropology Now

I originally wrote the following as a comment to a post on the blog Savage Minds. Find it in context here.

On the launch of Anthropology Now. I have been contemplating a blog post motivated not only by the launch of Anthropology Now at the AAAs, but by the remarkably high number of new journals generally and especially the number launched at the AAAs this year. For now, this comment will probably have to suffice.

I like magazines. I like anthropology. Inspired by similar publications in neighboring fields, I have long wished for an anthropology magazine that was both serious and Border’s magazine rack friendly. I have not had the luxury of speaking to any of the excellent people who are throwing their weight behind Anthropology Now, but I would like to ask them to explain publicly their business model in a way that is both clear and that allows the community to compute the costs and benefits of their approach. On the surface of things, I am disappointed that such excellent people are working so hard on a project that seems both late 20th century in approach and potentially harmful to the ecology of scholarly communication in anthropology.

They would like me to pay $55 a year to subscribe as an individual. This is a bit steep for me, but it is within the realm of the possible. On the other hand, they would like me (as would all of the non-OA journal publishers) to go pester my university librarian to subscribe. The rates for this range from $341 per year for online only to $394 per year for print and online combined.  This institutional rate is, of course, modest when compared to the costs of big science journals, but it still arrives in a time in which excellent R1 universities find themselves canceling a significant number of anthropology journal subscriptions each year. Who is taking this toll and what value added benefits will my library be getting when it invests this much money and, along the way, subsidizes either my below-cost subscription or provides the profit margin for a for-profit publisher?

I have nothing against Paradigm Publishers per se. I am glad that they care enough about our field to publish books in it and to, now, engage with this journal/magazine effort. But why them? Were no university presses willing to undertake this effort? The Anthropology Now PR materials compare the new effort to “sociology’s Contexts“. If the goal is to be the anthropological equivalent to Contexts, wouldn’t it have been great to have worked with the University of California Press–Contexts‘ publisher. Or if that were too close to home, with a not-for-profit publisher with similar experience working on scholarly magazines? Maybe Paradigm Publishers will be able to offer something that other publishers will not (or would not) be able to offer, but before pressing our libraries to buy in, I would like to know a bit about what the upsides here are. On the library side, aren’t we just making a bad journal ecology worse?I do not want to make this about open access, but I do want to point out that there is another zone in which clarity is needed. The journal’s promotional brochure is a standard for-profit “you won’t be able to live without us” pitch. Not surprisingly, the journal is offering inaugural content online. It would be exceptionally useful if this could be explained. One possibility is that the journal intends to make all of its content available free online. This would be wonderful, but in the absence of a clear declaration of OA principles, this seems unlikely. Comments on Chris’ post above suggest that readers here are expecting such access to content, but this does not square with the standard subscription pitch to libraries. (I am holding the launch brochure in my hands right now.) Were this a gold OA start up, the whole launch would surely have been handled differently and the IT infrastructure would have a different look and feel from the get go. My guess is that we are being enticed to subscribe with content from issue one but that if things work on the subscription (and product placement) front, that this content will be withdrawn in large part, with, I would anticipate, an article or two provided free each issue as an online enticement. The comparable comparative literature magazine World Literature Today uses the web in this way. I could be totally wrong with all this guessing, but again a clear statement articulating the business plan would allow those of us with strong preferences for supporting gold OA and reservations about supporting gated, commercial projects that harm (1) the future of OA, (2) the research libraries on which we depend, and (3) the not-for-profit university presses that have long been our partners in seeing important but not-commercially-viable scholarship into print to make informed decisions.

The confusion over Anthropology Now‘s OA status is reflected in Peter Suber’s 11/11/08 post regarding it on Open Access News.  He titled the post “New anthropology magazine appears to be OA” He then wrote the following. “Anthropology Now is a new magazine for lay readers.   (Thanks to anthropologi.info.)” He then quoted “From the editorial in the inaugural issue:” providing the following excerpt “…Anthropology Now will build on a growing commitment among anthropologists to make our research findings open and accessible to the world outside of the confines of the academy….”

He closed with this Comment: “I’m guessing that this is OA, but I wish I could be sure.  At the moment, all the articles are at least gratis OA.  (I couldn’t find any licensing information.)  The excerpt from the editorial suggests a commitment to OA.  But the magazine doesn’t call itself OA or free.  It also has a subscription page, but it doesn’t mention prices.”

Peter had done a fine job of condensing the available information and of pointing to the question that I am raising. I hope that the Anthropology Now editorial team will confirm Peter’s hopes and wipe away my suspicions, but I think that it is likely that “open and accessible to the world” is a way of characterizing the textual quality of work by engaged public intellectuals but is not necessarily a commitment to open access as a strategy for getting engaged and accessible writing in front of the largest number of readers.

Anthropology Now has a spectacularly talented editorial team and it has gathered first rate authors for its first and second issues. Imagine if, as happened for communications studies in the case of the International Journal of Communication, this much gravitas had been deployed in the service of a new flagship anthropology journal combining both significant in-kind support and a strong, self-conscious commitment to gold OA. It could have been transformational from day one. Instead, we’re still doing the convince your librarian thing.

As a coda, I would just note further that it is remarkable that so many colleagues with deep involvement in the leadership of the AAA are associated with Anthropology Now. This is a sign of the project’s intellectual vigor but it also raises the question of why they are pursuing this project outside the confines of the AAA. The closest thing we have now to Anthropology Now are the similarly named Anthropology Today (the magazine-like newsletter of the RAI, which is published by Wiley-Blackwell) and Anthropology News (the almost magazine-like newsletter of the AAA, which is published by Wiley-Blackwell). With its commitment to extending the voice of anthropology, was there any discussion of articulating the impulse behind Anthropology Now with Anthropology News or as a new project within the AAA framework? In the paper “Anthropology of/in Circulation” we argued that various innovative projects were taking root outside the AAA for reasons that had to do with changes in social organization, technology, and scholarly society governance. With an editorial board made up of key AAA leaders, how does Anthropology Now fit within the disciplinary field that includes AAA outreach and publication efforts. (Note that AAA President-Elect Virginia Dominguez is among the supporters quoted in the brochure. Past AAA presidents and current officers are on the editorial board.)

Despite my concerns, part of me hopes that this works none-the-less and that this project can be so good that it does succeed on the magazine rack next to The Nation and Wired. If nothing else, that could drive down costs for me and for my library. Beyond enriching the field and hopefully reaching new audiences, maybe we really need Paradigm Publishers to succeed in the for-profit anthropology publishing space just to counter-balance tendencies toward consolidation among the other firms.

I was in business meetings almost constantly at AAA and missed the launch event, so perhaps some of my questions have already been answered. It will be interesting to see where this effort goes.

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