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[On] Free [AAA] Journal Access as a Public Issue

A discussion of the future of scholarly publishing within the American Anthropological Association is underway in a small way on the AAA’s blog, where an editorial by AAA Executive Director Bill Davis (“Free Journal Access as a Public Issue”) has been posted. I have made a couple of comments there but do not want to overwhelm the conversation that might (I hope) happen there with an additional long comment post. For anyone who might be interested, here is a comment that can be spliced in after the first note offered there by AAA Director of Publishing Oona Schmid.

Bill Davis begins with a discussion of green OA deposit mandates and then transitions pretty quickly to a discussion of gold OA journal publishing. The literature on varieties of OA makes clear that these are rather different matters and readers of this discussion may (as often happens) conflate them. Advocates of green OA deposit frameworks outside anthropology have noted that the AAA author agreement has been, for several years now, a fully green one (in SHERPA/RoMEO terms) and thus the AAA is fully ready, in legal terms, to enable AAA authors to easily comply with any of the kinds of (funder and institutional) mandates that have been discussed or implemented.

Green OA generally involves making pre-prints or post-prints (these are terms of art that can be unpacked at the SHERPA website) freely available online, not final publisher versions. Very few AAA authors are exercising their deposit rights at present and, when the do, they are typically doing so in less than ideal ways–that is, they are placing the final published PDF online (the author agreement does not allow for this) and (generally) they are not using reliable institutional repositories, opting instead for personal websites. (That the AAA is not policing author misappropriations of the value-added published PDFs just increases confusion about what is and is not legal, thereby stymying better understanding of the important issues that the AAA and its publishing system  faces and producing more low level lawlessness.)

The concerns that Bill Davis is evoking do not actually stem from government mandated gold open access (there is no such thing, even as a proposal) but from a hypothetical future situation in which actual use of green OA deposit (if mandated) becomes sufficiently ubiquitous that people stop needing or wanting toll access, value-added publisher versions. I think that such matters are worthy of thinking about, but they are not happening right here right now and it does not help us to think about these matters to evoke a more direct linkage than actually exists.  There is not an open access lobby working hard to push through U.S. law aimed at forcing the AAA or anyone else to give away value-added publications in a gold OA framework (i.e. free online journals). The national legal and policy questions are about open accessibility of manuscript versions of federally funded research articles. Davis’ own essay provides evidence showing that 2/3 of AA authors would not be affected by such U.S. mandates. Low use of the pre-print deposit options provided by the AAA author agreement suggests that there is no immediate danger stemming from voluntary author-by-author pursuit of green OA deposit.

Lobbying for OA (both green and gold) among anthropologists, by anthropologists is a different matter altogether. It is not about federal mandates, it is about (discussing, at least) larger matters relating to the ethics, technology, and political economy of scholarly communications and engaging with the future life of scholarly societies, including the AAA. This is a point that Chris Kelty has made over and over again and that was the focus of the article that he and others (I was one) published in Cultural Anthropology. That paper had much positive effect on the discussion in other societies but apparently no impact of any kind within the AAA ($4000-$6000 wasted, I guess). [Impact here is being measured not in terms of shaping ideas and actions, but much less impressively in terms of anyone involved in AAA governance acknowledging that something had been said.]

Oona Schmid reports that the AAA does not produce any surplus revenue from the publishing program.  That is a straight forward answer to a complicated question. Engaging with the details at issue is difficult even for those AAA leaders who have access to a lot of lines of data.  Separate from that important and difficult work, it is possible to observe that our publishing partner would not be our publishing partner if we were not a source of surplus revenue for it. It reported 2009 revenues of over 1.6 trillion dollars and net income of 128 million dollars.  The many subsidies that Oona and I have discussed above (i.e. in earlier comments on the Davis post) contribute, across all disciplines and fields, to enhancing this profit position. Institutional subsidies, along with the free labor of anthropologists, their consultants, (and other scholars), along with our dues money, along with the investments of research funders and the students whose tuition dollars pay the bills at college and university libraries enhance the earnings picture in an industry that has seen very steady rises in revenue and income growth. As an association, we made a decision to more fully join this part of the system. We did so for particular reasons in a particular moment in association and world history.

Doing so opened some opportunities and foreclosed on some others. I think that we will discover that the benefits of doing so accrued at the beginning of this current period and that the hidden costs will come further down the line. Kim Fortun has written of such themes more eloquently that I can. She is hardly alone in trying over the past several years to participate in a conversation aimed at formulating “a strategy to sustain AAA’s traditional journal publishing role as we engage with a world that expects scholarly content to be “free.”” No past efforts along these lines have ever been acknowledged, or even condemned as completely wrongheaded by the AAA leadership. The more elaborate and engaged the intervention, the greater the official silence it generates. Maybe this new invitation to dialogue and the work that CFPEP and the Board did at the May meeting can stand as a turning point.

This comment was written (and sat on overnight) before the second comment by Barbara and the first comment by Chris Kelty.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rex #

    Ah… so the audience for Bill’s piece is not OA anthropologists, but people in other disciplines — and the point is that not all disciplines need/want mandated OA deposit….?

    September 3, 2010
  2. Hmm. Yes and no and no, I guess.

    September 3, 2010

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