In disciplinary contexts, community discussions of open access and related issues in scholarly communications often get bogged down and then stall out. The reasons for this seem to me to be many. For example, participants rooted in their own particular discipline often guess about the meanings attached to key terms rather than finding, and then working from, common definitions established outside their own fields. Similarly, they often approach the various issues as if their subject area was the first, or only, field confronting these issues. In this spirit, considerable effort is then devoted to reinventing the wheel. Beyond the simple fact that the issues are really complicated and can be approached from a large number of perspectives, another problem stems from an all or nothing sensibility. The largest or most intractable problem is often quickly put on the table for consideration and proceeds to becomes a conversation stopper.
Its this last dynamic that I would like to briefly address. Put simply, we do not have to solve the most difficult problems first. Instead, we can search out and harvest the low hanging fruit. Low hanging fruit is easy and inexpensive to gather. Gathering it, we learn and gain experiences (and buy time) that will allow us, eventually, to tackle bigger challenges on the basis of experience gained and lessons learned. When we spend little or no time/money pursuing the smaller, easier prospects, we put less at risk and we can afford to learn from our mistakes. A single fall out of the top of a tree can be catastrophic. Standing on the ground, we can usually stumble and fall countless times without doing ourselves any great harm.
It is in the spirit of making progress in the harvesting of low hanging fruit–wherein significant good can be done in an easy and inexpensive way–that I recently suggested a way in which the conference programs and abstracts of the American Anthropological Association could be made freely available online to all interested users as part of the HathiTrust Digital Library. My recent suggestion of this strategy was offered as small part of an important discussion of the future of the AAA publishing program that was begun on the AAA weblog. It can be found there attached to the first of two posts by Michael F. Brown. The first (on which I commented) can be found here and a second post, dealing with the expense picture for the total AAA publishing program, is here.
Starting with the easier and less risky tasks is also the strategy underpinning the American Folklore Society/Indiana University Bloomington Libraries’ joint project called Open Folklore. Now entering its second year, most of the progress that the project has made so far could be understood as gathering low hanging fruit. What is exciting is that if enough such modest efforts are pursued concurrently, they add up to results that are definitely not a small matter.
Readers interested in looking at the basket into which a large amount of low hanging fruit has been gathered, can consult the project reports of the Open Folklore project. Over the course of three narrative accounts–the first offered at launch, the second offered at the six month mark, and the most recent at the twelve month point–a large diversity of open access accomplishments are described. In and of themselves, each represents a relatively modest resource and a readily accomplished task. Taken together, they represent significant progress towards the goal of making folklore studies a more accessible discipline. No make-or-break revenue streams were harmed in the making of the Open Folklore portal and the work that has been accomplished is as robustly and professionally preserved as is possible in the year 2011.
Like all scholarly societies confronting these questions, the AFS faces giant uncertainties in the years and decades ahead. There are many questions that will eventually need to be faced. For instance, will it ever be possible to make The Journal of American Folklore accessible in a gold OA fashion? Probably, but the pathway to getting there is hardly clear and, for the present, solving the riddles of revenue, expense and organizational sustainability in that context is too big a task. My argument is that there are other ways to make steady progress that do not require us to take on excessive risk or to immediately untie the tightest, most complicated knots.
I encourage interested anthropologists to join the conversation that Michael F. Brown is hosting at the AAA weblog. Folklorists with thoughts on the future of scholarly communications in our field are invited to comment here or to write to me privately.
This post reflects my own thinking on the questions that it addresses and should not be read as an official statement by any of the organizations or projects with which I am associated.