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Getting Yourself Out of the Business in Five Easy Steps (With Updates)

In honor of the upcoming celebration of open access week and because I felt the need to write something other than administrative memos, I composed the following essay outlining my relationship to commercial scholarly publishing in the wake of concluding my work as editor of Museum Anthropology. It is offered here [CC BY NC SA 3.0] for those who might be interested in my thinking on one piece of the larger scholarly communications puzzle.

[Because of its inclusion in the Hacking the Academy project, this piece is now (as of June 6, 2011) offered under the less restrictive CC-BY 3.0 license.]

Getting Yourself Out of the Business in Five Easy Steps [1]

Jason Baird Jackson
Indiana University

Last year, did you get paid nothing to work hard for a multinational corporation with reported revenues of over 1 billion dollars in 2008? [2]

If you have (1) done peer-reviews for, (2) submitted an article to, (3) written a book or media review for, or (4) taken on the editorship of a scholarly journal published by giant firms such as Springer, Reed Elisevier, or Wiley, then you belong to a very large group of very well-educated people whose unpaid labor has helped make these firms very profitable. Their profitability in turn has positioned them to work vigorously against the interests of (1) university presses and other not-for-profit publishers in the public interest, (2) libraries at all levels, (3) university and college students, (4) scholars themselves, and (5) particular and general publics with a need to consult the scholarly record.

I am not willing to freely give my labor to large multinational corporations whose interests align with their shareholders but that are antagonistic to my own. This is my view on one key aspect of scholarly communications today. Scholars can advance several different worthwhile causes by doing all that they can to stop becoming further entangled (individually and collectively) with for-profit scholarly publishers, particularly the largest of the multinational firms that increasingly seek to exert a kind of hegemony over the entire domain of scholarly communications.

There is a great variety of steps that can be taken to build a different, more accessible and progressive system of scholarly communication. My focus here is on five simple choices that scholars can make while sitting at their desk pursuing their own publishing work. These are choices that I have made and that I encourage my colleagues to consider making.

  • Choose not to submit scholarly journal articles or other works to publications owned by for-profit firms.
  • Say no, when asked to undertake peer-review work on a book or article manuscript that has been submitted for publication by a for-profit publisher or a journal under the control of a commercial publisher.
  • Do not seek or accept the editorship of a journal owned or under the control of a commercial publisher.
  • Do not take on the role of series editor for a book series being published by a for-profit publisher.
  • Turn down invitations to join the editorial boards of commercially published journals or book series.

If taken, the preceding steps are individual in their point of action even as they support a variety of more collective projects aimed at redirecting the scholarly communication system in more progressive, sustainable, and open ways.

If you care about university presses, these steps will help.  If you are eager to resist corporate enclosure of public goods, resources, and ideas, they will help. If you care about reform in intellectual property systems, they will help. If you advocate for green open access publishing, they will help.  If you want to cultivate not-for-profit gold open access publishing, they will help.  If you are worried that your college or university library is on the brink of financial collapse, they will help. If you want to make sure that your scholarship is as available as possible to colleagues, students, and the public, they will help. If you believe in open education and other approaches to transforming teaching and learning, they will help. If you are concerned about the harmful effects of media consolidation, they will help. If you are selfish and resent being taken advantage of, they will help.

If you are a shareholder or employee of a for-profit publisher, they, of course, won’t help.

If you believe that only for-profit firms can sufficiently “add value” to your work between the time of authorship and the time of publication, then your views are those of the commercial firms and their lobbyists, but they do not match my own experiences as an author or journal editor or consumer of scholarly works across several disciplines.

If you belong to a discipline in which there are no viable not-for-profit publishing options left, then you and your colleagues face bigger questions that are beyond the scope of this essay (but there is still hope).

The fact that a large number of not-for-profit scholarly societies with active publishing programs have entered into partnership with the large commercial publishers makes coming to an individual conclusion about these issues more difficult, at least vis-a-vis those publications that are simultaneously producing profits for the private publishers and for the not-for-profit scholarly associations. Many scholars value their own scholarly organizations highly and appreciate the variety of services that they provide to members. Scholarly societies have chosen to partner with for-profit publishers because of a perceived need for the revenue that these publishers can provide. As a member and as a journal editor, I have experienced these dynamics in the context of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and its decision to move first from self-publishing to a co-publishing arrangement with the University of Californian Press and then to a publishing partnership with the commercial firm Wiley. The tale of these experiences and their ramifications is the topic for another essay, but my own choice is that I have selected to remain an active member of the AAA but not to undertake further editorial, authorial, or peer-review work for its journals while it remains partnered with Wiley. My hope is to be an effective advocate for (and builder of) alternative approaches to scholarly publication within and beyond the association and to work to understand the costs as well as the benefits that the Wiley partnership has brought. Thankfully, a not-for-profit sector still exists in anthropological publishing. While it has been reduced through the vigorous efforts of the commercial firms, it has been expanded, to a degree, through the founding of some new not-for-profit and open access publication outlets. Resisting commercial publishing and sustaining this diverse and non-commercial communications ecosystem is where I most wish to invest my time and labor. I regret that my association chose to turn its back on the university presses that have long been so important to the social sciences and humanities and that its embrace of commercial publishing has alienated the institutional partners that it could have cultivated in the service of more open approaches to publishing, but nothing is permanent. (On the AAA case, see Kelty et al. 2008)

Not everyone will come to the same conclusions that I have about these issues. That is the way of things. I have found encouragement though in the diversity and energy of the many colleagues who have given serious thought to the problems that scholarly communications work now faces and who are working hard to develop the many solutions that are being pioneered right now. Concluding where I began, with an image of scholars contributing to their own exploitation and to the impoverishment of society generally, I end with a the observations of anthropologist Michael F. Brown. Discussing the decision by the AAA to partner with Wiley, he reflected: “I find myself asking the following question: Why would anyone agree to edit a journal for free or to review submissions for free when the organization that distributes the final product is committed to generating profits for its shareholders or owners? The whole idea of “service to the profession” begins to look like a clever form of economic exploitation (Brown 2007).”

What choices are you making? Are you ready to get out of the business?


1. My deepest thanks go to everyone who has worked hard to teach me about the world of publishing and libraries, as well as to those who have supported my work as an author, editor and publisher.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA

[Update: As noted above–because of its inclusion in the Hacking the Academy project, this piece is now (as of June 6, 2011) offered under the less restrictive CC-BY 3.0 license.]

2 As a measure of scale, consider the following three large commercial STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publishers. For 2008, Springer reported revenues of 892 Million Euros (or about 1.3 Billion U.S. Dollars) (Springer 2008:20). For 2008, Reed Elisevier reported revenues of 5 Billion, 334 Million Euros (or about 7.9 Billion U.S. Dollars) (Reed Elsevier 2008:6). For its Fiscal Year 2008, Wiley reported revenues of 1 Billion, 674 Million U.S. Dollars (Wiley 2008). Revenue is different from profit, but these are very profitable firms. Unlike the bulk of their scholarly content, their annual reports are freely available via the corporate information or investor relations sections of their websites.

References Cited

Brown, Michael F.

2007    Weblog Comment., accessed October 11, 2009.

Kelty, Christopher M., Michael M. J. Fischer, Alex Golub, Jason Baird Jackson, Kimberly Christen, Michael F. Brown, and Tom Boellstorff

2008    Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies. Cultural Anthropology 23(3):559-558., accessed October 11, 2009.

Reed Elsevier

2008    Annual Reports and Financial Statements 2008. Amsterdam: Reed Elsevier., accessed October 11, 2009.


2008    Springer Science+Business Media Annual Report 2008. Berlin: Springer Science+Business Media., accessed October 11, 2009.


2008    John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2008 Annual Report., accessed October 11, 2009.

Update (10/29/2009)

As of this evening, WordPress tells me that about 750 people have specifically consulted this essay. Because it is visible on the main page, I suspect folks visiting for other reasons occasionally notice it and that the WordPress count is mainly of individuals who come to the essay via the links that are out and about. While it is dissipating, there was a lively discussion in a number of places about the essay. For everyone who took the time to read it, link to it, or comment upon it, I am very thankful.

While it has been linked to from a number of places, the discussion unfolded in a few places that can be identified for the benefit of anyone who comes along later.

The comment section of the post itself (and of the thank you post that I wrote later) is an obvious place where discussion unfolded. The others that are known to me are:

The JISC-REPOSITORIES listserv, whose archives are available here. Look for the thread titled “Wrong Advice On Open Access: History Repeating Itself” begun by Stevan Harnad on 10/21/2009. While the thread began with Harnad’s critique, a number of authors recognized that my main point was not an intervention in direct support of Green OA but about a different matter of concern to some but not all scholarly communications workers/observers. I appreciate the discussion that the repositories community gave my reflection and appreciate those who picked up on what I was trying to say.

Stevan Harnad posted a comment here on my site to which I replied. In addition to the JISC-REPOSITORIES listserv, he also posted his statement on his own website (where I also offered a comment) and circulated it on various other OA-related lists.

Thanks also to those who supportive in their positive comments and linking to the essay, including the good people at Savage Minds, Publishing Archaeology, and Cultural Sustainability.  Interested folks on Facebook and Twitter also spread the word about the essay. All of this was a useful lesson in me relative to the power of social media to help spread an idea and facilitate a discussion among scholars and their allies.

I was motivated to gather up these links and notes in an update because I just heard from my friend Randy Lewis about an event being held at the University of Texas Austin. The important gold OA media studies journal FLOW is celebrating its 5th anniversary with panel discussion in which he is participating. (Hacking the Ivory Tower: A Roundtable Discussion). He mentioned that he though he might mention my essay/post. In case anyone new came around to check it out, I wanted to make finding some of the follow up easy.  (Congratulations to everyone who has made FLOW a success, by the way.)

Update (11/1/2009)

Discussion of the essay also took place on the Budapest Open Access Initiative Forum. It can be found archived as a thread at: Discussion there took place (or at least began) in October. I found the comment of my IU colleague Bob Noel particularly engaging and I appreciate his arguments on behalf of my position. To reiterate, I favor (like Stevan Harnad) action and advocacy in support of green OA but (unlike Stevan Harnad) this is not the only scholarly communications issue that I am concerned to address in my own work.

In an October 31 post (Message #5233) Stevan Harnad reposted his reply to Bob Noel’s BOAI Forum post to the SPARC-OAForum. It can be found here: Further discussion on the SPARC-OAForum might or might not materialize.

It is interesting to ponder what it means that much of the discussion of the essay has taken place on listserv’s rather than in weblog comment sections.

I forgot previously to mention an additional venue in which discussion of the essay took place–Open Anthropology Cooperative, where Keith Hart offered extensive and interesting commentary. See:

Update (6/2/2010)

Thanks to everyone who has maintained an interest in this essay. This update is intended to calibrate the essay for its second life as a submission to the Hacking the Academy project (see #hackacad on twitter). When the Hacking the Academy project was still in its emergent stages, I submitted this essay to this crowd-sourced collection, which is being coaxed into existence by Tom Scheinfeldt and Dan Cohen of the CHNM. It was not an created anew for Hacking the Academy but it seemed to fit with the spirit of this project, at least as I perceived things at the early in that project’s birth-week. My essay was the third submission cataloged under the Scholarship and Scholarly Communications heading. That section went on to gather up about 50 contributions. (I look forward to reading them all myself.)

Of special note for this update is the response essay that Richard S. Lavin authored on his blog Hayrick’s Blog Explorations. (As of this writing the link on the Hacking the Academy website misdirects to a different submitted essay.)

I do not know if this essay will go on to become part of the book-based version of Hacking the Academy but, regardless of that question, I am very appreciative of all those who have found their way here and given my reflections their attention. I especially appreciate those who took the time to comment on the essay or who have discussed it offline.

As it turned out, there was a rich outpouring of material for both the project in general and for the scholarly communication section in particular. There is much to learn and benefit from there.

A second, related essay of mine is listed on the Hacking the Academy website, also under the Scholarship and Scholarly Communications heading. Hacking the Academy, and the rich responses and enthusiasm that the project was generating, motivated me to ready that work for publication and to go ahead an get it out there for whatever good work it might do. The essay (given at a conference last year) is about the scholarly communications landscape in folklore studies, with special attention given to journals. When I tweeted about it, I indicated that #hackacad had been my inspiration for publishing it. As it treats the scholarly communication landscape in a single small discipline, I am not sure that it makes sense as a formal submission. Still, I have hope that readers of this essay will find it useful (and vice-versa). Find it here. Another companion piece is the talk that I recently gave at AcademiX 2010. (For better or worse) that talk should soon appear in iTunes university (I hope for the better).

Because the Hacking the Academy editors aim to draw upon blog comments and tweets associated with contributions, I want to note that my October 21, 2009 follow-up post on this one also gathered comments on the essay. The editor of the American Anthropologist was one of these discussants. See here.

My thanks go to everyone involved in Hacking the Academy. What an amazing experiment in cooperation and communication.

Update (6/6/2011)

This piece is now slated for inclusion in the edited volume version of Hacking the Academy (#hackacad). My appreciation goes to the editors of the volume–Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, and to everyone involved in supporting and advancing the project. I appreciate very much the chance to be involved.

Inclusion in the project necessitated the change in license from CC BY NC SA 3.0 to CC-BY 3.0, as is reflected in the headnote above.

Update (12/17/2011)

Among works citing this essay is Josh Berson (2010) “Intellectual Property and Cultural Appropriation.” Reviews in Anthropology. 39(3):201-228. DOI: 10.1080/00938157.2010.509026

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