Open Access and magical thinking

oa_logoIn late May of 2015, the board of the Society for Cultural Anthropology issued a statement about the society’s shift to  Open Access distribution of its journal, Cultural Anthropology. The statement is reasonably judicious  considering that many OA partisans insist  that anthropology has an overriding moral duty to make its findings available at no cost to the world at large and that any distribution model settling for less than this is ethically indefensible.

The SCA deserves praise for its courage and the skill with which it has created an attractive, lively platform for topical discussion and distribution of its articles.  I have considerable respect for the SCA staff and leadership who have undertaken this effort with such élan.

That said, Cultural Anthropology‘s move to OA is not irony-free. The funds used to launch this experiment were the fruit of Cultural Anthropology’s royalties from the for-profit publisher Wiley-Blackwell’s contract with the American Anthropological Association.  In a recent editorial, Michael Chibnik, editor of the American Anthropologist, notes that only two journals in the large publishing portfolio of the AAA realize a profit. Strictly speaking, a few other titles generate modest gains (in the hundreds of dollars), but these gains would not be able to carry the burdens of the 15 titles that lose money each year. Resulting net profits from across the portfolio are shared among all journal-publishing sections of the AAA.  In going OA, Cultural Anthropology is forsaking most future revenue from the Wiley-Blackwell alliance.  Whether the society’s new model will prove financially sustainable remains to be seen; we’ll know for sure in three to five years.  I have my doubts . . . but will be pleased if my skepticism proves to be misplaced.

After serving for three years on the AAA’s Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing, my feelings about the role of OA in anthropology have moved from strong support to far more tempered enthusiasm.

Before I explain the roots of this apostasy, let me make two things clear.  My expression of doubt about OA fundamentalism should not be interpreted as a defense of the excesses of some for-profit publishers.  At their worst, they have turned the work of writing, editing, and peer-review (“service to the profession”) into a Southern plantation in which we academics work for free and the publishers and their shareholders reap handsome profits from the fruits of our unpaid labor.

Second, thanks to my involvement with the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA), I’ve seen how digital-only OA can offer an attractive solution to the scale problems of small-society publishing.  SALSA’s peer-reviewed journal, Tipití, which published for seven years as a conventional print journal, was losing money at an unsustainable rate, in part because of rising international postage rates and the difficulty of managing subscriptions. (SALSA is a truly international society, with many members in Latin America and Europe.)  Once the journal shifted from paper publishing to digital-only, gold OA, its viewership increased from the hundreds to the many thousands in a matter of weeks. That welcome change has not been without financial challenges, however. The journal’s viability depends on free web hosting, no-cost access to the bepress publishing platform, and technical support offered by Trinity University in San Antonio.

As an early adopter of digital-only OA, Tipití had the advantage of being chosen for support by a university library launching its new institutional repository.   Even given this support, SALSA struggles to cover copy-editing fees  and other inevitable costs. Tipití and other OA journals are vulnerable to a classic free-rider problem: Why pay society dues when one can access the organization’s major product, its journal, for free? This is an even more acute problem for flagship journals that have high production values and hundreds of annual submissions.

A lesson of Tipití’s success is that gold OA can succeed in anthropology and other humanities only when generously financed by universities, libraries, and the members of the sponsoring professional societies.  To date, however, few have shown an inclination or ability to provide the necessary level of support. I’m delighted that the terrific OA journal Hau has managed to put together an international network of supporting institutions, but can this success be replicated the hundreds of times needed to convert all journals to OA?

When OA triumphalists tout the growing number of OA journals as evidence of an unstoppable global trend, they rarely mention that at least half of these are based on the author-pays model, which essentially shifts the bulk of costs to authors.  In the case of anthropology and disciplines in the humanities, few of those authors are willing or able to pay a typical OA subvention in the $1500-3000/per article range.  The potentially corrupting influence of author-pays OA is illustrated by the amazing growth of predatory, pop-up OA journals that claim to be peer-reviewed but in some cases clearly aren’t.  [January 2017 comment: I’ve removed a link to a frequently consulted list of predatory OA journals after it was taken down by its author.  Information on the disappearance of the list and the reasons behind it can be found here.]

One of the things that shocked me while serving on CFPEP was how quick many scholars are to dismiss the work of publishing professionals who spin our flax into gold (or bronze, at any rate). On one occasion, a critic of the AAA publishing program claimed that the money the society spends on copy-editing is a waste because “we’re professionals who already know how to write.” Anyone who can make a statement like that hasn’t read any journal submissions lately.  When OA purists talk about transforming publishing from a neoliberal model to a “gift economy,” I wonder what’s supposed to happen to the livelihood of the copy-editors, designers, and other professionals essential to the production of polished, readable journal articles. Digital journals must now be designed to adapt to multiple formats, from PDF to mobile devices.. They should assign DOIs to each article, a process for which the journal pays a registration fee. They need someone skilled in the assignment of metadata to make content fully searchable.

In short, high-quality journals need the ministrations of publishing and IT professionals who deserve to make a decent living for their work. Someone has to pay for this.  The free distribution of music hasn’t been kind to musicians; free distribution of news has been similarly destructive of traditional news organizations.  Why do we think that giving our stuff away for free will produce different results in the social sciences and humanities?

To question the pieties of OA purists isn’t to dismiss the positive changes that the movement has brought about.  Self-archiving of articles, which is allowed under some journal contracts, is a step forward (and one taken advantage of by shockingly few anthropologists).  Research paid for by public monies should be treated as a public good and, at least in some form, be available to the public at no cost.  But the fetishization of “free” sometimes feels less like a progressive position than one that expresses contempt for the labor of others.  Is this significantly different from the often-stated desire of right-wing pundits to put thousands of college professors out of the work by offering MOOCs that are free or nearly so?  That, too, is often justified as an ethical imperative that will lower the cost of higher education.

There is a middle ground between universal OA and the Elseviers of the world.  Non-profit publishers should be able to undersell their for-profit competitors and still produce high-quality journals.  Pay walls could be lifted sooner than they currently are, pushing articles into the OA space after only a few years.  (That might be problematic for the sciences because of the fast pace of research discoveries, but it’s hard to see how it would have a negative effect in the humanities.)  The perfection of micro-payment technology could allow articles locked away behind pay walls to be downloaded for prices well within the reach of people in the developing world.

Above all, we should stop pushing OA as a moral crusade and assess its viability as a sustainable business model. I’m persuaded that it can work well in some situations, but the notion that it offers a universal solution to the challenges of academic publishing looks increasingly like a form of magical rather than ethical thinking.

One thought on “Open Access and magical thinking”

  1. Reblogged this on UPRIVER Home and commented:

    For Open Access Week, Savage Minds ( is hammering the AAA again for failing to fall into step with OA dreamers. As my original blog post stated, I have no objection to thoughtful OA experiments, and I admire the efforts to organizations who are trying to make OA work in financial terms. But the jury is still out on OA’s viability in anthropology, a profession whose members have almost universally rejected the author-pays model that dominates in STEM disciplines. I’d find Savage Minds’ case for OA more persuasive if it was fact-based rather than faith-based. –mfb


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s