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Open Access or Faux Access?

October 7, 2008

The headline on Monday's announcement seemed impressive: "AAA Creates 'Open Access' to Anthropological Research."

The announcement starts off by calling the new policy of the American Anthropological Association "a groundbreaking move" that would provide "greater access for the global social science and anthropological communities to 86 years of classic, historic research articles." The problem, critics say, is that the emphasis should have been on the word "historic," because those 86 years worth of articles aren't the most recent 86 years. Rather the association will apply its new policy for its flagship journal, American Anthropologist, only 35 years after material was published. The association has created open access to the scholarship of the '50s and '60s.

The anthropology association has been divided for years over open access -- the view that research findings should be online and free. Many rank-and-file anthropologists embrace the idea, seeing it as a way to most effectively communicate without imposing huge financial burdens on their libraries. But the association relies on revenue from subscriptions to its journals and has resisted repeated pushes from its own members to move in the direction of open access.

These tensions are not unique to anthropology, but the discipline has seen more than its share of flare-ups over the the issue, with pro-access scholars horrified that their association lobbied against open access legislation in Congress and that the scholarly society replaced a university press as its publishing agent with a for-profit publisher.

The idea of the association fully embracing open source as a philosophy is so unexpected that one scholar -- when contacted for this article and read the headline on the press release -- started laughing hysterically. Another started his blog posting by writing "Breaking News! Stop the Presses!!! OMGWTF!!!!"

What the association actually announced was that it would apply open source principles, 35 years after publication, for both American Anthropologist and Anthropology News. The announcement quoted Bill Davis, executive director of the association, as saying: "This historic move, initiated by the needs and desires of our worldwide constituency, is our association's pointed answer to the call for open access to our publications. This program, I believe, is an important first step in answering the call to un-gating anthropological knowledge." The statement went on to say that the new policy would be evaluated next year by the association's Committee on Scientific Publication and the Committee for the Future of Electronic Publishing, and "may be expanded in the future."

Several members of those committees, asking that their names not be revealed, said that some members of those panels had wanted the association to open up more recent scholarship, but that association leaders were cautious about going any further.

In an interview, Oona Schmid, director of publishing for the association, said, "We know we have members who really care about open access," and that the shift amounted to "a really substantial offer."

Asked about the 35-year time delay, Schmid cited research showing that the half life of articles in anthropology journals (meaning the time in which half of the scholarly citations they receive are made) is 12-15 years, and that the association wanted a time period that would keep journals for subscribers only while they were being cited.

She insisted that, even though access will be open only after articles cease to be widely cited, the volume of material made it significant. "I don't believe that this is a trivial offer," she said.

Asked whether the association would be charging libraries any less to subscribe to the journals -- since all of this valuable material was now being provided free -- she said no. Libraries subscribe for "the ongoing subscription," she said.

Association officials also said that they compare favorably to other social science disciplines. For example, the primary journals of the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association are not published open source, although archives are available (with delays of just a few years) for institutions that subscribe to JSTOR.

Patricia Kay Galloway, an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, has previously served on anthropology association committees on digital publishing but left because of disputes over her support for open access. She said that the idea that open access involves a 35-year delay is "just crap."

She said that "it's nice to get" the older material, but noted that the field of anthropology has changed radically in the last 35 years on such issues as how indigenous people should be studied and the need to avoid "elitist bias." She said "the most exciting work" is not going to be available in this program. "And that's why people are not going to be impressed."

The primary reason the association won't go open access, she said, is to preserve revenue. And that's not an appropriate reason, even if it means that the association might end up with a smaller operation. Galloway said she could have accepted a time lag of a few years on open access -- while the association tries to adjust its business model -- but that 35 years is just not open access.

The scholar who quipped "OMGWTF!!!!" about the announcement is Christopher Kelty, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles who writes about free software and the intersection of technology and scholarship. At the anthropology blog Savage Minds, Kelty wrote that it was "a huge step forward" that the "AAA has realized that opening up 35 year old scholarship is not a threat to their publishing revenue, and it may well improve public understanding of anthropology."

But Kelty said that this needs to be seen as an overdue first step and a public relations move, not a true embrace of open access. "What is happening here is a dissolution of the term open access and a pretty shameless use of this opportunity to issue a press release that might repair some of the damage the association has suffered on this issue," he wrote. "Fair enough, they are trying. Try harder, I say."

A commenter to the blog said that the new policy could be called open access only "to the past," adding: "Isn’t the purpose of research to contribute to a wider body of knowledge? Shouldn’t it be our first intent to share it / disseminate our finding with the wider community? No.... It’s still thought that what is good has be kept safe and locked away."

Alex Golub, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, had a more positive reaction on the same blog. He said it was "utterly superb news" that some important material would now be available. If this is really just a "first step," and the association manages the open access material well, scholars could gain, he wrote.

At the same time, he said that association was way behind where it should be -- and where many members have been pushing it to go. "This decision clearly represents the success of the OA community’s decision to hold the AAA accountable, in public, for its actions," he wrote. "I honestly do not think this decision would have been made if the OA community had not called out the AAA and demanded to know what the hell it thought it was doing.

"In 2003 the AAA was planning to be a ‘change agent’ in the world of scholarship. Five years later, it has become a reactive institution that slowly implements the changes demanded of it by a vibrant and active community of scholars that are moving forward without it. That the AAA [is] responsive is good. That its internal workings cannot be used to produce this sort of leverage, or to become the locus of new and innovative projects[,] remains disappointing."

Kevin M. Guthrie is president of Ithaka, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of technology to develop new modes of scholarly communication. He said that he didn't know the rationale used by the anthropology association, but that many organizations are facing such challenges. On the one hand, he said, "there has to be some way to pay the bills."

But for any nonprofit publisher, he said, there is "a mission-based desire to make content as available as possible." He said that while publishers continue to search for new business models, "the trend to more openness is strong."

 

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