Publishing and Values

Anthropology association's decision to leave a university press for a commercial entity infuriates many scholars -- and raises questions about the future of scholarly societies and open access.
August 22, 2007

At first glance, the decision of a scholarly society to move its journals from one publisher to another might seem like inside baseball for the publishing industry. But the news that the American Anthropological Association is moving all of its journals from the University of California Press to Wiley-Blackwell is being viewed by scholars, librarians and publishing industry officials -- including many who have nothing to do with anthropology or the publishers involved -- as significant and potentially worrisome.

Some object to the move from a university press to a commercial entity and fear a lessening of commitment to important scholarship that may not make money. Others see this as a sign that the anthropology association -- which has won praise for the online offerings of its journals -- is taking a hard line against the open access movement embraced by many of its members (and the library world). Still others see the move as a sign that scholarly societies are facing tough decisions about their missions -- without good mechanisms for involving the academic rank and file in making decisions.

The issues combined in the anthropology dispute don't necessarily apply the same way to every field and with every publisher. Not every nonprofit publisher embraces open access (plenty don't) and open access involving scholarly groups and commercial ventures is growing -- witness this week's announcement that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is paying for inclusion of its researchers' work at BioMed Central. Likewise, plenty of scholarly societies have difficulties keeping their members satisfied -- and debates over who runs a journal program are just one source of contention. But the move by the anthropology association seems to have touched on so many issues that it has people concerned, angry, confused and intrigued.

Adding to the situation is that the anthropology association has been extremely tight-lipped about its plans (ditto Wiley-Blackwell) so many of those concerned don't know the details of the deal. An association spokesman said Tuesday that no one would agree to talk about what was going on, and he reiterated that view when told many members were complaining about a lack of information. Late Tuesday, Bill Davis, executive director of the association, did return a call, but only to say that he would not respond to criticisms of the move until the deal with Wiley-Blackwell is finalized. To those arguing that more anthropologists should have been involved in the decision, he said that the board voted to proceed with Wiley-Blackwell only after months of discussions and an RFP process and that "the board is authorized to make decisions like this."

A number of outside observers believe that the tensions visible in anthropology this week are challenging other disciplines, too. "At the most fundamental level, we've got a lot of these scholarly societies facing a set of frankly difficult decisions," said Clifford A. Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, a collection of scholarly, computing and library groups. "They've got missions that often speak very broadly to disseminating and advancing knowledge in their discipline. They've got a membership that in some disciplines is increasingly convinced that the way to do that is more openness in publication and more innovation in publication, but these societies have got sort of addicted to these revenue streams from their publication programs over the last few decades, and are trying to figure out if they want to make the transition to a new model and -- if so -- how do they navigate the transition."

Scholars face "fundamental choices" about their journals (a key tool of scholarship) and their societies (the way they meet and speak as a whole), Lynch said. "One of the first things you need to talk about is what are the priorities in a scholarly communications program being run out of the society. Is the priority broadest dissemination, meaning open access? Is the primary goal revenue? Or is the priority really innovation in modes of scholarly communication, which may take you to a very different place than open access?"

These would be tough challenges period, Lynch said, but many scholarly associations (and he stressed that he wasn't talking about the anthropologists specifically) aren't set up to handle such discussions in a way that involves members in a meaningful way. These questions "really beg a vehicle for broad discussion," but boards of associations -- many of which rotate scholars on and off with some frequency -- tend to focus on more "tactical financial stuff, which tends to be very conservative about your publication programs as long as they are generating revenue," Lynch said.

In the anthropology blogosphere, comments about the decision of the association have been pointed and highly critical. "It appears that publishing in anthropology is polarizing into large organizations interested in enforcing scarcity in the digital space and smaller groups trying to find ways to allow scholarship to flourish under the new circumstances that it finds itself. It is a bit sad to find that, as the middle drops out of this field, the AAA has chosen to ally itself with Big Content in this regard," wrote Alex Golub, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, on the blog Savage Minds. (Golub is also a columnist for Inside Higher Ed.)

Depending on how you look at anthropology, it can be described as being at the forefront or the back of the line when it comes to digital scholarship. On the positive side, the development of AnthroSource -- an online repository of the association's journals -- has been widely praised for its breadth and functionality, at least for those whose institutions pay to have access to it.

But because journal revenue -- either individually or through AnthroSource -- has been a key part of the association's budget, it sided last year with publishers' groups in opposing legislation in Congress that would have required research backed by federal funds to be made available online and free, six months after publication elsewhere. Many anthropologists -- who view sharing their research as directly related to their discipline's calling of sharing knowledge about different groups of people -- were enthusiastic about the legislation and were stunned and angry to find their association coming out against it.

So when news broke that the association was leaving the University of California Press -- credited by many with a key role in AnthroSource's success -- for a corporate publisher, many scholars were dubious of the shift. One anonymous e-mail on Savage Minds said: “This is not only a sad day for scholarly publishing, but a sad commentary on the state of scholarly publishing. By going with Wiley-Blackwell, AnthroSource is destined to be just another electronic journal package, and anthropological scholarship will be no more accessible than during the print era, locked behind closed silos.”

The image of locked-up research is something that troubles many observers of the publishing scene. Christine L. Borgman is a professor of information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet, to be published in October by MIT Press. She is also on the editorial board of a journal published by Wiley-Blackwell, The Journal of the American Society for Information Science.

That editorial board, she said, has been pushing Wiley to liberalize its author agreements, so that authors have more leeway to place their papers in online repositories. Currently, they have wide access to place their writings on their own Web sites, but limits elsewhere. Borgman said this model no longer makes sense competitively. More and more scholars, she said, "want repository-friendly journals" and won't publish in places they don't view as committed to some measure of open access. Why publish in a journal that is closed off, she said, when you can be in a journal where more people will find your research?

Borgman said that the journal's editorial board is still waiting for a response from the publisher.

Librarians are also judging journals by their approach on these issues. "I would be worried as an author: Is anybody going to be able to read my material? If the bulk of material is available, but your stuff is in journals that are locked up and only available to people with a library that can afford it, do you want to publish there?" asked Suzanne Calpestri, director of the anthropology library at the University of California at Berkeley.

Calpestri said that the anthropology association's decision was "not welcome news in the library world," and predicted it would damage scholarship. "Libraries are looking to support scholar-friendly publishers and the UC Press is certainly considered a scholar-friendly publisher, so this is deeply disappointing. I expect changes in the prices of journals -- it's pretty clear that's going to happen. Commercial publishers are in a long-time struggle with libraries, and still are," she said.

While Calpestri works for the University of California, whose press is being left by the association, she has also been a leader in that group. She led an advisory committee for AnthroSource, a group that has been largely disbanded -- Calpestri and others said that the group was disbanded for questioning the association's opposition to the open access legislation in Congress. "I think we in the library community are just very interested in the broadest distribution of research," she said.

University presses generally are concerned about the anthropology group's decision. Clydette Wantland, journals manager for the University of Illinois Press and chair of the Scholarly Journals Committee of the Association of American University Presses, said that there are fundamental differences between university presses and commercial publishers. "We have the same missions as the scholarly societies and we view ourselves as a partner type of relationship as opposed to a vendor-client kind of relationship," she said.

While she acknowledged that commercial presses have some real advantages in terms of budgets and economies of scale from being large operations, Wantland said that university presses are "much better at some things" that should matter to scholarly societies. "We're not opposed to having something with a financial return, but we aren't limited only by the bottom line.... We do things that they would not do in a commercial world."

The Illinois press, she noted, is among the many university presses working with some open access business models. Three of its journals -- William James Studies , World History Connected and the Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music -- are completely online and completely open access. She said that her press has developed financially viable business plans for those journals and she does not think people should assume scholarly publishing can't support itself in open access models.

At the same time, Wantland said that the anthropology move may force university presses to look at their weaknesses. "Not only are we all saddened, but we have to take a step back and see what it is we are not offering," she said. In particular, she said in-house staff to work on technology may be an area where many university presses can't compete with the big commercial operations.

Lynch, of the Coalition for Networked Information, said that this was an advantage for large commercial houses. "The innovation side of this is particularly tough," he said, and much more difficult financially than just going open access and putting basic articles online. "When you start thinking not only about can we go digital in our publishing because it makes it easier to get worldwide access, but because it may allow us to publish different kinds of things, exploring a richer palette of scholarly communication and bringing in primary data and visual materials, that takes capital," he said. "It takes human capital. It takes financial capital. It takes technical capital. And a lot of these societies don't have it and don't have access to it, which is why some of them feel they have to go off to large players," he said.

Wiley, Lynch added, has had success in this kind of work with publishers. (A Wiley spokeswoman said it was company policy not to discuss any details of arrangements currently under negotiation so she could not comment on the anthropology journals.)

While many anthropologists are focused on the publishing issue, some observers see the significance of the debate as reflecting tensions over the role of scholarly societies and questions about who speaks for a discipline. "The larger question, whether it's the anthropology association or anyone else you name, is that they are caught in the middle," said Borgman of UCLA. "They see themselves as a membership society. They want to lobby on behalf of their constituents. But they make their money off of their publishing -- they are trying to have it both ways," she said, because their revenue source isn't necessarily related to what their offices actually do every day.

The process of "bundling" -- as in the way AnthroSource and other groups of journals are sold together to libraries under site licenses -- further complicates things, Borgman says. When scholars have their journal access because of a library paying a site license, a logical question for many is: Why pay dues to the organization? "Memberships in the associations have been dropping, radically in some associations," she said.

Jason Baird Jackson, associate professor of folklore at Indiana University at Bloomington and editor of the journal Museum Anthropology (which is part of the anthropology association's collection), said he viewed the concern as not so much about dues but about the discipline's values. "Our work is engaged with the world, and we convey things we've learned, and the idea that those communities [that anthropologists study] would have needlessly high barriers to accessing the fruits of the collaboration -- that's what's driving these discussions." (Jackson stressed that he was speaking for himself and not his journal or the association.)

Jackson, who said he believes scholarly associations should be exploring open access models, said that one of his concerns about the debate is that so few of his fellow anthropologists feel that they know what is going on. Details are everything, he said. Jackson said he doesn't believe in having a "categorical" rejection of a for-profit publisher, even though he liked working with the University of California Press and considered the staff there to be extremely helpful to his journal. He said a corporate publisher at the very least raises questions, so scholars want to be reassured about the kinds of protections that may be in any deal.

"The AAA is this giant, diverse organization. It's a holding body for a lot of diversity. We meet once a year -- and the meetings are large and kind of complicated, and it's not clear that the best way we go about organizing discussions and collective conversations" has been found, he said. "There's been a considerable amount of misunderstanding, and a lack of information, and that's made the situation more complicated. There haven't been venues where we could talk about these issues."

One anthropologist who asked not to be identified said that the open access and publishing debates have shined light on problems for the association and the discipline. Traditionally, he said, the "big issues" confronting the association (what stance to take on the Vietnam or Iraq wars, for example) have been debated by members at open meetings, while the business decisions have been made, largely out of view and without much member interest, by association staff. Open access is an issue that "connects anthropological ethics with our scholarly institution's bottom line, and many of us are learning for the first time" that they aren't controlling decisions made on their behalf. Editors, he said, "are concerned but in the dark."

This anthropologist continued: "Will Wiley-Blackwell transform our publications program into a money making machine with generous use rights for our content? Will it run them into the ground? We simply have absolutely no idea. Regardless of the consequences -- and I'm not optimistic -- this represents a failure of the AAA to make decisions in a transparent and rational way. Until we learn how to do that, we have bigger fish to fry than open access."


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