Thursday, March 1, 2012

Introduction: Anthropologies of Access

Open Access is by no means a new issue in academia, let alone anthropology.  Just take some time to peruse the archives of Savage Minds if you have any doubts that it's been a subject of debate and contention for quite a while.  So what's this Open Access (OA) thing all about?  Why does it matter?  For starters, check here.  Then, have a look at this.  For some reason, OA seems to drift in and out of the collective attention span of the anthropological crowd...but it is once again creeping its way into more and more conversations lately.  In many ways, anthropology is fairly behind the times when it comes to OA, and we could pick up a thing or two from others (like the mathematicians; see this for example).  We just have to be open to learning, listening, and thinking creatively when it comes to writing, publishing, and sharing  anthropology.  At heart, this whole OA issue is about how we communicate anthropology, and who we want to let in on the conversation.  Are we only interested in talking to ourselves?  Then, rest assured, nothing needs to change.  But if we are truly vested in making our ideas accessible to wider audiences--including our anthropological colleagues who happen to find themselves outside of the system--it might indeed be time to rethink a few things.


Back in 2009 Tom Boellstorff, Editor in Chief of the American Anthropological Association's flagship journal American Anthropologist, penned a short introductory piece called "Access."  It's a pithy piece that gets to the heart of some of the key issues that we face if we are going to really think about moving more toward OA anytime soon.  Boellstorff brings up some really critical points, so I am going to quickly summarize his argument.  He basically raises three major points.  Here are my paraphrased versions of those points:

1) OA is something that everyone can agree on
2) Let's not oversimplify the issues
3) Seriously folks, we need to cooperate and collaborate to make this happen

Boellstorff's first main point is basically that we're all in the same boat with this whole OA/publishing issue.  He argues that "the philosophy of making anthropological content as widely read and accessible as possible is supported by all anthropologists" (2009:1).  He also makes the case that most anthropologists will more than likely agree that we have an "ethical imperative" to find a way to make our research accessible to as many people as possible.  I am not sure what the vast majority of anthropologists out there think, but it seems reasonable to assume they would be on board with OA in principle.  Boellstorff does, however, point out that while the internet is a great tool for fostering access, there are still serious gaps in access even in places where the internet is pervasive (i.e. in the so-called developed world).  So establishing OA isn't simply about making the internet global.  He rightly points out that there are many people in the "developed" world who are left out of the scholarly access loop, and this includes researchers who don't have a university affiliation, institutions that cannot afford to pay for access to expensive journals, and of course members of the broader public (2009:1).

The second key point Boellstorff brings up: Don't oversimplify the issues and pretend that it's a simple fix.  This is the pragmatists point, and it's worth keeping in mind.  There is a lot of idealism floating around out there when it comes to OA, so sometimes a good serving of reality helps ground things a bit.  Reality is good.  The main point of this section of Boellstorff's essay is that publishing isn't free, and that OA isn't free either.  So any shift to OA policies is going to have to actually account for costs in order to be a viable and sustainable system.  The OA pixies aren't going to come wandering out of the magical forest and make this's going to take some work.  Boellstorff is definitely correct when he says that the costs issues should "give us pause" (2009:2).  But he also includes a great quote by Peter Suber, and I am going to share the last part of that quote right here and right now:
The question is not whether scholarly literature can be made costless, but whether there are better ways to pay the bills than by charging readers and creating access barriers (Suber 2007 in Boellstorff 2009:2).
Which brings us to Boellstorff's last point about OA: Let's work together.  His position is this: "because of all these complexities, it will prove crucial in the next years to foster greater collaborative engagement between associations, publishers, and anthropologists" (2009:2).  I agree, but the fact that this was written back in 2009 makes me wonder: What happened?  Also, what happens if one of these three groups isn't willing to work to find a solution?  Then what?  Still, I think that Boellstorff is right in principle about the idea of collaboration and cooperation, although it's obviously easier said than done.  He also makes an excellent point about the AAA itself when he reminds readers that it's certainly not a faceless, monstrous, Kafka-esque bureaucracy (my words); it's actually a "small group of hard-working staff" (2009:2).  Good to keep in mind--let's not dehumanize the process, folks.  Boellstorff ends his piece on a pretty collegial, positive, and encouraging note.  He says that it was a good step for the AAA to work to push the older content of American Anthropologist and Anthropology News into Open Access (he's right), but that people basically need to find ways to work together and take the next step.  I agree, especially about the "next step" part.  He was right then, in 2009, and the point stands today.  Part of the issue, I suppose, is the fact that his point still stands...three years later.  So what are we going to do about it?   


In a broad sense, this issue is about the question of access--to public space, and to what might be called the academic commons (which we all work to create).  When the editorial team of anthropologies came up with the idea of doing a combined issue on the Occupy movements and Open Access, I have to admit that I was wondering how I could relate those two issues in a short introduction.  But, the connections are there.  What is the whole Occupy movement really all about?  What were people trying to do?  At heart, I'd say that those movements and protests were about voicing frustrations.  Frustrations with not only the big, abstract global economy--but also the local economies and politics that affect people in their day to day lives.  People knew--especially after the market crash of 2008--that something was definitely amiss.  The "system" wasn't exactly working for them, and they wanted to do something about it.  Inequality is one of the key issues--as is power.  What concerned people, in essence, is that while they spend their lives working hard, they don't necessarily have access to the benefits of the massive political economy they are a part of.  Wall Street--and places like Washington, D.C.--were symbols of those power inequalities.  So what better way to stake your claim in the global financial system than to grab your tent and literally, well, occupy Wall Street?  

When it comes to academia, then, what's the equivalent of pitching a tent and making claims about the direction of our academic commons?  Do we need a protest?  Or some anthropological version of a General Assembly that will wake people up to make them realize that we might want to rethink the current state of affairs?  Maybe a website that focuses on Open Access in Anthropology (like this perhaps)?  A new organization?  A way to link existing organizations?  What, after all, can pull us all away from our laptops, grant proposals, articles, syllabi, and endless committees?  Anything?  There are issues to be dealt with: Who should have the right to access scholarly research?  Who owns it?  Who should control it?  No doubt, these questions matter--or they should matter to anyone who's paying attention.  So now what?  Do we all just go back to our routines and accept the status quo as some unchangeable reality?  Do we wait another three years?  What do you think about all this?  Ideas welcome.


By focusing on both the Occupy movement and the question of Open Access, this issue of anthropologies seeks to address some of these questions, to explore some of the relationships between these two broad themes, and (hopefully) to create a space for continued dialog and reflection.  The comments sections, as always, are there for you (the readers) to fill in the blanks that we missed.  Don't be shy--participation and feedback are what really make this online thing interesting.

In this issue we have essays by Barbara Fister, Daniel Lende, Laurence Cuelenaere (a photo essay), Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun, Jason Baird Jackson, Doug Rocks-Macqueen, and Kyle Schmidlin.  There's also an extra piece in here from me that attempts to do a kind of quick review of some of the anthropological responses to the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Thanks everyone for taking part!  I also want to sent out a quick thanks to Tom Boellstorff for pointing me to his 2009 piece on Access.  As usual, thanks to all the editors for your continued help and support with this sometimes daunting project.



Boellstorff, Tom.  2009.  Access.  American Anthropologist Vol 111(1):1-4.

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