Friday, March 2, 2012

Liberating Cultural Anthropology? A Thought Experiment

In this brief post, we sketch one possible model for turning Cultural Anthropology, the journal of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropological Association, into a gold open access journal.  Open access advocates describe such a process as liberatory because it frees a publication from arrangements that constrain its capacity to fulfill a core mission: namely, the widest possible circulation of the published work, regardless of a reader’s ability to pay.  This mission is a particular demand for anthropology, because anthropological publications concern communities, and are of interest to readers, in all areas of the world, many of whom do not have the resources or organizational connections to gain access to anthropological publications as they are now distributed.  Anthropological publications also have great potential to reach new and diverse audiences near to home, in policy, legal, and media domains, as well as within the growing number of universities, state colleges, community colleges, and other institutions whose libraries are cutting journal subscriptions in the face of mounting budget pressures.   Reaching these readers is also difficult within the current distribution model.  An open access model would provide many advantages, and is both economically feasible and technically well supported at this juncture.  Here, we lay out a rough process and budget, inviting feedback.  

Some Background

We were co-editors of Cultural Anthropology from 2006-2010.  The experience made two indelible impressions on us: 1) the form of the academic journal and journal article –  in which scholarly work is collectively cultivated, evaluated, improved, and then disseminated – is absolutely critical to preserve; and 2) any such scholarly work, but especially so for anthropologists, should and can be freely accessible to anyone who wants to read it, anywhere.  Such impressions took shape in a context forcefully shaped by the challenges and promises of digitization, in a time in which the conditions of scholarly knowledge production were changing.

We became editors of CA in 2006 in the midst of multiple transitions.  The production and distribution of all AAA publications had been contracted out to the University of California Press only a few years earlier, having been produced entirely in-house before that. The transition from print to electronic formats, for all academic journals and not only those of the AAA, was gathering steam.  Anthrosource, the electronic portal to AAA journals, had recently come online, and initially high expectations and excitement about its possibilities were being tempered by increasingly frequent notes of dissatisfaction from a broad community of users (1). 

At the time, CA had no web presence of its own, so with the help of our graduate student at the time, Casey O’Donnell, we built a new website for the journal using a Drupal open source platform. We were also among the first group of AAA editors who had to learn the new on-line manuscript management software developed by Berkeley Electronic Press, which we used in the first two years of our editorship while CA was published by the University of California Press.  A seemingly endless string of meetings and reports from this time documented a crisis in the AAA publications program that threatened the survival of numerous AAA publications and the sections that supported them.   Editors, along with section treasurers and presidents, struggled to make sense of a maze of costs and revenues.  It was difficult to tell what exactly the problem was, but it was clear there was a problem.  

Suddenly in late 2007, we and all other editors of AAA journals were completely surprised when it was announced that AAA journals would be published by Wiley-Blackwell beginning in January 2008, just a few months away (2).  We had already learned enough about open access issues (thanks largely to Jason Jackson) to be firmly opposed to this decision, but there was no time or space for maneuver or negotiation. (One way we responded eventually was by soliciting and publishing the multi-authored essay, “Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies.”(3)) When WB offered training in their manuscript submission and tracking system to all the editors, we declined, and instead installed and learned Open Journal Systems on the server which also hosted the new CA website.  CA has continued to use OJS to handle its submissions and reviews, the only AAA journal to do so.

Technologies, we know, have formative and performative effects, and using OJS became a constant reminder that CA was always just a few clicks away from open access publishing, and from being completely independent of Wiley-Blackwell or any other for-profit publisher.  Working daily on the OJS platform certainly nourished our imaginary for a liberated Cultural Anthropology.  So did the community of editorial interns that emerged around the CA website, who generously provided supplementary annotations, videos, author interviews, teaching questions and other materials for a growing list of current and back-issue essays.

The Status Quo Assumptions

Less than a decade ago, the AAA self-published all its journals and newsletters.  Despite – or perhaps because of -- this, AAA today does not think that self-publishing is a sustainable strategy, and believes it needs the services (copyediting, metadata-ing, promoting and marketing) and revenues Wiley Blackwell provides.  AAA/WB (it is often hard to tell where information originates) cite figures indicating that each page of a journal article costs around $500 to publish, a figure which can’t really be shrunk significantly even if print publication were eliminated.  Membership dues can’t increase significantly either, they say, and no one wants an “author pays” model as some scientific open access publications employ.  And in order to protect smaller publications, all AAA journals must be “bundled” together (WB further “bundles” the AAA bundle with other anthropology journals and asks libraries to purchases these bundled bundles)(4), so everyone must be subject to the same publishing model.  “Scholarly publishing is expensive,” the argument for the status quo concludes, “we have the best deal we could get and we are still running a deficit -- and besides, anyone who really wants access can get it through philanthropic programs like Hinari.”

Assuming a New Status

Gold open access is necessary to fulfill the scholarly and ethical commitments of anthropologists.  Whatever the “value added” to a journal article by any commercial publishing partner, it is a pale shadow of the base value provided freely by passionate authors, generous reviewers, and committed editors.  This core strength of the system is astounding, and astoundingly important, and should never be minimized or dismissed.  This is our work, made from and with our interlocutors and colleagues, and we insist that it be available to anyone who wants to read it.

We assume that the diverse AAA publication portfolio can be supported through sharing of open source technologies and associated collective expertise. We assume that CA (and other AAA publications) will make use of open source editorial management and publication platforms such as Open Journal Systems. We assume that AAA and/or its individual sections will collaborate with university libraries, making use of institutional repositories and the Open Archive Initiative Protocol to ensure interoperability and searchability.  We assume that section membership dues will need to increase modestly, and that members will agree to those increases – some begrudgingly, many happily – because they, too, will want the AAA to become a different kind of professional society, with a different publishing model.

The process

- author submits manuscript to (already operational) OJS
- editors and reviewers “add value” (even to unpublished manuscripts!) with generous reviews; authors add still more value with responsive revisions
- copy editor (@$25 an hour) spends 10 hours on each accepted manuscript (24 per year)
- Managing Editor (part-time) finalizes layout, using template that matches current layout
- publish through OJS (tagged for searches using Open Archive Initiative Protocol)
- university librarians maintain archive in institutional repository
- electronic edition and supplemental materials available on SCA/CA website (all open source technologies)
- Managing Editor promotes via email
- print and distribution initiated and paid for by readers, through print-on-demand service
- SCA/CA helps other publications develop and sustain OJS and other open source/access tools

The math

Chart: Proposed annual budget for Cultural Anthropology.
Note: Lost revenue based on CA 2010 "allocation" from the AAA/WB deal.


Open Ended

The process and budget put forward here is one sketch, open to additional refinement and revision.  We put it forward to advance discussions of alternative publishing models that is aware of the "brass tacks," and motivated by an ethical and political economic sense that change is necessary (6). Discussions within anthropology need to move to a new level of urgency and detail, buttressed by transparency.  More, clear information needs to be circulated, collectively deliberated, and further refined.   The foreclosure of widespread deliberation because of an assumption that no alternative is possible is simply unacceptable.  AAA is a membership organization, and more of its members need to become more engaged with these issues, and insist on engagement with AAA staff and leadership.  At stake is the direction and relevance of the field – that is, our collective work as scholars.

Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun

(1) The Savage Minds blog has provided the most enduring and critical coverage of the development and decline of AnthroSource; see for a complete list of AnthroSource-related posts, including the dismissal of the AnthroSource Steering Committee in 2006 when it pushed too hard for open access,

(2) For some discussion of the deal and links to other articles, see Peter Suber, “More on the Anthrosource move to Wiley-Blackwell,” Open Access News, September 20, 2007;  

(3) 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(2):559-588; available at

(4) On the practice of “bundling,” see Karla Hahn, “The State of the Large Publisher Bundle: Findings from an ARL Member Survey,” Association of Research Libraries, April 2006;

(5) An earlier version of this article, delivered as invited comments by Kim Fortun on the panel “The Future of AAA Publishing: A Forum for Discussion,” at the 2011 AAA meeting in Montreal, relied on a figure of $30 per SCA member.  We have changed it here to $45, since the original figure did not account for lost revenue that would be incurred in the absence of a commercial publishing deal (included here as the first “expense”).

(6) For additional detail and analysis concerning the financing and other aspects of AAA journals under the WB deal, and further articulation of why change is necessary, see the “Memo to the AAA Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing (CFPEP),” prepared by Kim Fortun for the Section Assembly Advisory Group, July 23, 2010; available on the Cultural Anthropology website at

1 comment:

Barbara Fister said...

If libraries had to monetize their every move, articles would cost less than $500 a page, but they would cost something. However, they don't. People are employed to provide access to research materials.

Why not redirect some of the work that happens in libraries toward the managerial tasks involved in publishing? Then we would use existing personnel lines to do what libraries do but cutting out the transfer of funds to corporations to manage this for us.

Of course, libraries are losing staff. (See what's happening at Harvard.) Many of those lines are becoming "redundant" as the Brits say because the tasks they once did - checking in journals, organizing collections, providing finding aids - are now outsourced to publishers. We could recover those jobs through providing publishing support and the research wouldn't be available only to the few.