MMJF: This discussion has already raised a number of themes. As is my wont, let me try to highlight them for our readers: (1) We have Chris's book Two Bits as both scholarship on the open source/open access and a case study of how OA might be achieved. (2) We have a concern about how OA transforms anthropological research, including both new possibilities for scholarship, and new solutions to old problems (such as the obligation to source communities). And (3) we have opened up the debate about the political economy of scholarly societies in general, and the AAA in particular. So let's pick on #3 a bit longer: What are scholarly societies for today?
CK: Well, in the era of open access the answer cannot be “for dissemination”—that's simply no longer something we need a large bureaucratic organization to do for us. The answer might be “publication”—but only if it means something more than “making work available.” If we extend publication to include all the things that go into the collaborative work of creating quality scholarship—editing, reviewing, marketing, promoting, circulating, translating, teaching, reading—then perhaps we can see the outlines of an answer to what a scholarly society should be for today. On the one hand, I would fully agree with Kim and Tom that there are all kinds of options for Open Access, depending on the kinds of materials one is talking about (from field notes and data to publications) and one wants to have as much control as possible over the access or restriction allowed to those materials. There are also questions about what kinds of journals serve what purposes—flagship, credentialing, cutting-edge experimental, notes and queries, blogs—and how open they are to which audiences. These are questions about the value of information (or publications, or data, or images or ideas)—not only its cost or ownership, and these are differences to which anthropologists are, or should be, sensitive. On the other hand, there is a moral high ground here: peer-reviewed, published research, especially federally funded research, should not be restricted at all. Another way to put this, at the risk of getting all corny, is that the decision to publish something in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal should be a decision to set it free. Prior to this point there is a range of reasons for, and options for, restricting access or choosing who will get to see something—that is, arguments against publication in the scholarly sense of setting it free.
MMJF: But who would take responsibility for those issues—as in the case of the debates about the military use of information, or cases of fraud, where published information needs retraction or removal; or even cases like the El Dorado case, who should be responsible? Is there a role for the AAA here?
CK: YES! This is what I mean by “management of circulation.” The AAA should not simply print up and mail out our work—they should manage it, promote it, circulate it, put it in front of the people who might use it, whether scholars or others in society. But are they? They issue a press release here and there, they apparently do some lobbying, but overall they seem to have a lackluster consensus-oriented press-release mentality. They don't seem to be particularly interested either in lively blogospheric discussion, or in authoritative statements that put the media or pundits in their place. And these are primarily issues of governance and sustainability to which the AAA always asks “where will the revenue come from?” To me, however, this is a problem of carts and horses: you can't ask the question about revenue and sustainability until you can clearly tell your members—or foundations, or granting agencies, or citizens—what it is you do, and why you should be paid to do it. No one owes scholarly societies anything; no one owes the AAA anything; no one owes the AAA sections anything; indeed anthropology doesn't have to exist in our society—and it's clear that most Americans haven't an airy clue what we do or why it might be important. If I knew that I was paying the AAA $200 a year to really address that failure, and that no one else could do it, I'd pay them $2,000 a year. That's a governance and a leadership issue, not a problem of accounting, or of “mere” publication.
MMJF: Explain to me then why the deal with WB seems to move decision making farther away from the sections? Is it because this will allow them to do a better job of marketing, as they promise?
JJ: Let me take a stab at some of these questions. It's important to distinguish the structural issues from cases of organizational inertia, which may be inevitable, but shouldn't be confused with the problems scholarly societies, universities and libraries face today. The “serials crisis” (the skyrocketing costs for serials that libraries must pay for scholars to have access to cutting-edge research) is a deeply felt concern in research libraries. Most university-based anthropologists understand this because they constantly receive publisher's promotional materials for new commercial journals and at the same time they get yearly updates describing which existing campus journal subscriptions have been dropped for lack of sufficient funds. Publishers, including WB, deny that there is a cost-based journals crisis (Campbell 2006:27). But if we want to think seriously about “sustainability” we must realize that sustaining anthropology means more than sustaining the AAA budget—it means sustaining the viability of research libraries and of our not-for-profit university press partners as well. More and more research libraries today are responding by partnering directly with scholars to “publish” (in Chris's sense) research, and thus they are expanding the library's role in new ways. They are trying to make scholarship more open and more sustainable by cutting out the middleman, the publishing companies. In doing so, they might make commercial publishing less profitable and scholarly societies built around toll access publication profits less sustainable. So whose interests do you align with? I'd like my efforts to help sustain the AAA, but the association's interests are now more congruent with those of the publishing industry, not my library or the university presses. As a result the interests of my ethnographic consultants, my university library, my students, and my colleagues are increasingly in conflict with those of my professional society.2
ARG: This brings up the issue of “capacity.” Jason is exactly right—alliances are forming between libraries and scholars, for instance, and the AAA has sided with the publication industry. Why? One of the key things about Free Software and Open Access that we haven't highlighted enough is that it allows things to get done extremely cheaply if you have the people who know how to work the technology. The AAA has failed to develop low-cost solutions using these methods, it has alienated much of a generation of younger scholars willing to devote their time to developing these solutions, and as a result it has thrown up its hands and outsourced this work to institutions like WB. WB then doubles the price of American Anthropologist, and makes money off of the AAA's inability to manage its own publications program. We are all literally paying the price of the AAA's inability to keep our house in order.
MMJF: Yes, but: one cannot just throw up one's hands and say the AAA is just an unwieldy old organization. Structurally, are there leverage points where we could apply pressure that would make the organization change? Are there are ways to “hack” the AAA, or create workarounds? Can we use these to shift our publication regime toward flexibility and customization rather than uniformity and homogenization? In fact, are these conceptual terms (homogenization, uniformity, flexibility) from old industrial processes the right ones to think with, or what alternatives can we use?
CK: WB has little incentive to become more flexible, quite the opposite I think. WB's expertise is in profit through cost cutting; everything WB can do to make the process of “publishing” an article streamlined across all their journals, regardless of content or scope means that they can cut costs. The fewer specialized demands there are from particular societies or particular subsections of societies, the more money they can save on labor costs. So the pressure to homogenize the process will be significant. This is why decision making has to become more centralized; but it's also why marketing has to be more flexible. If WB wants to sell more subscriptions, their marketing department will have to find creative ways to do that. But there is another question here: what kind of flexibility do we want? Are we talking about flexibility in page counts? The ability to change the font and cover design? Or is it a question of content, images, special issues, new journals, or timeliness and relevance? Was this ever under discussion? Is it clearly specified in the contract? If not, who will negotiate who gets to make the decision? All these questions went unanswered in the transition to WB because the process was internal to the AAA and as far as I can tell, involved the editors only as remote correspondents, not active participants in the deal making.
ARG: I am also very unhappy with our tendency to reify “the AAA”—aren't we, the members, the AAA? And yet it seems that people who are being affected by the AAA's decisions do not have a voice in making them, and that is undemocratic. We need to demand accountability for the decisions being made, and that means figuring out who, exactly, gets to be “the AAA” when “the AAA signs a contract with WB.” How, specifically, are these decisions being made and who is making them?
CK: True, Rex, but my point here is about flexibility. If the lines are drawn around relatively minor things, like page counts or number of images, I think the benefits of going with WB will outweigh any “homogenization” of our articles. However, if it's no longer possible to do something like the “Coke Complex” volume Cultural Anthropology issued last year, then I think we just sold our soul.3 WB might be a giant homogenous Borg, but we can still work within it.
ARG: Chris, reform is the enemy of revolution! Jason has just done a great job describing the way that partnerships are being built between all sorts of institutions ranging from libraries to websites. The homogenization of journal production doesn't just mean that we lose flexibility in terms of what we'd like to do with our journals at the moment, it means that we lose our ability to develop new forms of publication in the future, and it means the AAA is aligning itself with partners whose interests are opposed to those of the membership. This is going to have a chilling effect on all the things that academics want—our freedom to tinker, to innovate, and to decide for ourselves what we want to do and how we want to do it. These larger issues cannot be ameliorated by “flexibility” within the WB arrangements.
JJ: Comrades, please, this isn't the fifth international. It won't do to debate whether reform or revolution are necessary when the issues and processes at work in the AAA/WB are already under way. No one is going to throw down their Golden Bough and their tape recorder and take up arms—or for that matter, start a new scholarly society, are they? One way to answer MMJF's question about decision making (and hacking) is to focus on the actual processes at work in this AAA/WB relationship right now, such as the means by which sections/editors can request changes to their journals. The process of coming up with this structure has itself been relatively transparent and democratic, it's just that it is based on post–WB realities. Decisions about journals (like page counts, special issues, new formats) used to be in the hands of editors/sections because it was the sections (together with those who provided subsidies, like host universities) that paid all the expenses. Now, WB has taken up all the costs with the exception of the academic editorial offices (which must be paid for by the sections, through subsidies, or run on a shoestring). What this means is that the AAA now provides WB with a range of journal editors who bring in a steady stream of journal content, and in return WB provides AAA with specified revenues. With the University of California Press, it was organized differently: the sections paid all of the costs, including paying UC Press for its efforts, the sections shouldered the risk, and the sections had a direct stake in (theoretical) profits.
CK: So what you are saying is that, the sections no longer pay the costs of innovation, but that the power to (decide to) innovate now rests with WB?
JJ: In essence, yes. It actually rests, I think, with WB and the AAA leadership, but WB is looked to as the expert partner prepared to assess real costs and benefits. As I understand it, for the five years of the current contract, the baseline will be where things stood on January 1, 2008. If, however, a journal wants to double the number of words or pages, then someone would need to absorb that higher level of expense, whether the AAA, WB, or the section. For WB to absorb this, they would have to feel confident that the added expense would generate new revenues. However, if WB manages to generate a gazillion dollars in profits, the AAA will share them. In general, (unprofitable) changes made for the good of scholarship or the world would need to be absorbed (as losses) by the AAA or the sections. One-time extra expenses (“lets do a double issue in 2010 in honor of professor so and so”) can be bought by sections if they have the cash, the willingness, and the lead time necessary to gain approvals.
ARG: So now the AAA leadership has a disincentive to make any innovative changes and an incentive to be suspicious of sections funding ongoing “enhancements” for fear that any costs will come to be shifted to WB or AAA? And we must pay WB for the privilege of making up our own minds what should be in these journals?
JJ: Well, more or less. I am sympathetic to some of this, as libraries for instance, need to know what to expect of a journal as both a product and as a cost. Section leadership, section cash on hand, and editorial effort can be quite fluctuating even under stable external conditions. In any event, the way that I see it, the role of sections has greatly shrunken. The print journal is still, in most cases, a membership “benefit” and sections still choose the editors for the journals with which they are associated, but much has been given up in exchange for income and decreased risk exposure. The new problem is the one that Chris has been so eloquent about. The hope for innovation is at the section level, but sections have lost a lot through the combination of AnthroSource journal access for AAA members (which has eroded section memberships) and the structural readjustments brought on by the cost-revenue gap of the UCP period and now by the new arrangements of the WB era.
Posted by Christopher Kelty on August 11, 2008