American Anthropological Association Takes Public Stand against Open Access

On November 3rd, 2011, The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy put out a call for public comment on Public Access to Scholarly Publications. A central aim of this review was to seek further guidance on “expanding public access to federally funded peer-reviewed scholarly articles.”

On January 12th, 2012, the American Anthropological Association took a firm stance against any further expansion of public access to research. In a letter submitted to the White House, and signed by Executive Director William Davis III on behalf of the Association, the AAA argues that there is already broad scholarly access to published research, and that a move to an open-access model would cripple the Association’s ability to publish its journals. Hence, “no federal government intervention is currently necessary.”

Three points of the letter will likely provoke controversy among the members of the American Anthropological Association.

First, many will dispute Davis’ implicit definition of the relevant “public” in the AAA January 12th letter. In the opening paragraphs, there is mutual agreement about “enhancing the public understanding” and reaching “those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge.” But Davis’ definition of “public” changes dramatically when he argues against expansion. Rather than the multitude of publics an anthropologist might imagine – the general reading public, the communities with whom we work, advocacy groups located outside the university system – Davis restricts access to researchers and scholars. Since these groups already have good access, no further expansion is needed.

Second, in making that argument, Davis draws on research published in The Journal of the Medical Library Association. In a 2011 paper ironically available because of federal mandates, Davis and Walters discuss “The impact of free access to the scientific literature: a review of recent research.” The AAA features the authors’ conclusion that “Recent studies provide little evidence to support the idea that there is a crisis in access to the scholarly literature.” However, is a study done on “the primary medical literature” really the best reference for anthropology?

Third, Davis argues strongly that the current financial model is in the best interest of the American Anthropological Association, and its mission to disseminate anthropological knowledge. “If AAA’s publishing plans were to lose revenues from library subscriptions, the authors would have very little ability to ‘pay to publish’ such as has been successful in some STEM fields. The elimination of library subscription revenues from the publishing budget of the American Anthropological Association would cripple the society’s ability to continue publishing its 22 scholarly journals.”

I hope that I will stand corrected, but to my knowledge, it is Wiley the publisher that takes in the library subscription revenues, and then passes on part of that money to the AAA. As Chris Kelty and others have argued, the library budgets will still exist going forward, and could be re-purposed in ways that support an open-access model.

In any case, the money needed to support publications is clearly a central issue in this whole debate. The AAA needs money to support its publishing efforts, and Wiley, like many traditional publishers, offers a model that can provide significant revenues to the AAA while keeping even more significant revenues for the company.

Part of the rub is that academics provide an enormous amount of free labor to support publishing. The AAA letter provides an either/or approach – either a federal approach that supports everything, or a for-profit model that supports the technological innovations and expertise that make up the publishing business while academics continue to do peer review, editing, and increasingly promotion on their own.

This either/or model is particularly clear in the part of the letter that most rankles me:

Mandating open access to such property without just compensation and lawful procedural limits constitutes, in our view, an unconstitutional taking of private property – copyrighted material – an expropriation without fair market compensation. In our view, such a practice cannot and will not withstand judicial review.

This statement from the Association that canceled an annual meeting to stand in solidarity with the striking workers of the conference hotel? This statement from an Association whose members have fought and fought these past decades to get better recognition of indigenous rights? This statement from an Association that consistently offers one of the few prominent public critiques of the neoliberal model?

This statement stinks.

Let us just take one phrase – “fair market compensation.” Fair market compensation for whom? For Wiley? Or for the people who actually do the intellectual labor? Or any number of publics who might have rights to that work?

Let me be clear. I have my own doubts about the open access model, as it is not that different from the for-profit model. Academics will continue to provide an enormous amount of non-reimbursed labor, and exchange that for the ideal that “the public” will have greater access to our research. It is a sort of tragicomedy of the commons, because I could see the scenario where researchers build the commons only to give it away once again.

I’d prefer a model of “greater access” rather than a rigid adherence to either open-access or for-profit. I’d also prefer a model of “greater sharing,” where the monetary and intellectual benefits of an overall research enterprise are shared more widely among multiple communities.

But let me say what I really wish. This letter comes on behalf of the American Anthropological Association. It resonates strongly with points made in John Wiley and Co.’s letter in response to the same White House call. But I am less sure how much it resonates with the AAA’s own members. Was the AAA Executive Board, the elected members of our association, consulted on this letter? Was there any period of public comment from AAA members on the Association’s letter? I am going to guess a tentative yes on the first (happy to be contradicted!), and a definite no on the second. And what I wish is that this AAA letter on behalf of all its members to the White House that addresses such an important issue had gone through a more open process.

Update: The American Anthropological Association Executive Board has issued a new announcement that is against “blanket prohibitions” towards open access publishing policies set forth by the federal government, and establishing the importance of both dissemination and sustainable publishing going forward. For my commentary on this recent announcement, and a proposal for a new open access initiative AAA Book Reviews, please see the post, American Anthropological Association Changes Opposition to Open Access – Plus a Proposal to Do More.

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