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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29 Responses to American Anthropological Association Takes Public Stand against Open Access

  1. daniel.lende says:

    There’s already been a series of reactions to the AAA letter. Here are two I’d like to highlight:

    “Open access requirements have many indirect beneficiaries, such as THE GROUPS THAT ANTHROPOLOGISTS STUDY!!!! ”

    “I was hugely disappointed by the AAA’s move to Wiley. A tremendous opportunity lost for the Association to be a force for change in academic publishing.”

    Ryan Anderson writes on this new AAA controversy over at Savage Minds; the first comment sticks out.

    It seems that they looked at surveys of current researchers and AAA members and determined that none of them have access problems. Do they really believe that our research should only be accessible to people with current university affiliations? Even recent PhD grads still looking for work are left out, not to mention the vast majority of those who participate in and collaborate with our research.

    Doug’s Archaeology is really miffed about the letter, calling it an epic fail. “The AAA has come out in favor of the Research Works Act concept. If you are unfamiliar with it, the Research Works Act, basically it is attempt by commercial publishers to keep US tax payers from accessing the results of research they paid for.”

  2. Bree says:

    “… an unconstitutional taking of private property – copyrighted material – an expropriation without fair market compensation… ”

    A surprising lack of socio-moral n’ economic imagination. A little saddening even.

  3. Brad Weiss says:

    The AAA position that open access means author’s “pay to publish” is hardly the only, or even the most widely available alternativ,e to WB. Each section that publishes collects DUES, and some of that funding could readily be used to subsidize open access publishing, esp.if it is entirely virtual, and sections work together to share the costs of maintaining a portal. I also want to have this added to the record:

    To: Bill Davis, AAA Executive Director; Leith Mullings, AAA President,

    From: The SCA Executive Board

    RE: Research Works Act (HR 3699)

    On January 18, 2012, the SCA Executive Board voted UNANIMOUSLY to pass the following resolution:

    On behalf of the SCA membership, the SCA Executive Board urges the American Anthropological Association to oppose the Research Works Act (HR 3699) introduced into Congress on December 19, 2011, and to distance itself from the endorsement of this legislation by the Association of American Publishers, of which AAA is a member.

    The Research Works Act would repeal the open access policy of the National Institutes of Health, whereby publications produced with federal funding are made publicly available in a repository 12 months after their publication, and block similar policies at other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Opposing the RWA does not entail a full embrace of open access philosophies; for-profit publishing is perfectly compatible with the current status quo. Opposing the RWA does not entail renouncing membership in the AAP; a number of AAP members have distanced themselves from the AAP position on RWA but continue to affirm their relationship.

    Indeed, a number of AAP members have spoken out against the Research Works Act while remaining committed to AAP. The University of California Press, the MIT Press, the Rockefeller University Press, ITHAKA and Penn State University Press have all done so, and this motivates the SCA to request that AAA follow their initiatives. As the Director of Corporate Affairs for Cambridge University Press stated, ‘We support all sustainable access models that ensure the permanence and integrity of the scholarly record… The Bill as proposed could undermine the underlying freedoms expected by and of scholarly authors.’ (See

    The Executive Board of the SCA shares this view of the proposed legislation, and urges the AAA to formally oppose it.

  4. ryan a says:

    Kerim over at SM has just posted something about this, asking how anthros can get mobilized to actually do something about this.

    I don’t get the AAA at all. As you point out, this move completely contradicts so many of their supposed ideals that it’s almost unbelievable. It makes no sense, but clearly there are certain interests that are taking precedent over others. What I’d really like to see are some responses from members of the AAA to see where people really stand on this. I find it hard to believe that this action actually reflects the desires and ideals of the membership on the whole. But, I guess I could be wrong.

    Thanks for posting this, Daniel, and for digging deeper into what’s going on here.

  5. Harald says:

    I’ve always been baffled by the complete lack of support for or understanding of open access from fields that, as you rightly point out, see themselves as “progressive,” “critical” or whatever you want to call it. I’m not a real anthropologist myself, but in science and technology studies — a field where there should clearly be an awareness of the various issues around publication practices and their impact on the discipline itself and society at large. Yet everybody reads, reviews for, and publishes in the same non-open journals. It’s really frustrating.

  6. George J. Myers, Jr. says:

    Over 100 years ago the AAA published material on the Pennsylvania jasper quarries from which tools and projectile points were made as much as 10,000 years ago (U. of Penn). Enough information and part was set aside for a “Jasper Park” as roads and rail came through near Allentown, PA/ The research was still relevant as it was part of studies when further roadwork was proposed. This example is why the information should be available as well as the more recent work by Anna Roosevelt, PhD., on state formation in Brazil’s Amazon rain-forest I had a peripheral contact with. The relevancy of much of anthropology’s research is denied by antiquarian methods that confine it to the “dust bin” of libraries. An Open Access model might be good to try, as an experiment, nothing written in stone escapes anthropologists, it’s the clay libraries we have more trouble with.

  7. daniel.lende says:

    For those of you looking for more on this issue, Savage Minds has an open thread looking for ideas and suggestions, How do we mobilize anthropologists to support open access?

    For background on open access in anthropology, I suggest the Savage Minds’ “open access” category. Jason Baird Jackson also writes regularly on these issues, particularly on the success of Open Folklore, on his blog Shreds and Patches.

  8. JPRS says:

    “Mandating open access to such property with just compensation and lawful procedural limits”

    This is a typo. It should read “without just compensation.” I read it a couple of times and it didn’t make sense. So I checked the original and it’s a typo. Still doesn’t make sense, but for other reasons, clearly…

    • daniel.lende says:

      Thanks for catching that – my mistake! I’ve updated in the main text to reflect the original document from the AAA, which does read “without just compensation.”

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  10. gregdowney says:

    Thanks Daniel for the comprehensive discussion.

    I’m taken aback by the AAA’s position paper, and am going to have to rethink my own resistance to for-profit publishing. I had stopped reviewing manuscripts from journal by for profit publishers but was sort of holding open an exception for AAA journals, as I feel it’s a responsibility of membership and generally want to support the publications put out in house.

    However, I think it’s time to stiffen my tepid resistance. I’ll head to Savage Minds to see what they’re suggesting, but after we finish a little project that’s due right now, it might be time to dig in and resist a lot harder. The AAA isn’t just saying, ‘well, let’s make the best of a bad situation.’ They echo the talking points and obscurantist arguments of the for-profit publishers, arguments that many anthropologists and other critics have been poking gaping holes in for the past couple of years. The AAA letter isn’t just ill-informed, it’s reactionary.

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  13. I don’t have time to reply at length right now because I’m swamped reviewing manuscripts for American Anthropologist (and I am quite aware of the irony), but I’m very disappointed by this statement as well. In particular, if the claim is that there is broad scholarly access–it’s just not true for many institutions, but also as you note given the AAA’s own emphasis on relevance and public engagement, and also accountability to those we study, then access should always include as part of the conversation access to various publics (including those outside the USA of course). I’ll look forward to updates on this issue.

  14. The conversation on open access anthropology reopened in a big way over the past couple of days. I have been tangled up in other business and have not had a chance to read, let alone, comment on all the discussion. I would like to take just a moment to thank Daniel and so many other good folks who are writing and thinking about these issues here and across our intellectual community.

    Since he posted it here, I wish to thank Brad and the SCA leadership for speaking so well in an organizational register. This remains crucial. I once overheard a former AAA officer dismissing open access talk as insignificant internet chatter not to be taken seriously. Genres and positionality matter and thus the SCA had done valuable work.

    Re. Greg’s comments. It will take me a bit of time, but in light of the Elsevier boycott, I am working on writing up a reflection of what my experiences have been since giving up on the commercial publishers. I’ll say more later, but I certainly peer-review just as much now as always, its just that open access and university press based journals get all of my attention. When I get asked by editors of commercial and commercial affiliated journals, there is an educational opportunity that has sometimes been very fruitful. For background, see

    Thanks Daniel for mentioning the general OA interview with Ryan. He did tons of great work to make that happen and I want to recognize all the energy that he is putting into this work at Anthropologies and on Savage Minds.

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  22. Charles Nuckolls says:

    The High Command of the AAA is, as usual, completely out of step with the membership. The executive director should resign, and all policy statements should be voted on by the membership. Failing that, a mechanism should exist for the recall of elected officials through a vote of no-confidence. The High Command has done enormous damage to the profession over the years. It’s time for a drastic change.

    Charles W. Nuckolls, Professor & Chair, Department of Anthropology, Brigham Young University

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