American Anthropological Association keeps it from the people

6 minute read

Last month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy solicited comments concerning open access publication policies for federally funded research. I submitted a comment to a related solicitation, concerning open access to data from federally funded research (“Public interests in data from federally funded research”). But the open access publication comments are also interesting to me, and the OSTP has just released the full list of comments to the public (“Public Access to Scholarly Publications: Public Comment”).

Included in the list is a comment written on behalf of the American Anthropological Association by its executive director, William E. Davis, III (PDF of comment). The letter is a defense of closed-access journal policies, and includes many statements that I view as disputable.

For example, Davis addressed the embargo period for open access to journal articles. The NIH access policy allows this embargo period for journals to restrict exclusive access to subscribers for 12 months after publication.

First, after twelve months much of the content in many STM fields is old news. An embargo period of 12 months often has little effect on the financial models upon which publishing in STM fields is based. In anthropology, however, where over 90 percent of downloads occur after 12 months from the date of publication and the cited half-life of our quarterly journals is over 10 years, a 12 month embargo period does nothing to hep protect our subscriptions.

May I offer an alternative view of this problem? I suggest that the closed access policy has contributed to the irrelevance of AAA journals. Nobody outside the AAA membership notices when papers of note are published there. The AAA journals, including American Anthropologist have effectively cut themselves off from the rest of the academic world. The “half-life” is high not because new papers are steadily building more citations, but instead because their impact is anommalously slight compared to papers from 50 years ago.

Instead of making its journals more rich and relevant, the AAA leaches vampire-like its past icons. Instead of giving libraries reasons to support its efforts, the Association depends on its university-based members to argue with their libraries’ acquisitions staff to keep the journals despite their poor impact.

Others have focused on this passage in the letter, which is particularly grating:

We know of no research that demonstrates a problem with the existing system for making the content of scholarly journals available to those who might benefit from it. In a recent article published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, authors Philip Davis and William Walters conducted a literature review and concluded that "...recent studies provide little evidence to support the idea that there is a crisis in access to the scholarly literature." A separate earlier study found that 93% of the researchers surveyed reported easy access to original research articles in journals. This study surveyed 3,800 researchers and evaluated their access to 18,000 journals. It is worth keeping mind [sic] that this same study found that 62% of these scholars enjoyed easy access to data sets, data models, and the research compendium of other scholars. AAA independently corroborated these results in a survey about anthropological information with its members, who reported in February 2009 very high levels of access to peer-reviewed journals and scholarly monographs.

I think the most appropriate response to this passage is parody. Consider: “We know of no research that demonstrates a problem with the existing system of providing health care information to indigenous peoples…. A study of indigenous people covered by health plans found that 93% of them enjoy easy access to such information.”

The American Anthropological Association over the past several years has shaped policies that keep peer-reviewed AAA publications accessible only by members and large institutional subscribers. Past and ongoing journal issues are walled within the Association’s “AnthroSource” archive, available with association membership or to institutional subscribers for a hefty fee.

In 2007, when the AAA more than doubled the institutional subscription prices for its flagship journals, I ran some numbers on open access publication. Even using high-end price schemes, it was clear that open access electronic journals could be provided free worldwide for an annual cost of $10 per AAA member. That would represent a substantial cut in the cost of society membership, considering the current membership dues include a hefty subscription subsidy. Instead of moving toward an open access model of publication, the Association chose to provide its publisher partner (Wiley) with the opportunity to market AnthroSource and association-sponsored journals to libraries. For this, the Association receives some income, printing, and bit-moving services. Not too impressive, considering the low actual bit-moving requirements for these journals.

Overall, the AAA statement is a defense of their current policies and an argument against being required by federal policies to release any content to the public. I believe it does matter. Anthropologists have increasingly been courted by NIH funding programs directed toward “ethical and social impacts” of biomedical research. Skimming the acknowledgements section of the American Anthropologist today will not find many references to NIH, but other federal funding programs are prominently represented. Anthropological research has always been supported by the public, both as funders and participants. The AAA has kept its head low until now, but if federal policies shift any further, they will find themselves subject to the embargo or other open access requirements.

I am disappointed that AAA does not step forward into the lead on this issue. Public access to research results is the right direction for anthropological research. Davis is obviously wrong to write that “easy access to original research articles in journals” is available to the communities affected by anthropological research. Surely the legacy of distrust left by past elitism by anthropologists are evident to everyone?

It is inevitable that we will move in the direction of greater and more open access to our research. The only question is whether today’s institutions will be the ones to make the transition possible, or whether we will replace them with new ones. New journals and organizations springing up to support effective online communication and collaboration are very compelling for young academics looking for a more vibrant research community. Maybe the AAA’s final transmogrification will be to Archie Bunkerhood.

UPDATE (2012-02-04): The American Anthropological Association Executive Board has issued an attempt to clarify the organization’s position: “American Anthropological Association Position on Dissemination of Research”.

Acknowledging the Association's commitment to "a publications program that disseminates the most current anthropological research, expertise, and interpretation to its members, the discipline, and the broader society," but also the need for a sustainable publication strategy, and building on the Association's support for a variety of publishing models, the AAA opposes any Congressional legislation which, if it were enacted, imposes a blanket prohibition against open access publishing policies by all federal agencies.

This obviously raises the question of what they thought they were doing before, in their statement to the White House. In my view, the current position is weak beyond reason, but it does stop short of actual malevolence.

More voices on this issue:

Daniel Lende: “American Anthropological Association Takes Public Stand against Open Access”

Doug’s Archaeology: “American Anthropology Association FAIL!!!! This Time on an Epic Scale”

Dienekes Pontikos: “The American Anthropological Association opposes open science”

Savage Minds: “News: AAA Response about Public Access to Scholarly Publications”, and “How do we mobilize anthropologists to support open access?”