Evolving Conversations on Open Access: Oysters and Adventures at AAA

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Oyster buffet at AAA

Conversations about OA happen in a variety of places, for instance, over oysters.

The 2014 American Anthropological Association meetings for me consisted of a long and occasionally ranty (on my part) conversation about Open Access publishing. My conversations at the 2013 meetings in Chicago around OA hinted at high levels of anxiety and also misinformation among academics in anthropology about what OA is, what is at stake, what it might look like, and the impact it might have on their professional success. I had hoped that in the course of a year those negative feelings would shift a bit, especially with the relatively high-visibility experiments in OA at Cultural Anthropology, and HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (the latter is both a journal and entering into an experiment in monograph publishing with University of Chicago Press).

The conversations I witnessed in DC this year did little to assure me that anxiety levels have lowered. From the lament of faculty who do not see how OA publishing can be peer-reviewed or prestigious, to publishers who wish that academics would stop pretending that they can be publishers, to graduate students who are being warned away from OA publishing with lists of “predatory publishers,” the swirl of anxiety and lack of information about what OA publishing can (and does) actually look like persists. I even saw this in the SCA panel on Open Access publishing (I commented on my meeting twitterstream in this post on my own blog), where, despite practical experience in what OA is like, there were persistent worries about the technical aspects of publishing that were objectively difficult to pick up quickly.

This set of worries co-exists with a conviction that OA is the ethical thing to do. As a discipline we have an obligation to make our research more accessible, more discoverable, not less. Rather than being concerned about esoterically defined “Impact Factors” that oppress and constrain academic creativity and production, anthropologists could concern themselves with actual impact, with our voices becoming relevant to current policy discussions and current events debates. Wouldn’t that be nice? We seem to desire it (intermittently) as a discipline, the attention of people outside of our disciplinary boundaries. The PopAnth discussion in DC around popularizing anthropology is a good example of the struggle that anthropology continues to have with what it means to be accessible—and “popular.” Popular is not always the same as “relevant,” but we will have a far, far tougher time being perceived as “relevant” if no one can hear us at all.

So rather than struggle to come up with an OA model from whole cloth (as some continue to think they must), I’d love to see anthropologists (cultural anthropologists in particular) collaborate with other fields in the drive to more and better OA publishing models for our field. While Cultural Anthropology and HAU are moving forward, their experiments do not give smaller journals with fewer resources much hope that they can do it, too. Even if they offer their expertise (as Cultural Anthropology has done), more concrete suggestions for what could be done, and the variety of models that are out there, are needed if we are to hope to convince worried smaller sections within the AAA that OA is feasible for them, too.

In addition to Cultural Anthropology and HAU, other examples within anthropology exist, such as The Journal of Caribbean Archaeology. Models outside of anthropology abound; the PLOS journals in particular are an intriguing possibility for consolidating the infrastructure of OA publishing in a way that could allow the journals of smaller sections not just to persist but actually to gain visibility and readership.

AAA attendees clinking cocktail glasses

Collaboration can also be fun.

I worry about anthropologists who think they can solve a problem by talking only to themselves.

I’m advocating for collaboration, and historically that is not a strong suit of mainstream cultural anthropology. The training of cultural anthropologists still relies too heavily on the myth of the lone wolf fieldworker, and as a subfield it remains reluctant to take on the lessons of teamwork that have been well assimilated in biological, archaeological, and applied anthropology in particular. The work in those other sub-fields is overwhelmingly team-based at some if not every stage. I can’t help but think that teamwork positions them more effectively to embrace collaborative and inclusive efforts in scholarly communication. Open access publishing requires a team of people, not just to do the work, but to bring specialized knowledge to bear. Team members need to include practitioners from outside of anthropology—librarians and publishers in particular. Look to places like In the Library with the Lead Pipe and Hybrid Pedagogy for extra-anthropological discussions of the reasons for and practices within OA publishing. These online journals are also experimenting with different ways of doing peer review (as is American Anthropologist, kudos to them). These new ways can make peer review better, and those who think that the traditional ways of peer review actually resulted in better scholarship all the time have not been paying attention.

There are also a variety of financial models for OA, and anthropologists should know better than to think they can figure it all out by themselves. Institutions can kick in money, funding for OA publishing can be built into grant proposals, societies themselves can commit membership dues to the process of OA, rather than to the furthering of just private publishers’ agendas. It does not all have to be done on the backs of individual scholars (nor should it be). It does not have to look one way.

There is a range of technical skills necessary, including web design, web infrastructure, metadata production, curation, and license and copyright knowledge. We discussed these possibilities at length in the roundtable I chaired in partnership with my colleague Juliann Couture. There were far fewer people in the room for our panel than there were at the SCA panel. I wonder how we can get the right sets of conversations going in the right kinds of rooms.

Both the SCA panel and our roundtable of librarians, anthropologists, and publishers pointed to opportunities for the AAA to take leadership, to ask sections to come up with an OA plan. AAA could also proactively facilitate the production of resources for those sections interested in moving forward now. We need to figure out a way to get editors of journals in the room with those who are doing OA work now, plus librarians such as Juliann and publishers like Duke and the University of Chicago Press who have a good working knowledge of what can happen with OA partnerships.

But these nuts-and-bolts solutions will only address part of the problem.

Until anthropology has a discipline-wide conversation about why we publish, what we publish, and for whom, the anxieties will persist. Is publishing just for academic success? What would other forms of scholarly communication look like? What can the role be not just of OA, but of blogs, of project websites, of ways of communicating our work that we have not yet imagined? Whom could we reach? What would that impact look like? The SCA panel I attended did start to ask questions about open-practice anthropology, as did our own roundtable. Danny Miller’s Global Social Media project team is among those who are offering OA, multi-format solutions. I know that EPIC itself is experimenting with what it would be like for the content of the conferences, and other publications, to be OA, and thinking about what sort of sustainable financial models can make that possible.

There are such interesting questions we could be trying to answer, and answering them is fundamental to the future of anthropological practice. We should not try to answer those questions as a discipline alone. The strength of anthropology needs to be located in part in our willingness to work with and learn from people outside of our discipline. Those of us working in applied and practical contexts already know this. The AAA as a whole would do well to incorporate that perspective in a much more integrated way.


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Donna Lanclos is an anthropologist and folklorist who found herself working in academic libraries in 2009. She writes about academia, information seeking, information systems, digital and physical learning spaces, and anthropology at www.donnalanclos.com, among other places. She is Associate Professor for Anthropological Research at J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.


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