Inaccessible American Anthropology

Alex Golub describes in positive terms the recent announcement, by the main anthropological association in the United States (AAA), that some older articles from a newsletter (AN) and an academic journal (AA) will not require a paid subscription to be downloaded directly.

via Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » AAA ‘goes OA’: The emphasis should be on ‘first step’.

via AAA ‘goes OA’: The emphasis should be on ‘first step’.

Some other links:

It’s probably just a knee-jerk reaction on my part but I just don’t see this as a step in the right direction. Sorry.

I can’t help but think that it’s a way to avoid discussions about actual Open Access (OA), not a way to address concerns of the broadest community over the problems related to access to scholarly material. In a discipline which is supposed to care about widespread access, shouldn’t such concerns be taken into careful consideration?

It may sound like a personal preference but I tend to give more credit to pilot projects and other time-limited offers from publishers. As an easy example, the current program advertised by Sage for the month of October.
Some fellow OA enthusiasts and activists have railed against the “trial period” attempts from major publishers (including previous “free access” months by Sage). Their reactions sounded similar to what I’m trying to say about the AAA “OA” plan. But I see those “limited-time free access offers” as more beneficial in an OA logic than the AAA’s “too little, too late” campaign.
One reason I find those publisher offers useful is that these periods during which access to scholarship is made easier usually cover the publisher’s whole database, which makes the benefit of OA much more obvious than having selected issues of selected publications offered at no cost on an association’s semi-obscure website. Someone who’s working on a specific topic could use these trial periods to simply accumulate a lot of material to read later (using Zotero or other tools to keep track of this massive amount of literature). It’s the academic equivalent of binging and it sounds a bit absurd, but it can work (I’ve done this myself, a few years ago; really enjoyed it).
Then, because these major publishers cover several disciplines, those periods during which one can “browse and download at will” really benefit from anthropology’s position at the junction of several disciplines.
There’s an added benefit which is directly in favour of OA: once the trial period is over, individual readers get to notice how sad the current situation of proprietary access really is.

When so much important material suddenly becomes out of reach, people tend to react. And that reaction has some  “marketing” dimensions which are completely absent from the AAA’s scheme. And I’m talking about marketing which would be potentially beneficial to thinking about broad access outside of the tiny box of whether or not university libraries need to pay subscription fees.

To use an awkward analogy… If subscriptions to academic journals were following the same business model as cable or satellite TV providers, these “free access” periods would help convince individual readers of academic journals to subscribe to some kind of monthly plan. A few people who already have site licenses might even elect to subscribe to an individual plan if there’s an added value (say, relevant articles are “pushed” directly to the user when they become available, a step in convenience above the “alerts” some publishers send). But such a plan would be much more valuable to the large number of people who currently don’t have the privilege of having a full and active account in a large university’s library system. This group includes professional academics outside of the academic mainstream as well as non-academics who can greatly benefit from access to academic literature. My hunch is that the number of these non-academics who would like to engage in academic reading is currently growing, partly because of the growing number of university degrees awarded around the world. But even if that number remains stable, this market is currently untapped.
(These kinds of library privileges are really nothing to sneeze at. I’ve heard people use them as one of the most important things to come with a university position. At the same degree of importance if not more than office space. And I find little reason for these privileges to be the prerogative of professional academics at large institutions.)

Of course, I’d much rather have full OA than a “cable TV plan for academia.” But, in a skewed way, the “cable TV” model is closer to true OA spirit than the AAA’s scheme.
Full OA remains a dream but I personally think that this dream can come true during my lifetime (I’m still young). In some contexts, full OA could take the form of publicly-funded access. Something similar to this neat invention that people in the United States call “the public library.” In other contexts, the better-known OA plans (including author-paid) may sound more convincing to people (less “socializing” than the public library concept). And I’m sure some people could devise other schemes which would alleviate access problems to academic texts while maintaining financial viability for at least some of the institutions involved (institutions which, it should be noted, provide very little if any money for such essential academic activities as scholarship and teaching).

So, I perceive those time-limited “free access” offers as an opportunity to get people thinking about OA. And I can’t help but think that the AAA’s press release is more about ending than about opening the discussion on access.
As others have pointed out, these same articles (and a lot more AAA content) are already available on JSTOR.  Now, JSTOR doesn’t have a “send PDF to a friend” button. Nor does it have a specific statement making it clear sending those article files to other people can be perfectly legitimate. (They do talk about U.S. fair use in their Terms and Conditions text but legalese is a bit hard to read for non-native speakers of the legal language). Still, if you think about access in broad terms, JSTOR in general is “accessible” enough that, given a JSTOR-subscribing institution nearby (and African universities have had sponsored licenses), someone could say that the level of access afforded these articles is already pretty decent.
The added benefit of the AAA’s scheme over the current availability on JSTOR (and elsewhere) will need to be assessed carefully. Given the age of these texts, the plan will probably have very limited impact on how frequently these articles are cited (an important OA benefit). Because AnthroSource is AAA-specific, the plan will likely have very limited impact on the visibility of the discipline (another OA benefit). Because of the way AnthroSource is set up, the plan will likely have limited impact in terms of convenience (a minor OA benefit which shouldn’t be forgotten). Unless Google Scholar changes the way it links to those articles, the AAA’s “OA” articles might not be that much easier to find than the other articles. Because only a very limited portion of AAA publications will be covered by the plan, it will probably be confusing to the casual user (“Is it American Ethnologist which is available free of charge? What years, again?”).

Basically, the “OA” plan might only be noticeable to professional academic anthropologists, most of whom already have full AnthroSource access. As we say in French, «un coup d’épée dans l’eau».

So, sorry, but I have no idea why this scheme would be a step in the direction of improved access to anthropological scholarship. My mind can be changed, with thoughtful arguments. It’s just that don’t “get” it at this point.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

2 responses to “Inaccessible American Anthropology

  • enkerli

    @Max
    I know how you feel. In my case, I guess the summary is: why is it that the AAA is going its own way? Isn’t our discipline supposed to be at the forefront of pushing widespread access, across disciplines and regions?

  • Maximilian Forte

    I agree, it’s not a brilliant plan. I was struck by the fact that Anthropology News — a newsletter at that — was so locked down that even institutional subscribers were not allowed access to the most current issues, a form of closed-closed access at its worst. NOBODY, EVER, writes in a newsletter to see their tiny articles unnecessarily limited in distribution, there would just be little point left in writing for a newsletter. And to think of how the AAA blows its trumpet over this small gesture.

    Anyway, this is a system maintained by American anthropologists for the most part. They tend to spend more time complaining about what the high and mighty do, and no time in developing alternatives of their own. My philosophy is that you don’t depend on others to do what you want for you, and that you create your own opportunities.

    The AAA doesn’t go open access all the way because of the leadership’s own ideological and economic agenda.

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