Open Access: A Collective Ecology for AAA Publishing in the Digital Age

Just over a year ago Cultural Anthropology went Open Access. It has been an exhilarating experience, which has seen the journal engage new publics and conversations as well as explore new intellectual and editorial possibilities. For those involved in the running of the journal, it has also demanded a steep learning curve. We, as members of the board of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, thought it would be a good idea to put some of these lessons down in writing while responding to a recent memorandum (5/4/15) to section presidents, journal editors, and section treasurers, which recapitulated the AAA’ history of scholarly publishing. As we write, Michael Chibnik (the editor-in-chief of AA), has published an editorial expressing his hesitation about an open-access solution for American Anthropologist.1 We take this opportunity to reply to Chibnik’s text too.

We offer here three brief reflections on why our experience with Cultural Anthropology has reassured us that Open Access is the future of scholarly publishing. First, we draw attention to the fact that Open Access offers perhaps the most robust model for managing the AAA journals’ portfolio in accordance with its history of collective responsibility. Second, we offer some insights into the changing landscape of scholarly publishing in the digital age. Last, we remind readers that Open Access is, perhaps above all other things, a moral and political decision.

AAA’s History of Collective Publishing

We were prompted to write when we found out that, to our surprise and concern, the memorandum made no mention at all of Open Access in general, nor of Cultural Anthropology’s decision to no longer work with Wiley-Blackwell and to publish independently and Open Access beginning in 2014. These elisions are concerning because they ignore Open Access as a viable option for the future development of AAA's collective portfolio. And yet we believe that a strong majority of AAA’s membership would prefer an Open Access portfolio were a sustainable model to be developed. Our experience at SCA suggests that sustainable OA models indeed exist and that they work best at larger publication scales (e.g. portfolios rather than individual journals). Writing an Open Access alternative out of the history and future of AAA’s publishing portfolio thus seems to us highly problematic, especially in the lead up to 2016 and the renegotiation (or we hope, cancellation) of the Wiley-Blackwell contract.

We would like to report that Cultural Anthropology’s short Open Access existence has been very successful. Without sacrificing the production quality or scholarly value of the journal, we have increased our content downloads, diversified our forms of content and expanded our international audience dramatically. We are currently working to develop a network of funding sources and partnerships to sustain CA as an OA publication for the indefinite future. As the only journal within the AAA portfolio whose content is freely available to anyone in the world, we believe we magnify and improve the presence of AAA globally. We also remain part of AnthroSource and add value to that collection. (CA has the highest impact factor of all AAA journals over the past five years, as measured by ISI Web of Knowledge’s JCR and Scimago’s SJR.)

The memorandum that drafts the history of AAA’s scholarly publishing emphasizes with good reason the crucial importance of upkeeping a collective identity and diversity for the association’s portfolio:

As an organization AAA must choose between a commercial model in which the survival of titles is exclusively a matter of finances, or a collective model in which the diversity of titles is maintained to enhance the scholarly exchange of ideas. AAA cannot pursue this latter strategy if individual interests overtake the collective. All signs indicate future challenges will be as large as those faced earlier. The Association’s ability to identify opportunities will continue to require collective and section creativity and voices but the means to respond to those possibilities will inevitably draw on collective resources and collective action.

Thus it is all the more curious that Open Access is erased from this discussion of future possibilities. It seems to us as though a partnership with a commercial publisher like Wiley-Blackwell is being advanced as the sole viable means through which to support the diversity of publications currently in the portfolio. We find this lack of inquiry into alternative publishing models disturbing. We wish to emphasize that CA’s shift to Open Access was not a shift undertaken to suit the interest of an individual society—indeed it has meant thus far a great deal of extra expense and labor for our members—but rather in the interest of our organization and discipline collectively, for reasons that we will explain in more detail.

Open Access as a Collective Ecology for the Digital Age

What it means to think collectively in terms of scholarly publishing has shifted both because of the takeover of many academic titles by commercial presses, by consolidation within commercial publishing itself and because of the new affordances of digital information and communication technology. At various points in the history of AAA publishing, the journal portfolio has been referred to as a “common property resource”. We agree that this is a very productive way to think of AAA’s publishing enterprise. But what is a “common property resource” in the digital era and what does it take to keep an anthropology publishing commons alive today?

Let us remind readers that the “commons” approach to managing the journals’ portfolio has paid off over the years. AAA is unique among scholarly societies in keeping ownership of its journals’ portfolio. Much to the regret (and shame) of social scientists and humanities scholars, ownership of some of the most prestigious journal titles in these fields has changed hands over the past thirty years and is now the property of the commercial publishing industry.

But if we once imagined the portfolio as a “common property resource” belonging only to AAA members, there is good reason to re-think and re-scope who belongs to our “community” in the digital age. For example, research libraries are active players of the new scholarly and publishing ecology in a number of ways:

  1. funding the acquisition and management of journal collections, often to their dismay given that they have had to face a 402% rise in serial expenditures since 19862;
  2. leading and paving the way towards the digitization of scholarship, building OA repositories, developing expertise on new systems of archiving, indexing, impact metrics, etc.;
  3. on occasion, taking further steps to becoming digital publishers in their own right;
  4. libraries continue to be largest market for the purchase of scholarly monographs, which, in our field, continue to be crucial for tenure and promotion.

For all these reasons, it is perhaps not surprising to find that research libraries are amongst the most vocal supporters of Open Access. Thus there is scope to think of research libraries as stakeholders in the emerging (OA) commons of journal publishing. And, in so far as other scholarly societies or journals are facing situations not unlike our own, we should also think of them as potential partners for an emerging commons. That some of the most exciting and innovative OA publishing projects in recent years—the University of California Press's Collabra, the Open Library of the Humanities or Knowledge Unlatched—have set out to work in partnership with a variety of stakeholders (libraries, editors, institutions) shows that it is time for us to rethink the troubling unilateralism of AAA’s contract with Wiley.

Working to develop an alternative ecology of OA scholarly publishing is by no means easy. But this does not mean we should therefore simply opt for an exit strategy and return to the default comfort of commercial exploitation. In some respects, the hegemony that commercial presses hold over our work in the US/UK academy is an exception in the world of scholarly publishing. Latin America boasts for instance what is perhaps the most successful transnational platform for OA digital publishing: SciELO, the Scientific Electronic Library Online. Launched in 1998, SciELO provides today a digital publishing platform for academic projects across sixteen countries. The project is participated by governments, universities, libraries, editors, and, yes, commercial publishers. It has come a long way to prove that a sustainable model for OA digital publishing requires, first and foremost, reimagining who and what academic “collectivity” is.

The lesson for us is clear: we must stop arguing for or against OA in terms of the difference it makes as a publishing rationale for this or that journal. There is more at stake than the long-term sustainability of any one individual publication. If there is one thing clear at this stage, it is that OA demands a collective and inventive redefinition of the ecology of scholarly publishing. The AAA's ownership of its journals' portfolio has no equal among scholarly societies in the humanities and social sciences. It offers a unique and privileged opportunity to redefine collectively the future of scholarly publishing.

The Moral and Political Economy of Open Access

We close with the reminder that AAA’s decision to work with a commercial publisher such as Wiley-Blackwell is not a neutral choice in the broader ecology of scholarly publishing. Wiley’s most recently quarterly reports show that the company earned $72.5 million, a 30% profit on revenue of $246.5 million. A recent 2014 analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes that “There is ample evidence that large publishers practice price discrimination and that they have been able to set prices well above average costs. In 2011, the journal-publishing divisions of Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley reported profits equal to 36%, 33.9%, and 42%, respectively, of their sales revenue.”3 Exxon Mobil, comparatively, has a net profit margin of 7.31%, Rio Tinto’s is 13.69%, even JPMorgan Chase can only claim 24.57%. Volunteered academic labor, it turns out, is a far more lucrative platform for profit accumulation than fossil fuels, mineral resources, and international finance.

Working with commercial publishers has always been a bad deal for scholars, the libraries that serve them, and the institutions of higher education that support libraries. In their recent White Paper on sustainable publishing for the humanities and social sciences, Rebecca Kennison and Lisa Norberg state this succinctly: “Academic institutions pay the lion’s share of the cost of funding the current scholarly communication system. These institutions pay approximately 53% of the global publishing and distribution costs in the form of library subscriptions. They contribute another 29% in the form of the labor provided by researchers without remuneration from the publishers (e.g. peer review, voluntary editorships), and often institutions pick up the tab for the roughly 2% of “author-side” payments.”4

That volunteered labor is monetized via Wiley’s paywalls and sold to libraries at rates that guarantee the publisher’s massive profits but that meanwhile are essentially forcing libraries to starve other services, not least of which are the purchase of monographs, which in turn is spreading the crisis to academic presses. Now, commercial publishers like Wiley are developing their own hybrid Open Access schemes as a way of further extracting money from universities and research funding organizations for the privilege of making our volunteered labor freely available.

Whatever marginal value commercial publishers offer in assembling resources like AnthroSource is hardly significant as compared with their generally negative ecological impact. If AAA leadership really believes it is in the “collective” interest to maintain a relationship with Wiley-Blackwell, then it is perhaps time to call for a deep reflection about the notion of collectivity at stake. The relationship of large-scale commercial publishers to the ecology of scholarly knowledge is a highly disruptive one and we feel that all the AAA’s sections should urge AAA leadership to only accept bids in 2016 from non-profit publishers and meanwhile commit the organization collectively to helping develop a genuine Open Access model for anthropological publishing.

As Kim and Mike Fortun, previous editors of Cultural Anthropology, put it quite elegantly, “open access is necessary to fulfill the scholarly and ethical commitments of anthropologists. Whatever the "value added" to a journal article by any commercial publishing partner, it is a pale shadow of the base value provided freely by passionate authors, generous reviewers, and committed editors. This core strength of the system is astounding, and astoundingly important, and should never be minimized or dismissed. This is our work, made from and with our interlocutors and colleagues, and we insist that it be available to anyone who wants to read it.”5

We agree that, in the long term, making the fruits of our research freely available to all of the communities and individuals with whom we work is the only publication model that truly corresponds to the ethics of our discipline. We thus hope that other AAA sections and their memberships will join SCA in advocating vigorously that Open Access be put back on the table in discussion of the future of AAA’s publishing portfolio.


1. Chibnik, Michael. 2015. "From the Editor: Open Access." American Anthropologist 117, no. 2: 225–28.

2. Association of Research Libraries. 2012. "Association of Research Libraries Statistics, 1986–2011." Graph from ARL Statistics 2011–11. Washington, DC.

3. Bergstrom, Theodore C., Paul N. Courant, Preston McAfee, R. and Michael A. Williams. 2014. "Evaluating Big Deal Journal Bundles." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 26: 9425–30, p. 9428.

4. Kennison, Rebecca and Lisa Norberg. 2014. "A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access Publishing and Archiving for Humanities and Social Sciences: A White Paper." K|N Consultants, pp. 8–9.

5. Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun. 2012. "Liberating Cultural Anthropology? A Thought Experiment." Anthropologies, no. 12.


This post was originally published in the Commentary section of the Cultural Anthropology website, which was retired in June 2016. All Commentary posts were reclassified under the new Dispatches section; their URLs remain unchanged.