Publishing Otherwise

Earlier this summer, the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) announced my appointment as the next managing editor of Cultural Anthropology. As an anthropologist and an information professional, I’m honored to step into this position and to follow in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessors, Ali Kenner and Tim Elfenbein. My first issue as managing editor will be published in August, but for now, I wanted to introduce myself and to lay out some of my objectives for the months ahead.

The year after I graduated from college, a travel fellowship took me to the island nation of Mauritius, where I had set up an internship at the national research council. One of the tasks I was given was to work on the literature review for a study on the restructuring of the Mauritian textile industry, which had been thrown into disarray by the expiration of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement in 2005. Eager to show off my research skills, I asked my supervisor how to access the relevant scholarly databases. “We can’t afford subscriptions to those,” he told me. “Just read as many abstracts as you can, and cite the ones that look the most promising.”

This response, which scandalized me at the time, stayed with me when I returned to the United States and enrolled in a master’s program in library and information science. How, I began to wonder, does unequal access to information constrain the forms that research, teaching, and advocacy can take? And what, if anything, might be done about it? These questions followed me to rural southeast Kansas, where I accepted a position as director of library services at a small community college. Rural community colleges have been called the land-grant institutions of this century for their commitment to extending college access and fostering community development. Just as in Mauritius, though, I was struck by the mismatch between the charge that colleges like ours had been given and the resources that we actually had at our disposal.

Running a library on a shoestring budget, I learned a lot about building partnerships: with local businesses, with other colleges and universities, and with state government. Our campus relied heavily on the State Library of Kansas for access to electronic resources that we never could have afforded on our own. In fact, the State Library estimates that consortial purchasing saves Kansas libraries more than $50 million a year when compared with the cost of individual subscriptions. Consortial purchasing isn’t enough to offset the soaring cost of journals, especially at a moment when publishers are still requiring libraries to sign nondisclosure agreements about institutional pricing. But seeing how a broad base of support could expand access for small libraries like mine convinced me that, together, we can accomplish more than we can alone.

Today, Cultural Anthropology needs to broaden its own base of support. We’re proud of our decision to reinvent ourselves as an open-access publication, and we’ve now published six terrific issues that can be freely read and downloaded all over the world. But our transition to open access must be regarded as incomplete, because we have not yet identified a revenue model that will allow us to sustain our operations into the future. Our editors, both current and former, and our tireless board are working to do just that, cultivating relationships with potential partners both within anthropology and beyond. In my new role as managing editor, though, I want to make an explicit appeal to my fellow librarians: will you think with us, as a journal and as a discipline, about how to make open access a sustainable reality? I have already reached out to my colleagues in the Anthropology and Sociology Section of the Association of College & Research Libraries, and I look forward to a robust, pragmatic dialogue about the path ahead.

Here’s a preview of some of the other initiatives that are in the works for the coming year:

1. Making journal content going back to 2004 available on our website. Instead of manually entering or correcting the metadata for all of the back issues, we’re working on a way to create the issue records en masse using metadata supplied to us by Wiley. As with any economy of scale, the wager is that our up-front investment of time and energy will pay off in terms of the editorial labor saved.

2. Distinguishing more clearly between journal articles and other content published to the Cultural Anthropology website. Series like Hot Spots and Theorizing the Contemporary showcase the intellectual dynamism of the SCA and surface conversations that are moving too quickly for the production cycle of a journal. At the same time, we need to provide greater transparency about the different types of review that the content we publish undergoes, as well as the different levels of commitment that we can make to that content in terms of indexing, preservation, and other publishing functions.

3. Building out the technical capacity for new features envisioned by our editors, even as we start to wind down previous experiments. Cultural Anthropology’s willingness to say yes to new things has always been one of its hallmarks, but as individuals behind particular projects move on to other endeavors, we need to develop mechanisms for deciding when a project has run its course. Retiring selected content from the website, while making sure that a record of it remains, is how we make room for what’s next.

The challenges facing the SCA as a publishing organization are considerable, and there comes a time when the political and moral case for open access must give way to concrete plans for accomplishing it. Yet I also remain inspired by Elizabeth Povinelli’s (2011, 2012) investigations into the otherwise as a locus of possibility. It is, we must remind ourselves, possible to publish otherwise. It falls to us to discover and to teach each other how. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at marcel@culanth.org or on Twitter at @spinsterofutica if you have questions, comments, or concerns about the work we are doing here at Cultural Anthropology. I look forward to hearing from you.

References

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. “Routes/Worlds.” e-flux, no. 27.

_____. 2012. “After the Last Man: Images and Ethics of Becoming Otherwise.” e-flux, no. 35.