Open Access, Open Minds

From the Studio: Publishing Infrastructure

Photo by Anand Pandian.

There’s a couplet in the Tirukkural, the sixth-century Tamil ethical treatise from south India, which speaks beautifully to the philosophy of giving. Kaimaaru ventaa katapaatu maarimaat / tennaarrung kolloo ulaku. “Deeds of duty need no return. What does the world give in exchange for rain?”

These words might at first seem to put forward the idea of a pure or free gift, one made without any expectation of return, an idea that a century of anthropology has taught us to question. But this is more than an allegory for the little domain of human transactions. There is also a vision here of a greater world and its nature, the idea of a fundamental openness, imbalance, or excess to things, the idea that nature itself defies our all-too-human pretensions of equivalent exchange. Things of enormous and essential value do rain freely, at least at times. What would it mean to attune ourselves to this reality, to live and think and write and converse with such possibilities in mind? What would it mean to meet such a world with requisite generosity?

The first article I wrote about the Tirukkural was for an anthropology journal locked in, like almost all of the journals published by the American Anthropological Association, to a multiyear contract with the multibillion-dollar global publishing concern John Wiley and Sons, which reported a gross profit margin of 70.30 percent in 2017. If I try to access that 2008 article without going through my university library system, as nearly everyone in south India and most anywhere else would have to do, I encounter a window offering me three ways to purchase “instant access” to this learning: $6 for forty-eight hours, $15 to read online, $38 for a PDF.

The book, mind you, the project from which this small article was drawn, is available from a university press for $27.95. These are the circumstances of academic writing in anthropology now. Publishing your research in a handful of peer-reviewed academic journals is presented as the linchpin of a successful apprenticeship in the discipline. And yet what this means in practice is that the digests of research we work on most carefully are hardly available to anyone beyond a privileged circle.

This is why the open-access experiments pursued by HAU, Cultural Anthropology, Suomen Antropologi, Medicine Anthropology Theory, and a growing number of other journals in the field—most especially in the global South—are so crucial. As one prestigious venture of this kind falls deeper into a spiraling scandal that raises fundamental questions about how things are done in the profession, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask what this crisis means for open-access publishing in anthropology. Some have asked whether this means the end of open access. But we might just as well flip this forecast on its head. Could this instead be the beginning of an even more radical series of experiments in how open anthropological writing could become?

The paywall is invidious, yes. But there are other walls that have also come into focus in recent days. Walls that shield those securely employed and exalted in anthropology from the acute concerns of those in more precarious positions. Walls that credit the field’s white forefathers with its most essential lessons, while relegating others to the status of native informants, loyal wives, helpful assistants, or grateful descendants. Walls that distinguish properly deferential and manifestly scholarly writing from forms of expression deemed too intimate, too vulnerable, too personal, too conversational, too passionate to count as serious scholarship. Walls that celebrate the glories of the master’s house. Walls that extol good theories at the expense of good stories. The moment in fact is long overdue, the reckoning with all these walls built beside and on top of each other.

Many of the most vocal and courageous voices in the Twitter channel #hautalk are graduate students and young anthropologists without stable jobs, who cannot take for granted that they will one day claim a place of their own within the secure confines of anthropology’s walls. Many of them will have to make their living as anthropologists by conversing with, and writing for, publics profoundly different from—and more diverse than—the sphere of academic anthropology. Open and accessible writing, in other words, will be for many of them a pragmatic imperative rather than a matter of personal predilection. These circumstances and their pressures come ever more sharply into focus. How will the discipline—its leaders, seniors, and elites—respond? What if we tried for a moment to imagine what a truly open anthropology might be?

We tend to think more about the “access” in open access than its openness: the question, that is, of what you have the right to see, given the details of your scholarly position or official affiliation, rather than the spirit of inquiry and dialogue that can make such access possible. But openness, in a deep and profound sense, is essential to the pursuit of anthropology. Think of what Eric Wolf (1964, 90) said some decades ago about the “open mind” that the discipline demands: “We require minds that can make the most of the experience of the unfamiliar . . . to repattern their habitual neural pathways.” Every anthropologist knows this necessity from fieldwork, but can this disposition extend beyond that phase into the space of writing and publication?

Think of open access as something more than a possible condition of knowledge in anthropology. Think of it as a possible quality of its knower.

So much seems to turn on the ethical capacity for openness that we might cultivate, as we learn to attend and respond with care and concern to whatever happens in the world we engage, even in the face of its foreign and unexpected nature. Donna Haraway (2016, 98) writes that “the decisions and transformations so urgent in our times for learning again, or for the first time, how to become less deadly, more response-able, more attuned, more capable of surprise must be made without guarantees or the expectation of harmony with those who are not oneself—and not safely other, either.” Openness of this kind is an ethical orientation rather than the terms of a contract. There’s little choice here but to keep stumbling upon better ways of thinking along with others, being surprised by what happens in that effort, folding the lessons of that surprise back into the current of thought.

Open access to anthropological knowledge can be underwritten by formal agreements, yes. But it has to be sustained as well by an ethics of collaborative thinking, learning, writing, conversing. It demands humility. And there should be no shame in this, at the very least for anthropologists, for originality in our thinking is never individual, always collective. Whether or not they like to admit it, Zoe Todd (2016, 13) has observed as “an Indigenous person infiltrating the British academy,” anthropologists owe many crucial insights to local, often indigenous interlocutors and to the relationships struck up with them. “Our stories, our laws, our philosophies,” Todd (2016, 17) writes, “are used by European scholars without explicit credit to the political, legal, social, and cultural (and colonial!) contexts these stories are formulated and shared within.” Open access to whoseknowledge, one has to ask.

Say, however, that we were willing to confront this responsibility head on. Could an ethics of openness help with the necessary task of decolonizing anthropology, a field still anchored in the legacies and inheritances of colonial exploitation? One important way to do this would be to acknowledge that relational ontologies are more than objects of particular interest in our contemporary discussions: they are the very means by which our own knowledge is generated and structured, the form in which it moves. If we admit that nothing in anthropology arises from the genius of an individual mind, that a journal itself is a collective mind, then we might begin to see how the richness of the discipline’s ideas depends on the degree of its openness, the depth and diversity of the relationships it builds and the connections it sustains. This awareness might encourage us to regard that web of connections with greater respect and care, as the foundation of a possible community of knowing.

Open access needs open minds, minds open to being remade by the unexpected, minds open to the worldly relationships that can convey its force and significance. Our professional lives and publishing infrastructures, however, are organized in ways that dampen and inhibit such openness, that force harsh choices between the stated demands of an anthropological career and the values that motivate its pursuit. “These words were never supposed to be stuck behind a paywall,” Nina Brown, Marcel LaFlamme, and Sarah Lyon (2018, 44) write at the outset of a recent chronicle of their ill-fated effort to make the Anthropology of Work Review an open-access publication. “Looking back,” they reflect, “we see inflexibility, incuriosity, and a desire for absolute control over published content on the part of our parent organization as the chief causes of [the journal]’s stymied open-access transition” (Brown, LaFlamme, and Lyon 2018, 46–47).

These scholars also ask whether an attachment to revenue—the expectation of returns—might itself be part of the problem. “Could we as an association live with less?” they wonder. “Might letting go of our preoccupation with more lay the groundwork for modest, collaborative modes of living in common?” (Brown, LaFlamme, and Lyon 2018, 47). I too am writing, I know, in highly aspirational terms, and I don’t mean to pretend that the financial side of things isn’t real. Bills have to be paid, labor compensated as fairly and generously as possible, and at the most basic level, open-access publishing confounds these necessities by giving away its goods for free. Creative vision for a more open mode of gathering and sharing knowledge is one thing. Ensuring that this is sustainable in financial terms is another.

Since joining the executive board of the Society for Cultural Anthropology in 2015, I’ve had many chances to talk through these concerns with regard to the SCA’s own venture in open-access publishing, Cultural Anthropology. The sustainability of the enterprise has been a perennial concern. One essential lesson from these discussions is that it is difficult for individual journals and scholarly societies to go it alone and make it work on sovereign terms. It takes, instead, a willingness to imagine one’s own endeavor in relation to a larger ecology of knowledge, working together with other journals, libraries, universities, and scholarly networks. Such collaborative efforts are underway, spanning many continents, institutions, individuals. An open and relational collective mind, once again.

Meanwhile, it’s been eye-opening to see the kind of reach that open-access publishing can make possible. In 2017, for the first time, the Cultural Anthropology website recorded over one million unique pageviews. Of that number, 127,935 were full-text articles published by the journal. This figure was exceeded by a factor of three, however, by the Fieldsights posts also written for and published by the SCA, with 469,319 unique pageviews. This is worth mentioning because of the style and voice in which these posts are typically written: more informal, more conversational, more attuned to the likely concerns of potential readers, whether as Hot Spots focused on contemporary public flashpoints or dialogues on teaching, labor, and other disciplinary preoccupations. More than 400,000 different people visited the website last year, a figure that includes 16,000 from India, 9,000 from the Philippines, 5,000 from Brazil. These are countries that do not qualify for philanthropic forms of access, and no doubt many of these readers work outside of institutions that can afford the sticker price for the Wiley anthropology portfolio.

Much remains to be done in extending the reach of such publishing efforts in the global South, and beyond the academy in the global North. Every open-access venture, including Cultural Anthropology, can do better to cultivate broader readerships and constituencies for its work. This again, however, will take more than simply lowering a paywall, for all of those other walls remain in place. The ultimate success of open-access publishing will depend on the extent to which wider reading publics find that access valuable and meaningful. As writers, we all have to work to make our writing itself more accessible, less arcane, more responsive to the circumstances in which diverse people live and the language in which they make sense of those conditions. And, as stewards of such writing—whether as members of societies or of institutions that house these writers—we have to ensure that such efforts get their due, that scholarly gravity is never opposed to writerly accessibility.

Take a moment, if you haven’t already, to glance at what’s been happening on #AnthroTwitter. As a novice tweeter, I can attest sincerely to the difficulty of saying something worth saying in 280 characters, including spaces. All the same, if there’s one place I would identify as most vibrant when it comes to the spirit of open access I’ve tried to conjure here, it would have to be that platform. Many people—especially younger folks, women, people of color—have been writing here with fearless candor, cobbling together a collaborative understanding of subterranean dynamics in the field at a fraught moment when many of its most respected senior voices seem conspicuously silent to them. It isn’t always pretty, what you find on Twitter, and the leap to indignation may come too quickly. All the same, what is said here is often bracing, moving, hilarious, enraging, and all of these affects matter as they animate and enliven these analyses. They are means of connection and motivation. They work as connective tissue in a relational and emergent ecology of knowledge, an open structure of mind. Is this the kind of thinking you like? If not, try turning it in some other direction.

Open access to what, we still need to ask. The promise of an open and accessible anthropology lies in further circulating objects of knowledge, but also in propagating more radical techniques of knowing otherwise. At stake with such accessibility is a cultivation of mind open to affecting and being affected, open to all the vicissitudes and uncertainties of that interplay. What we need, in other words, is access to the transformative force of meaningful relationships with others unlike ourselves. Can the journals of our scientific societies become more effective spaces to nurture and channel such force? Everything turns on the extent to which they can welcome feelings of candor, humor, vulnerability, and care, the spirits that animate the most moving encounters in anthropology.

“The discipline is tinged from the root by the subjunctive mood,” Michael Carrithers (2005, 434) has observed of anthropology, propelled by the ineluctable sense that “anyone could have been someone else.” I would like to think of this moment of grave disquiet as a chance to recast our sails with this horizon in mind. This is a time for genuine imagination and self-examination. For this possibility of becoming otherwise is the most serious and generous gift that anthropology has to offer, a gift that we can learn to extend more sincerely and wholeheartedly through more inventive and experimental acts of writing and publication.

What is at stake now is much more than the fate of one particular venture in open-access publishing. We have been graced by many such efforts, and we will assuredly meet with many more, all of which we ought to meet with gratitude. The question most crucial to confront now is what they imply for the form and consequence of public expression in anthropology. Anthropological knowledge will become truly open-access when it signals its willingness to open itself, out into the wonder and frailty of human being.


Brown, Nina, Marcel LaFlamme, and Sarah Lyon. 2018. “What Happened, or, Impasses and Future Horizons for an Open Anthropology of Work.” Anthropology of Work Review39, no. 1: 44–47.

Carrithers, Michael. 2005. “Anthropology as a Moral Science of Possibilities.” Current Anthropology 46, no. 3: 433–56.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Todd, Zoe. 2016. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology 29, no. 1: 4–22.

Wolf, Eric R. 1964. Anthropology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.