Why An Open-Access Publishing Cooperative Can Work: A Proposal for the AAA’s Journal Portfolio

From the Series: Open Access

Photo by geralt.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has recently announced that it will soon issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to invite potential publishers to bid for the business of managing the association’s publishing program (Schmid 2015). The new contract will begin on January 1, 2018 and will likely run for the next ten years. Because the AAA is the world’s largest publisher of anthropology titles (twenty-one journals and Anthropology News), this new publishing contract will shape the discipline’s public image and scholarly communications for years to come. At this critical juncture we must ask: Will AAA publications spend yet another decade locked within a publisher website where only research libraries can afford to purchase them? Or can our scholarly work join the growing body of research that is publicly available and accessible as a public good? In this piece we propose a concrete, practical, and financially sustainable way that the AAA can make its publishing program open-access: a cooperative model of scholarly publishing. This tailor-made design will cost the AAA nothing, while giving the organization a chance to be at the forefront of global innovation in scholarly communication. We urge the AAA to take our proposal seriously as it thinks about the future of its publishing program.

Our proposal draws on the expertise of two of the world’s most reputed open-access advocacy organizations: the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and the Public Knowledge Project (PKP). Both organizations have agreed to commit time, money, and resources to help the AAA transition toward an open-access publishing ecology: SPARC is willing to carry out a financial and data analysis of the AAA’s publishing program at no expense to the association, while PKP is willing to design a web tool to model the AAA’s new multi-stakeholder ecology of open-access publishing. The specifics of PKP and SPARC’s proposals will be sent directly to the AAA, since some of the financial information is sensitive. Here, we would like to discuss the general model that we are suggesting.

Cooperative Publishing: The Ethical, Feasible Model for Digital Scholarly Communication

When the AAA’s RFP comes out, it will ask its prospective partners to undertake more than just submissions, copyediting, and typesetting. In our digital age, archiving, citation tracking, and social media promotion are also part of the process of scholarly communication. Because a new digital publishing medium has taken hold, the AAA has new opportunities to promote access and share content, as well as new technologies to keep track of how content circulates, how it is read and cited, and how it contributes to ongoing conversations and public discussions.

Our cooperative model for scholarly publishing is designed for this new world. Designed with the AAA’s publishing and organizational requirements in mind, it also seeks to build a robust and sustainable multi-stakeholder ecology of open-access scholarly communications involving libraries, funding agencies, and infrastructure providers.

This model is also deeply attuned to our scholarly values because it is collaborative, communal, and cooperative. There is no reason this spirit should only prevail in libraries, laboratories, and research sites; it can and should be central to scholarly publishing as well. We have known for some time that open access is hardly sustainable when based solely on an individual journal project (see Waltham 2010). Therefore, this new openness will need to build on the collective and collaborative spirit of scholarly communication.

There is proof that this model can work. Some of the most exciting and innovative developments in the publishing world reflect the spread of this spirit to scholarly communication: HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory and HAU Books, the University of California Press’s Collabra, the Open Library of Humanities, Knowledge Unlatched, and the Public Knowledge Project have all set out to work in cooperative partnership with a variety of stakeholders (libraries, editors, funding agencies, and universities). These projects have demonstrated that it is possible to overcome the wall between commercial presses and learned societies/journals, between research as a private asset and a public good, that has existed since the mid-twentieth century.

This model builds on the ongoing work of two recent data-gathering initiatives and modeling exercises that have anthropology at their center:

  1. Libraria is a partnership of anthropology and science studies learned societies and journals which have united, along with PKP and SPARC, to explore cooperative alternatives for scholarly publishing. To date, its members include the Wenner-Gren Foundation (which publishes Current Anthropology), the European Association of Social Anthropologists (Social Anthropology), the Society for Cultural Anthropology (Cultural Anthropology), the Society for Social Studies of Science (Science, Technology and Human Values), the Society for Ethnographic Theory (Hau and Hau Books), Anthropological Forum, Limn, Valuation Studies, and Critique of Anthropology.
  2. The Public Knowledge Project’s Open Access Publishing Cooperative Study, which is funded by the MacArthur Foundation (2015–17), seeks to assess the benefits and risks, the feasibility and viability, of setting up a multi-stakeholder cooperative association for scholarly publishing among journals, societies, libraries, and funders. Can a self-governing co-op established among stakeholders, the study asks, enable a move from a subscription-driven market for closed publications (on the order of $10–12 billion) to a collaborative allocation of the same funding for publishing and other expenses related to operating a commons committed to improving research quality and access? The study’s approach is to gather data, hold consultations, develop tools and platforms, and conduct co-op pilots with groups such as Libraria.

In sum, what we need now is a model for reorganizing the economy and governance of scholarly publishing, a model with open-access values at its core, characterized by a concern for greater equality, accountability, and global participation in this access across the disciplines. To that end, over the past year we have been engaged in the collaborative study and development of an alternative cooperative model for open-access publishing. In this model, learned societies, journals, libraries, and funding agencies come together to design a sustainable open-access infrastructure for a number of journals in anthropology and related fields.

Why an Open-Access Publishing Cooperative is a Good Idea for the AAA and Other Stakeholders

What, concretely, would an AAA publishing cooperative look like? In practice, the AAA would explore a multistakeholder cooperative association with library consortia and, possibly, associated funding bodies, as well as Libraria, in order to publish its journals on an open access basis. The cooperative will be viable financially, because it will be able to attract a sufficient number of partners to maintain the same or higher levels of professional publishing than it currently enjoys.

The journals and societies will keep their identities and build their readerships through the open-access cooperative. Because they will be using the latest open-source software platforms and technical developments (such as article-level metrics and common reviewer databases), their content will be widely available and will yield greater understanding of who is reading their work. Libraries will benefit because they will be able to escape the inflationary spiral of subscription fees.1 There are already many examples of libraries that have made this move: the successful pilot of Knowledge Unlatched, as well as the hundreds of libraries that are currently hosting online open-access journals at no charge (e.g., the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Alberta). Research into the economics of publishing confirms that scalable and sustainable open-access alternatives to commercial publishing are feasible.2

The cooperative model can offer universities, libraries, and scholars the same value for less money than a for-profit solution, because the cooperative does not need to siphon off money into corporate profits. Theodore Bergstrom et al. (2014, 9428) found that “in 2011, the journal-publishing divisions of Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley [the current AAA publishing partner] reported profits equal to 36%, 33.9%, and 42%, respectively, of their sales revenue.”3 They conclude that “there is ample evidence that large publishers practice price discrimination and that they have been able to set prices well above average costs.” Instead of reaping profits based on price discrimination, the co-op will reinvest its returns in more advanced publishing systems, new journals, and society-directed training in new methods. The co-op can also offer new levels of transparency because it is committed to openness, which means that it will be able to build trust with both academia and the public.

The cooperative model can also transition the AAA from a subscription model to an open-access model. A recent white paper by the Max Planck Digital Library makes it clear that there is sufficient funding being spent on scholarly publishing to pay for open access. The white paper concludes that “under the current subscription system, a figure between EUR 3,800 and 5,000 is already being paid per research article through library subscription spending” (Schimmer, Geschuhn, and Vogler 2015, 5). On the other hand, “all the available evidence . . . predicted [a per-article cost] of well below EUR 2,000 in a purely open access scenario” (Schimmer, Geschuhn, and Vogler 2015, 7). This gap makes clear that libraries are shouldering the cost of publishing, while commercial presses are reaping the profits. Not surprisingly, the white paper concludes by pointing out that there is lots of space for a coordinated effort to more efficiently allocate library budgets. As the authors put it, “the time is ripe for the global research community to accelerate the transition to open access” (Schimmer, Geschuhn, and Vogler 2015, 11).

A Financial and Business Model for an Open-Access Cooperative

We now wish to offer a thought experiment, based on real pricing data that we have been able to obtain, which outlines the scope of the business and financial margins that are in fact available to open-access initiatives for modeling and developing their own projects.4 Our thought experiment is not intended to describe a working model for the AAA, but to illustrate the type of multistakeholder alliances and cooperative structures that are viable today.5

Journal Production Costs

We know that university presses (e.g., Chicago, Duke) charge standard costs for open-access publishing services that are on the order of $85,000 for one journal, at 667 pages per year.

Let’s say we are only talking about one journal, an imaginary Journal of Contemporary Anthropology (JCA), which publishes four issues per year at about 167 pages per issue. Each issue consists of approximately ten research articles at seventeen pages each, for a total of forty articles per year. Each JCA article would then cost $2,125 to publish open-access ($85,000, divided by forty articles).

These figures accord with the findings of the Max Planck Digital Library white paper, which notes that “all the available evidence that has been published or discussed in various reports points consistently to a predicted [per-article cost] of well below EUR 2,000 in a purely open access scenario” (Schimmer, Geschuhn, and Vogler 2015, 7).

Library Acquisition Funds

Let’s say, drawing on the white paper, that libraries are collectively paying €3,800 ($4,290) per anthropological research article through subscription spending. In the case of the JCA, which publishes forty articles per year, this would amount to $171,600 per volume. This is the total cost that a commercial publisher would seek to recover from libraries’ subscription fees.

Please note that these are just subscription costs for a restricted-access journal: if the JCA were to be made open-access via the model preferred by commercial publishers, universities would additionally have to pay author processing charges (APCs) if they wished for their faculty’s publications to be ungated.

Difference between Open-Access Publication and Library Acquisitions

It is already clear that there is a substantial gap between what it would cost for a university press to produce a journal like the JCA on an open-access model ($85,000) and what it would cost libraries tied to a subscription model to purchase restricted access to the same journal ($171,600).

Now, let’s scale up our model to a portfolio of journals including the twenty-two AAA journals (inclusive of Anthropology News), as well as the eight journals currently represented in Libraria. Working with a university press, it would cost $2,550,000 to publish this portfolio of thirty journals on an open-access model. Comparatively, we know from the data in the Max Planck Digital Library white paper that library subscription fees would amount to $5,148,000 for the same portfolio under the conventional model.

A Cooperative Model

Thus far, we have been working with the standard open-access publishing costs for a university press. However, we know that a cooperative structure would be in a position to pool resources, labor, infrastructures, and technologies in a digital environment.

Ubiquity Press, for example, which runs the publishing platform of the Open Library of Humanities, has author processing charges of only $500, roughly one-quarter of the university press rate. But let’s keep our assumptions conservative and say that the co-op would be in a position to sustain the cost of open-access publishing at $60,000 per journal per year. That would amount to $1,800,000 for the whole portfolio of thirty journals. (Reminder: libraries would be spending a total of $5,148,000 on subscription fees for a similar portfolio.)

Revenue for Learned Societies

We are further aware that commercial presses such as Wiley-Blackwell guarantee a stream of revenue for learned societies such as the AAA. These figures are not publicly available, but let us suppose that the AAA is currently getting $500,000 per year from Wiley, which it uses to provide vital services to develop the profession and its scholarship.

Since the cooperative’s portfolio would not just include the AAA, we should again be conservative and set aside $1,000,000 per year for general governance costs. Therefore, the total operational costs of the cooperative (publishing plus governance) would amount to $2,800,000, still far less than the $5,148,000 that the conventional model costs.

The surprising conclusion is that the cooperative model could provide a larger margin of revenues for learned societies, while making scholarly communication fully open-access.

Library Partnership Subsidies

Since libraries would join the cooperative as partners, we would be asking a consortium of libraries to use their acquisition funds to support the infrastructure of the co-op, rather than simply purchasing journals. Here, we follow well-established models such as those of the Open Library of Humanities or SCOAP3.6

Let us say that we managed to get four hundred libraries worldwide to join the cooperative, again a quite conservative estimate. The total cost of $2,800,000 divided by four hundred libraries would equal $7,000 per library subsidy. Libraries would each have to contribute $7,000 to the cooperative on an annual basis. This would break down to $234 per title, or approximately $5.80 per article.

For $5.80 per article, libraries would be able to liberate scholarly communications in anthropology. And it would make very good financial sense for libraries, given that article processing charges at publishers like Wiley-Blackwell run as high as $3,000 for a faculty members or graduate student to publish a single open-access article.

What Should Happen Next?

The AAA is in a position to lead in the transition from the closed world of exclusive subscription access to a far more open world of access to anthropological research and scholarship. The organization could not only advance a global intellectual commons through its participation in a cooperative association dedicated to the financing and governance of that commons, but it also has the means of studying the processes and forms that this development is taking on many fronts. The AAA’s Request for Proposals offers us all the opportunity to consider whether there is not a better model for sharing the work that engages us in the study and understanding of humankind.

“The time is ripe,” as Ralf Schimmer, Kai Karin Geschuhn, and Andreas Vogler (2015, 11) have put it, but it will take collective action on the part of AAA’s leadership and membership to embrace the unique and historic opportunity that the termination of our contract with Wiley-Blackwell opens before us. Importantly, the AAA is not alone in this challenge. SPARC, PKP, and Libraria have all confirmed their willingness to support and accompany the AAA in its transition to a new model. We, therefore, hereby call for a broad, member-driven inquiry, including section leaders and journal editors, into an alternative open-access global cooperative model.

It is not the time to ask publishers what they can do for us. It is time to ask what we can do for a new ecology of scholarly communication.


Acknowledgments The authors wish to express their thanks to Marisol de la Cadena, Raym Crow, John Hartigan, Chris Kelty, and Marcel LaFlamme for their very valuable feedback in the course of writing this text.

1. Rebecca Kennison and Lisa Norberg (2014, 8–9), in their recent white paper on sustainable publishing for the humanities and social sciences, state: “Academic institutions pay the lion’s share of the cost of funding the current scholarly communication system. These institutions pay approximately 53 percent of the global publishing and distribution costs in the form of library subscriptions. They contribute another 29 percent 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 percent of ‘author-side’ payments.”

2. For a concrete proposal, see Rebecca Kennison and Lisa Norberg 2014. For a global and comparative examination of library resources that would justify and enable a change in the system of payment streams for open-access scholarship, see Schimmer, Geschuhn, and Vogler 2015.

3. ExxonMobil, comparatively, has a net profit margin of 7.31 percent. Rio Tinto’s is 13.69 percent, and even JPMorgan Chase can only claim 24.57 percent. Academic labor, it turns out, is a far more lucrative platform for profit accumulation than fossil fuels, mineral resources, or international finance. For more details on the exorbitant profit margins of commercial presses, see “Academic Publishing: Of Goats and Headaches,” The Economist, May 26, 2011.

4. In the preparation of this model, we have used data from the following sources: Kennison and Norberg 2014; Schimmer, Geschuhn, and Vogler 2015; Morrison et al. 2015; the HAU: Network of Ethnographic Theory model; and the Open Library of Humanities model.

5. We are aware of the limitations of our projections. Our exercise is not meant to model a real case scenario. We simply want to outline the contours of what a novel system of payment streams could do. A proper modeling exercise would require data on the actual production costs for each journal; subscription lists for each library; cross-subsidies between journals; operational revenues and costs for each learned society (in the event that journal publishing subsidizes a society’s operations); offsetting arrangements between libraries and publishers; and so on. It is this sort of data that the PKP Open Access Publishing Cooperative Study is compiling and analyzing. It is such a multistakeholder modeling exercise that we would like to see the AAA join.


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

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.” New York: K|N Consultants.

Morrison, Heather, Jihane Salhab, Alexis Calvé-Genest, and Tony Horava. 2015. “Open Access Article Processing Charges: DOAJ Survey May 2014.” Publications 3, no. 1: 1–16.

Schimmer, Ralf, Kai Karin Geschuhn, and Andreas Vogler. 2015. “Disrupting the Subscription Journals’ Business Model for the Necessary Large-Scale Transformation to Open Access.” Open Access Policy White Paper. München: Max Planck Digital Library.

Schmid, Oona. 2015. “AAA’s Publishing Partnership.” Anthropology News, September 23.

Waltham, Mary. 2010. “The Future of Scholarly Journal Publishing among Social Science and Humanities Associations: Report on a Study Funded by a Planning Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 41, no. 3: 257–324.