The most pressing issue facing the AAA today is the sustainability of its publishing program within a changing ecology that includes university libraries and our audiences and collaborators around the world. Dialogue about AAA publishing has often been defensive of present arrangements rather than open and exploratory. To enrich this dialogue, we all need to examine better comparative data, examples, and scenarios. Ultimately, our publishing decisions should be guided by a robust understanding of relevant questions and alternative models.
To begin with, discussion about publishing within anthropology must address the current crisis in scholarly publishing across fields, a crisis that is due to outdated organizational models. Scholarly societies such as the AAA have depended on publication revenue to operate. This revenue is generated through subscription fees to university libraries, which have gone up dramatically over the last decade. Libraries, in turn, generate revenue to pay for journal subscriptions through student tuition. Thus, dramatic hikes in tuition rates (a 40% hike in the University of California system in the last year, for instance) are partly driven by the current publishing model. This means that we are supporting scholarly publishing at the expense of our students. This shouldn’t continue, and, in fact, can’t continue. As state and university budgets respond to the broad financial crisis today, libraries are being forced to cut journal subscriptions. According to reports from librarians, humanities and social sciences will be particularly hard hit. Expenditure on journals, in turn, keeps libraries from purchasing monographs. The 2004 report by the Association of Research Libraries notes that 1986-2001 library expenditures on serials increased by 3 times, while book purchases declined by 9%. This is particularly critical for anthropology given the importance of ethnographic monographs as a way to disseminate anthropological research results and develop scholarly careers.
A paid subscription-based model for publishing journals also affects circulation beyond the U.S. university system. Some universities and organizations outside the U.S. have free access to AAA journals through philanthropic programs. Yet these programs do not insure wide access. Ideally AAA would proactively seek to enroll new readers and institutions in diverse contexts. There are many potential readers of AAA journals without any kind of organizational affiliation through which they can gain access. Yet a very high priority for many anthropologists is wide access to their scholarly writing, extending to their interlocutors in far-flung corners of the world. As a result, many scholars are increasingly concerned about open access issues, and making decisions about where to submit and publish their work on such a basis.
For all these reasons, it is urgent to develop new models for AAA publishing, and to engage the community at large in the evaluation of options. Some scholars advocate that online-only publication of anthropology journals should be seriously considered, particularly if this is the only way to protect scholarly autonomy and wide access. Oral Tradition and Asian Ethnology (formerly Asian Folklore Studies) are examples of well-established journals, with deep back content, which have made the transition to fully open, digital-only presentation. In any case, comparative analysis and careful deliberation are needed before decisions are made about renewal of AAA’s contract with Wiley-Blackwell, in particular.
AAA needs to develop a suite of possible publishing models, exploring, for example, possibilities for partnering with university libraries. We should also consider new organizational and revenue models for AAA and its sections that don’t depend on paid-subscription publishing. Membership fees could be raised, for example, or packaged in ways that match services provided. In sum, there are many options, opportunities and costs to be considered.
Let's work together to ensure that research published by anthropologists is as easily accessible as possible regardless of the ability to pay. This will require organizational innovation and sustained analysis of options, with attention to the profound ways publication models will shape the production, circulation and impact of our work in coming years. Decisions taken now will have far reaching impact on how individual scholars work, and relate to their readers, colleagues, universities and scholarly societies. Such decisions will shape how the work of anthropology circulates and is received and supported. The future of scholarly communication writ large is at stake.