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Opening Access to AAA's Publishing Future

This statement, coauthored by SAW President Sarah Besky, calls on the American Anthropological Association to take its publishing program open access in a sustainable way.

Published onJul 01, 2021
Opening Access to AAA's Publishing Future
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This statement was originally published on the website of the Society for Cultural Anthropology.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) publishing contract with Wiley comes to term in 2022. In light of this pressing deadline, several journal editors and section presidents have been meeting to uncover the common ground in our commitments and to determine what collective action might keep AAA’s expression of values front and center in our publishing practices and decisions.

We share AAA’s commitment to five “bedrock values” for our publishing program: quality, breadth, sustainability, access, and equity. Open access (OA) can be compatible with all five values, and should be a strategy that AAA considers deliberatively. We also advocate that in this moment of transition, AAA takes stock of ways in which all our interactions around publishing can become more democratic. We want more transparency around the publishing contracts and valuations that govern sections’ relative capacities. We want more input from editors as a collective in publishing decisions. And we want equitable labor practices that benefit our community.

We know from the 2020 AAA Editors Survey that there’s wide interest in and strong support for OA across AAA sections and journals. In June 2021, we carried out our own survey of twenty-seven journal editors and publishing section leaders, representing at least twenty-two AAA sections. We found that respondents had disparate understandings of what OA is and what it means for authors and journals. Nonetheless, 9 out of 24 respondents (37.5 percent) indicated that “if the AAA decides to renew its (previously 5-year) contract with Wiley and postpones discussion of Open Access publishing,” then “Yes,” their journal would “be interested in pursuing alternative means of going OA in the next year or so,” with another 13 (54 percent) indicating openness to the possibility (“Maybe”). Only 2 said “No.” We recognize that the questions OA raises about funding and revenue are significant. We further believe that once one learns more about the current academic publishing and OA landscape, these concerns are no longer as daunting.

In 2014, AAA granted the Society for Cultural Anthropology the opportunity to self-publish Cultural Anthropology as an OA journal. Cultural Anthropology’s OA publishing has been funded by a combination of membership dues, dwindling Wiley royalties, fundraising, grant writing, and in-kind contributions from editors’ home institutions. It is important to emphasize that Cultural Anthropology does not ask authors to pay article processing charges (APCs), although these have become common to some OA publishing models (including Wiley’s). OA does not equate to APCs. With seven years of OA experience, the results are in: the quality and breadth of Cultural Anthropology’s submissions and the impact and global reach of its published volumes have benefited from its free and open accessibility. Now is the time for AAA to safeguard and build on the success of its own OA “experiment” by creating new economies of scale and building new publishing infrastructures to support the OA publishing of its entire portfolio in a financially sustainable way. Consulting with partners like Libraria, SPARC, and Knowledge Unlatched can help the AAA navigate the complexities of OA without charging onerous fees to authors.

Let us take up the five bedrock values in turn to demonstrate how each can be realized through OA publishing.

Quality

Moving an established journal to OA publishing does not tarnish the title’s reputation, nor does the shift diminish its scholarly or production quality. Quite the opposite, as the AAA’s own experiment with OA publishing demonstrates.

As one measure of quality, we submit Cultural Anthropology’s impact factor. In 2019, Cultural Anthropology’s five-year journal impact factor—spanning the first five years of being OA—was 3.648. The one-year 2019 impact factor was 3.554. These figures put Cultural Anthropology’s impact factor first among journals in the AAA portfolio, and second only to the Journal of Peasant Studies among journals categorized as anthropology. Cultural Anthropology’s h5-index is 30. This places Cultural Anthropology fifth among all indexed anthropology journals and, again, first among journals in the AAA portfolio. Submissions to Cultural Anthropology, too, are both increasing in number and expanding in global reach since going OA. The journal’s 2020 acceptance rate was 10.8 percent.

Yet what truly ensures the quality of AAA journals is the time-consuming work of AAA members—as authors, editors, reviewers, and production team members. This is the kind of labor that active scholars and students, rather than publishing companies, are best positioned to carry out. Under our current model, many who do this work are underpaid or are volunteers. The scholarly quality that they produce translates directly into profits for our publishing partner as well as AAA. Yet Wiley does not properly support our colleagues in their efforts to create respected and polished scholarly work.

As both the 2020 AAA Editors’ Survey and our own poll of publishing sections indicates, our current production arrangement with Wiley has actually created more work for our publishing colleagues. Evidence suggests that quality control is actually at its worst in the typesetting and proofing stages—those parts of the workflow that are, for most journals at least, outsourced by Wiley to contractors. Publishing delays and errors have been caused by turnover of personnel, misunderstandings about the design and purpose of journal contents, and unwieldy digital interfaces. In most cases, student managing editors and production assistants do not get paid overtime to correct these errors. In some cases, volunteer editors must devote even more of their time to correcting them. Given this, Wiley’s recent push for even faster turnaround of content and even less oversight over the final proofs of our work does not seem to be conducive to higher quality. An OA model can allow journals to have control of the entire production process, ensuring a consistent focus on fairness and quality from start to finish.

Breadth

We share AAA’s commitment to supporting a topically, methodologically, and stylistically broad portfolio of journals. That said, the breadth that we value might only be maintained if we recognize that a “one-size-fits-all” model may no longer be feasible. Considering that Wiley has already announced its intentions to handle each journal differently, AAA should actively consider “unbundling” the portfolio and pursuing a two-strand approach to publishing the breadth of its journals, whether working with one or two publishing partners (including the possibility of a library publisher or a AAA-publishing model for smaller journals). Wiley’s current pricing structure for library subscriptions already indicates that the portfolio is unbundled for many users who aren’t AAA members. The disaggregation we propose may permit journals that are not well served by the irregularities of Wiley’s production to seek an alternative (perhaps a collective and open one), while allowing those journals that still see greater benefit with a commercial publisher to maintain this relationship. Moreover, we note that an AnthroSource-like, integrated search of journals could be built across content management systems, allowing AAA journals to retain their scholarly integration in the association as a whole.

Sustainability

When we talk about financing OA, we should recognize that the expenses to manage and produce a journal, based on volunteer editorial and reviewer labor, are relatively minimal.

Some are concerned that OA is unappealing because it cannot generate the profits that for-profit publishing generates. But this is not a flaw of OA. We can and should ask OA publishing to generate a financial surplus to ensure its economic sustainability. However, surplus is not the same as ever-increasing profit. We ask AAA to evaluate OA models on the principle of sufficiency, not capitalist profit, and to pursue creative means of increasing revenue from other sources, be it membership, conferences (remote as well as in-person), and other streams.

We would also like to emphasize that talk of sustainability in AAA’s publishing program should make a priority of paying editorial and production staff a living wage with full benefits, and providing opportunities for professional development and career advancement, including for graduate students. We do not think that a viable solution to increasing production costs is outsourcing publication to temporary or contract workers. We also don’t want more fissured workplaces.

If it becomes necessary to streamline copy editing and editorial management across the journals, it is essential that editors and publishing sections participate actively in that restructuring. Decisions about the publishing workflow should be made in a democratic and transparent way. Opportunities for students should remain. Any shifts in the production process should be to the benefit of all the journals in the portfolio and should have the full buy-in of all their constituent sections. In short, we would like to see greater participatory representation in the AAA publishing decisions. Sustainability can only be achieved with democratic and inclusive values.

Access

APC-based models of OA, and for-profit publishing in general, reduce access for readers and authors outside of the AAA, outside of normative tenure-track jobs, and outside the United States. For us, OA means more than simply “free” content. It means a publishing environment in which any scholar, no matter their nationality or institutional affiliation, feels encouraged to share their work. As one of the world’s largest organizations of professional anthropologists, we should be doing all we can to create such an environment. 

We are cognizant that membership is going down. So too are jobs for anthropologists in universities with library access. This is the time to reassess our knowledge sharing and dissemination practices. This is a time to use our publishing platform as a means of committing to our shared values of equity, inclusion, transparency, and democratic participation. These goals are achievable—and sustainable—within a publication program that is committed to quality scholarship and celebrating the breadth of the discipline of anthropology as well.

Again, we can look at the evidence from Cultural Anthropology’s experience with OA. The expected reduction in downloads from AnthroSource—20,000 over the past two years—has been more than made up, in numbers, by OA. In the seven-and-a-half years since the journal went OA in 2014, Cultural Anthropology articles have been downloaded from its OA site 340,929 times as of June 2021. Moreover, two-thirds of the traffic to Cultural Anthropology’s OA site comes from outside the United States. In addition, Fieldsights, the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s non-journal, short-form publication, received 783,679 page views over the past year alone. Obviously, this sort of readership is not factored into Wiley’s calculations of Cultural Anthropology’s “value.” We would argue that it represents significant social and academic capital for Cultural Anthropology authors, the AAA, and the discipline more broadly. All of this is lost in a model of value that relies entirely on calculations of profitability.

Equity

To us, equity means two related things: (1) ensuring fair, impartial treatment of authors, editors, and readers; and (2) recognizing the value of the work each of us puts into the AAA’s publishing mission. Discussions about the future of AAA publishing are happening late. We ask for a way forward that not only opens publishing but opens dialogue between the administration and the membership. This is a member-based organization, and in discussions around publishing contracts, it often feels that this is not the case. Conversations in the last few weeks have brought up opacity with regards to the details of the Wiley contract including the pricing of journal titles, the sources and algorithms that generate revenue, and what appears to be a journal-by-journal siloing of communication between the editors and the administration. The lack of transparency appears to be used to discipline editors and journals in ways that are not contributing to the democratic principles by which we want to govern ourselves.

To address this, we wish to repeat a call for democratic participation and increased transparency. These are key elements of equity. Any contract signed on behalf of our journals needs to be available to journal editors upon request. We want an end to discussions about publishing that are only held on a journal-by-journal basis. This limits the open flow of ideas that we think could lead to a better outcome for everyone. In this time of crisis in the academy, in the discipline, and in this organization, we need to recommit to openness, equity, and inclusion.

We would like to close by reiterating that when we say “we support OA,” we mean a model of OA publishing that does not rely on APCs. Instead, we advocate for a process in which all of the stakeholders can be fully informed about the various models of OA that exist (from APCs, to library publishing, to subscribe to open, and beyond). The best way to inform ourselves is to create spaces in which we can exchange ideas, discuss models, and learn from one another about what our journals’ needs really are. We would like more participatory democracy in this decision and in the future as AAA continues to respond to a changing publishing landscape.

June 30, 2021

Sarah Besky, President, Society for the Anthropology of Work

Ilana Gershon, President-Elect, Association for Political and Legal Anthropology

Alex Nading, Editor, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

Christopher Nelson, Editorial Collective, Cultural Anthropology

Katie Nelson, Communications Director, General Anthropology Division

Heather Paxson, Editorial Collective, Cultural Anthropology

Brad Weiss, Editorial Collective, Cultural Anthropology

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Photo by Luke Stackpoole.

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