“Now you have two problems…”: On mandating Open Acess

I recently wrote a piece for Anthropology News which mentioned among other things that regardless of the AAA’s position, official or unofficial, about Open Access, it’s nonetheless happening in all kinds of ways. Now it’s happening in one more way that the AAA will have to deal with. Viz. Harvard’s recent announcement that it is mandating that faculty give Harvard permission to archive all of their publications, regardless of the AAA’s or Wiley Blackwell’s internal policies on Open Access.

What this means initially for the AAA and WB is that if any AAA journal want to publish an article by Harvard faculty, they need to do one of three things: 1) allow it to be open access 2) refuse to publish it or 3) convince the faculty member to request a waiver from Harvard. Now in some ways this is nothing new: author agreements for AAA publications already allow self-archiving, so there will no need to choose 2 or 3, unless WB decides to change that policy down the line (so this kind of policy is actually good insurance). In other ways, this is a significant step forward for OA because it reverses the role of inertia: instead of faculty defaulting to closed access, they now default to open access, which is in their interests, instead of contrary to them.

Now this policy can be mis-interpreted in a number of different ways (all of which Peter Suber has collected and responded to), but the basic fact is that this is almost the best possible policy for everyone. It functions by mandating permission–Harvard retains a non-exclusive right to everything its faculty publish, and therefore can choose to (and will) make it available in an Open Access repository open to anyone. Publishers, however, also get a non-exclusive right to publish the work in whatever form they see fit. The only thing it changes practically is that instead of faculty signing over ALL rights to the publisher, they retain some rights to circulate the article through OA repositories. And this right applies to the final, peer-reviewed version of an article. It’s the best of both worlds.

However, it raises an interesting question: Who’s your publisher now? If Harvard is the entity actually providing the work most widely, circulating it and allowing people to read it, what exactly does the AAA or WB provide for you? And as more universities adopt similar policies, it’s possible that the de facto locus of scholarly work could shift from publishers to libraries and eprint servers at different universities—which if its done well, will use high-quality metadata, provide full-text searching, and be visible easily to any search engine. So, you might ask yourself: what in the world is the AAA/WB providing authors who seek to publish in their journals? It certainly isn’t the article, which the AAA and WB are still trying desperately to make everyone pay an extra fee to get, when they could get it for free… so what gives?

This isn’t a stupid question, in fact it’s at the heart of both the old problem AAA had (how to pay for the costs of publication) as well as the new problem it has (how to pay for the costs of publication when authors and their universities are giving it away for free). The answer, to my mind is actually simple: what AAA can provide is, among other things:

  1. prestige;
  2. high quality peer review;
  3. creative, path-breaking editorial vision;
  4. promotion and marketing;
  5. public policy relevance and creative use of new information technology and new networking and publicity possibilities.

All of these things take hard work by committed people who in some cases are paid and in some cases volunteer their time. I would argue that these things are worth paying for. No one is owed any of these services, but the reality is we need new models of value to figure out how to pay for these services. The most obvious is that costs for these services should be explicitly accounted for as part of membership in the society (e.g. you can’t publish unless you are a member, but students and independent scholars get a waiver), as part of a university’s research budgets (Universities help faculty and especially graduate students pay to publish their work) and as part of a general funds-seeking strategy (e.g. Can I have a grant to develop innovative public policy relevant approach X or Y?). There are other ways to re-imagine accounting for the costs of publication if you can make explicit what services are being provided, and that they are part and parcel of the larger mission of a scholarly society.

However, how many of these things do AAA and WB adequately provide today? 1) Prestige? Perhaps, though they don’t have the market cornered. 2) Peer review? Yes, though one could argue that the journals only manage that service–academics provide it on a voluntary basis. 3) Editorial creativity? In the sections, definitely, but this is a huge point of contention right now, as AAA tries to centralize everything and take editorial creativity away from the sections. 4) promotion and marketing? More like the opposite of that, whatever that is. 5) Innovative public policy uses of information techno… oh, whatever.

So this puts us back in the same place as before: what exactly is the AAA providing that we can’t get elsewhere? If its a bit of prestige and the mere management of the peer review process, then that ain’t much folks. But I actually believe there is a lot more there, and I increasingly believe that it is in the sections of the AAA, where creative editorial direction, well-managed peer-review processes, and creative approaches to promotion, public policy relevance and rolodexing and networking is likely to occur… not within the Wiley Blackwell AAA Borg, which seems to be worried only about page counts and trim sizes and whether or not we allow only individual or institutional subscriptions.

Excuse me, please stop moving those deck chairs around, and put on this life jacket…

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