The AAA and Open Access

Why does the AAA oppose open access?

In a letter dated June 9, 2006, the AAA executive committee wrote:

Recently, the American Anthropological Association joined 65 other disciplinary associations, small publishers, and other concerned organizations in co-signing a letter to Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs, expressing opposition to S. 2695, the Federal Research Public Access Act.

The letter, initiated by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), communicated three principal concerns about the proposed legislation: 1) it would undermine the value-added investments made by publishers in the peer review process; 2) it would duplicate existing mechanisms that enable the public to access scientific journals by requiring the government to establish and maintain costly digital repositories; and 3) it would position the government as a competitor to independent publishers, posing a disincentive for them to sustain investment and innovation in disseminating authoritative research. The net result, opponents argue, is that the overall quality of research competitiveness would be lowered.

The AAA has tracked this issue closely during the last few years, in light of its ongoing transition to AnthroSource. While the association concurs with the arguments made in the letter and tends to ally itself with these organizations on this issue, its underlying concern is the potential impact the proposed legislation may have on the AnthroSource business model and revenue generation.

What’s wrong with the AAA’s position?

In response to the AAA letter, Alex Golub published the following letter on the blog Savage Minds:

Let’s take the first claim: the AAA basically believes that the peer-review system will collapse if federal repositories are created because no one will subscribe to journals and as a result journals will not be able to maintain “staff, capital, and operational costs to manage the peer review system.” This is wrong for many reasons. First, the Federal Research Publication Access Act has a six month moving wall for content so new articles will not be immediately available. Second, the articles in the public repositories will be unpaginated manuscripts, not final paginated offprints of articles, and so they will be less citeable. Third, the repository will not take a paper form, so it will not compete with demands for a journal’s paper product. In other words, the federal repositories will be hobbled so that they will not be able to compete with journals.

Fourth, open access repositories do not necessarily result in the extinction of journals. In physics, for example, the existence of arxiv.org has not destroyed the publication of physics journals. Fifth, this argument assumes that journals are actually funded through subscriptions, but that is not true. Many scholarly associations pay for their publication program using membership dues. In fact according to John Willinsky’s book The Access Principle (p. 219) in 2000 the AAA lost over US$100,000 on publications. I double dog dare any member of the AAA or AAA staff to guest blog on Savage Minds and explain what has changed and how a feasible business model based on subscriptions would/will/has worked for the AAA.

More responses to the letter from: