Peter Suber offers the following definition:
Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.
In most fields, scholarly journals do not pay authors, who can therefore consent to OA without losing revenue. In this respect scholars and scientists are very differently situated from most musicians and movie-makers, and controversies about OA to music and movies do not carry over to research literature.
OA is entirely compatible with peer review, and all the major OA initiatives for scientific and scholarly literature insist on its importance. Just as authors of journal articles donate their labor, so do most journal editors and referees participating in peer review.
OA literature is not free to produce, even if it is less expensive to produce than conventionally published literature. The question is not whether scholarly literature can be made costless, but whether there are better ways to pay the bills than by charging readers and creating access barriers.
For a more detailed introduction to the topic, read Suber’s Open Access Overview.
Why should anthropologists care about open access?
There are many reasons why open access should matter to anthropologists: because it is the right thing to do if we care about sharing knowledge with our informants and collaborators, because it will help promote anthropology as a discipline and the work of individual scholars, and because it will allow anthropological knowledge to be used and accessed in new ways, giving old scholarship a new life on the web.
Concerns over the ethical dilemmas involved in producing knowledge about the “other” have, in the past few decades, radically changed how anthropologists conduct research and write ethnographies. Unfortunately, they have not changed how we publish. While it is true that many anthropology journals never recoup their publication costs, the system of barriers which serve to protect their meager revenue comes at the expense of accessibility. These barriers make it all but impossible for those outside of well-endowed academic institutions to access that knowledge, undermining the lofty goals of producing a “shared anthropology.” Anthropology lags behind other disciplines, especially the medical sciences, in adopting new models of financing and distributing peer-reviewed journals, known as “Open Access,” which allow everyone to access journal articles freely online.
What about collaborative anthropology?
How can anthropologists work collaboratively with people who are unlikely to have free access to the same body of knowledge that we do? At a time when rural villages in India have web access the subaltern can now start their own blogs, indeed they are doing so already, but they still can’t read anthropology articles online.
It’s good for anthropology … and anthropologists.
Opening up anthropological content will mean that anthropological writings are that much more accessible by non-specialists. As Eric Kansa has said:
Trying to hoard anthropological research seems self-defeating. It seems that anthropology should do more to attract more people to its research. Similarly, individual anthropologists will benefit by making their work more accessible: A study of computer science publications found that articles available via Open Access were three times more likely to be cited than those in (online or print) journals requiring a paid subscription.
Information wants to be free.
From an essay by Alex Golub on how opening up AnthroSource could make it that much more useful:
I believe that AnthroSource can best be developed by taking its rich, peanut buttery center of digital content and wrapping it up in a delicious chocolatey coating of socially-oriented web applications. I think that AnthroSource, reconceived, could be a positive reason for people to reconnect to the AAA community. AnthroSource could be a place people will want to come if it allows them to connect both to digital content and each other. How do we do this? There are, of course, issues of budget, privacy, and institutional politics. But let me mention some things that are technically feasible and have proven successful elsewhere.
First, AnthroSource must ‘open up and let go.’ These days, web sites become de facto standards by making themselves indispenable, not by locking users in. AnthroSource must give away as much free content as possible in as many forms as possible to make people hunger for what is behind the membership wall (we could even investigate open access scholarship). RSS feeds for every journal, author, and keyword in existence. Multiple ways to access abstracts. APIs so people can write new programs to interface with and extend AnthroSource’s functionality.
Second, learn the lessons of successful socially-based web applications and make AnthroSource a cooperation amplifier. Create multiple ways for users to organize information in their accounts. Then let them share that information with other users. Let them rate, recommend, and tag articles, authors, and journals. Make friends’ lists and groups they can join. By creating technology that enables cooperation you create a network that increases in value everytime a new user joins.
Third, make AnthroSource a true portal for anthropology. Integrate it with AnthroCommons and the AAA homepage. Have AnthroSource, like CiteULike, index existing RSS feeds of interest to anthropologists—like IngentaConnect’s RSS feeds for journals—and include them in the journals that AnthroSource tracks. Offer free or discounted hosting for journals from third world countries to give them a voice. AnthroSource needs to become a nexus which integrates not just AAA related websites, but all freely available information on the web that anthropologists care about. Fourth, and most ambitious, establish an optional webpresence for your users. Let them have a profile page where they can share information about themselves such as publications, preprints, and some form of public CV. If I found a journal by an author I liked, I could visit their homepage, learn more about them, and even see if they are giving a paper at the next AAA. Giving people a place where they can simply and effectively manage their online identity if they choose in the heart of the professional association of their discipline will increase our sense of connection.