Friday, February 17, 2012

Why OPEN ACCESS is Good for the Anthropology

The American Anthropological Association is reconsidering changing its publications policy after openly opposing "Open Access" to scholarly publications. This is a welcome step. However, it should never have been a problem, as I argue below. The problem is the "academic society" business model that still dominates the AAA and many other disciplines. It is time to change the business model so that it serves all of society (especially that part that pays for it).

By OPEN ACCESS here I mean free access to its scholarly publications.
If anthropological research is to be useful to the public and taxpayers who pay for it, then one can argue that "Yes" it should be free.

It should be free because it would be the completion of what today is an incomplete economic transaction. That is, the taxpayer gives money to the government which in turn advertises (RFP) for a product -- research -- through one or more of its social or health science agencies. The academic anthropologist bids on the RFP and is award a grant or contract to produce the product requested. The grant or contract is awarded and the research is performed and a financial report is filed with the government. The product may be delivered to academic community, BUT it is not necessarily delivered to the buyer -- the taxpayer in a usable form.

Taxpayers pay not only for the research but they pay for the publication when academic journals charge researchers for publishing their papers. The "scholarly publishing" practice is really nothing more than in the trade would be called "Variety Press." Then, to turn around and sell these publications (articles) at exorbitant prices through a 3rd party is bad business sense. It cheats the taxpayer, and the author, of the intellectual property they have purchased and/or created. Is this fair??

Among the taxpayers, who support such research efforts, are anthropologists and other social scientist who are not part of the academic community; nor who have direct access to the research product that such affiliation affords. These researchers and practitioners are forced to 1. ignore or remain ignorant of the results from such subsidized government research; or 2. pay exorbitant prices for reprints often with little or no information other than a title of what they are buying ("buying a pig in a poke"). In both cases we end up with an inefficient distribution of information.

From the point of view of the public, the vast amount of economic data and writing produced by that discipline (academic) and government makes economics THE AUTHORITY for social policy decision making. And anthropology, used only by academic anthropologists, remains but an arcane ivory tower activity of marginal economic value. Ask Scott Walker about that.

For those of us who pursue careers outside of the academy, the inaccessibility (logistically and/or financially) of recent anthropological research and discussions means that we come to rely on secondary and tertiary sources or use other perspectives that might produce a similar utilitarian result for us. As a result, those of us who would be supporters and wholesale customers for anthropological products, and who could serve as spokespersons promoting anthropology to the public and the taxpayer are left out. We are left out by the economic barriers that prevent or deter us from using timely anthropological research.

Without the demand that we might create for such research, there is little reason in tough financial times (other than national security spending) to fund what is perceived in the minds of government funding agencies and Congress as basic soft social science research.

Anthropology is not the only social science, it competes with the others for research funding, student recruitment, and external (non-academic) employment opportunities for its graduates. Any barriers to the free flow of information between the branches, and sub-disciplines, of anthropology puts us in a weaker competitive position via-a-vis our sister social/behavioral and policy sciences.

Finally, economic barriers to the free of information is, by the AAA and SfAA's own ethical codes, unethical.

That's my opinion. I will be interest to hear how others feel.

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