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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In February of this year Michael Chibnik published an editorial piece in American Anthropologist arguing that while he supported the idea of open access to the publication he also now thinks “that gold open access publication is unlikely to be feasible in the near future for AA”. This is a regrettable situation since, from the editorial, it does not appear that many options have been considered to achieve open access, despite the citation in this piece of the previous editor calling for the Society to “work creatively” to achieve OA. I here offer a few thoughts of my own on what was said and left unsaid in Chibnik’s editorial.

Brief edit (6:00pm, 25th May): I wrote this piece fairly quickly because, well, life is very busy and I wanted to get a tone that wasn’t overly critical of Michael Chibnik. I think it’s great that AA are having this debate, even if I don’t agree with the outcome so far. Having re-read the post a few hours after posting, I think it a bit more accusatory in tone than I wanted. I write this edit to clarify that the spirit in which I mean to offer these thoughts are those of engagement, not hostility.

The Economics of American Anthropologist

Drawing together several threads from Chibnik’s editorial allows us to deduce some aspects of the economic model of American Anthropologist:

Proposals to make AA open access must consider ways to keep the journal financially stable while maintaining high-quality peer review, copyediting, proofreading, and manuscript control. […] we live in a world where the economics and logistics of publishing a carefully edited, peer-reviewed journal cannot be ignored

Fine and nobody does. Peter Suber carefully points out that OA is not about denying that there is labour in publishing. There is indeed labour involved in publishing that must be recognised and remunerated. This is hardly contentious. What does that labour consist of?

AA is currently published in a complex process involving many people, organizations, and funding sources. Although I receive no salary as editor-in-chief, my university provides course relief and an office.

Editorial labour is often given for free by university faculty. In the case of AA, this is no different. The home institution is here sponsoring the labour of the editor in exchange for the prestige that this denotes. This could be given in exactly the same way if the publication was OA. This piece of labour, therefore, has no bearing on whether or not the journal becomes open access. It is not a cost that has to be met through any external revenue stream.

Publishing AA involves large amounts of unpaid labor

Yes, but this is a failing of the subscription model that the journal currently operates under. Indeed, statements like this seem to begin to build a case that the current model is not ethically remunerating labour. See below for how much profit Wiley-Blackwell makes even while the societies with whom it works bemoan the unpaid labour in the process.

The journal has a full-time managing editor paid by the AAA who does extensive copyediting, most proofreading, and various other tasks. There is also a part-time editorial assistant (a graduate student in my department) who manages most of the peer-review process. The pay for her position comes from both the AAA and my university. The AAA also provides small amounts of money to editorial staff for travel and supplies.

OK, so this seems to imply that, at most (assuming “part-time” = 0.5), there are 1.25 salaries that have to be paid out of the Society’s revenue. I don’t know what the level of remuneration is here, but let’s model it at $50k. This means that, for salaries, the journal needs to find $62.5k per year. An institutional subscription to AA (assuming it isn’t part of a bundle) costs $644 per year. It would take just 97 institutions’ subscriptions to cover the internal labour. Many many more institutions subscribe than that. Surely, though, these publications are run on a shoestring by the publisher and there isn’t such give in the overheads?

The publisher of AA and other AAA-sponsored journals is Wiley-Blackwell (WB), a large commercial press

Indeed. £106,000,000 ($164,282,510) profit in 2012. Of course, the publisher does do work for this money.

Through WB, AA is able to use ScholarOne (S1), our manuscript control system. It would be extraordinarily difficult to edit AA without such a system.

All publishers have such systems. As the editorial itself goes on to note, there are even freely available systems that will do this job.

I do not know all the details of the financial arrangements between AAA and WB.

Why not? How can a publication make an informed decision about alternative models that might support its publication if the chief editor does not know how the publication is financed? I do accept that the profit used from AA is used to subsidise other, less-profitable journals. However, that the editorial then goes on to say that it would be impossible to raise member dues “because (unlike the section-affiliated journals) people are unable to choose whether or not to pay for AA” seems a bit rich. This seems to say that it is OK to force libraries to cross-subsidise but that it is not fair that members of the society should be compelled to do so.

Proposed Alternative Models

Chibnik proposes five potential components that might help AA achieve OA:

  1. Authors’ fees
  2. Saving money through moving to OJS
  3. Charging a submission fee
  4. Raising AAA dues
  5. Asking for financial support from individuals and institutions

I agree that #1 and #3 are not really viable in the humanities and social sciences, at least at present. Although it must be said that the lack of a need to find author funds means that they are not available. If, after four-and-a-half years of not paying $644 per year, an institution had an author who wanted to submit to the journal, they would have the funds from the cancellation. I still am unsure this works out, though, because the costs are concentrated on institutions.

Chibnik rules out point #2 “because open-source manuscript systems ordinarily do not have technical support”. Ubiquity Press, for instance, however, have far lower APCs than most commercial publishers. They provide a technical support contact for their platform. As point #2 was the only way in which this editorial argues for any kind of lowered cost, this hardly represents “creative thinking” when the current publisher makes a profit on the journal. Move to a publisher that doesn’t make so much profit so that you can keep the internal funding in order to achieve open access. Isn’t that how the market is supposed to work? If one doesn’t believe in the market, then why not move for the reasons of altruism in gold OA?

Importantly, the revenue sources that Chibnik proposes are premised on this assertion: “If AA and other AAA journals became gold open access, they could also no longer depend on subscription fees as a source of support”. Has AA asked subscribing institutions? Has anyone gone to the libraries that subscribe and said: “If we cut your subscription by 30% [because we’re now digital-only and we’re not working with WB who make a tonne of profit], would you continue to subscribe to AA so that we can make it open access?” The project that I work on does something a bit like this and has been successful so far in attracting libraries to give financial support to gold OA publications. I’m guessing, from point #5, that nobody at AAA has done this, though, because it “would require [a] significant amount of work by AAA staff”. Creative thinking requires work, though. If you accept defeat before having done the work and just call it “impossible”, how can you say you really support the principle? Peter Suber’s book and my book (both of which are themselves available open access) contain many suggestions for alternative models that might make OA possible.

I also think that point #4 is too readily dismissed here. The funding route that we use for learned societies is not a good one, so far as I am concerned. As I’ve written previously:

at the moment, the activities of learned societies are paid for by academic libraries. By bundling the costs of activities that are not publishing, within a budget that is meant to be for access to knowledge, societies contribute to the budgetary crisis of access to information. Furthermore, societies are claiming an unsustainable activity (the for-profit journal subscription market) as the basis of their sustainability. This is not to deprecate the claims that there may be financial challenges for associations and societies in any transition to open access. It is, rather, to note that calls to protect society revenue models are often inextricable from calls to protect publisher profits; the two are interwoven. This rhetoric of economy and sustainability, it must also not be forgotten, will always make one group’s sustainability possible only at the expense of another: usually the library.

If, then, AA members’ institutions did not have to pay $644 per year to get access, but instead gave a contribution on top of their faculty members’ dues of, say, $400, might this not cover the costs?

I’m really loathe to sound like I’m just berating Chibnik here but I was not persuaded by this editorial that the journal editors and the society seriously wants to do OA. “I cannot disagree with the rhetoric of those advocating open access for American Anthropologist.”, the editorial notes, “It would be obviously a good thing if the journal were freely available to readers rich and poor all over the globe”. Alas, it seems impossible given the limited number of options that they have explored, the editorial continues, so we’ll go back to business as usual. Societies want OA to be easy. But it isn’t easy to reconfigure economic models. It requires hard work, thinking, negotiation and activism. It might turn out to be very hard indeed. But when we write that we support things that are “obviously a good idea” that seem core to the mission of our disciplines and society, is it enough to then say that it seems impossible based on a limited amount of theoretical discussion? I think not.