Open Access, AAA and the dilemma of scholarly communication in a digital world

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So, this is happening, and lots of organizations are replying to the Request for Information (RFI, if you need an acronym) from the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy.  My own professional organization, the American Anthropological Association, submitted this reply, and it is being widely interpreted by vocal members of the discipline as towing the publishing industry’s rather conservative and print-journal-centric line about Open Access, and other less centralized models of scholarly publication and communication.

I do think it’s a conservative reply, and I don’t really agree with the principles embedded in the letter.  I think that the publisher-defined peer-review major-journal model of academic publications is one that doesn’t necessarily serve scholars particularly well anymore.  I think that some academic publishers are engaging in behavior that results in less access to scholarship rather than more (see, for instance:  Elsevier), and that there are increasing numbers of alternate models out there that we could begin to look at as a discipline (some are coming from our own subdisciplines).  I also think that we are not the only discipline struggling with trying to balance the needs of many of our members for tenure-and-review-worthy academic work (which is still largely defined as “publishing in major peer-reviewed journals, and/or publishing your work as a monograph with a major academic press”).   The folks talking about Digital Humanities are among those who are actively dismantling the traditional system with an eye to something very new, vibrant, and still rigorous and scholarly (not to mention, fun).

I encourage those of you interested in this to really mine the responses to the RFI.  I’m at a UNC, so I’m not supposed to say this, but I think that the response from the Duke University Libraries is an especially good one.  It strikes me as constructive not just because I agree with its stance on OA (pro), but because it’s clearly written by people (librarians!) who have an idea of what kind of information structures would allow us to get there.  And by “there,” I don’t necessarily mean an exclusively OA model.  Perhaps there will still be a place for journals in the future of scholarly communication.  But I think that the way forward can’t actually be thought up by asking anyone (including AAA membership), “What do you want the future of scholarly publishing to look like?”  Because you can’t know what you don’t know.

When, in the course of my work, I ask students flat questions like “What do you want from the library?”  they  often ask for more efficient or more numerous examples of the same kinds of things we provide for them.  They are not information or academic professionals, they don’t know what all is possible.  It’s actually more effective for us to look at the kinds of things they are doing inside and outside of the library, and think creatively then about how we might meet those needs.  Thinking creatively means consulting and collaborating with a variety of people, not just in the library, but in educational practice, in academic disciplines, in administration, in architecture and design.

AAA just finished a long journey towards a new code of Ethics, and presented it at our annual meetings last Fall.   To do this, they gathered a committee of a variety of different anthropological practitioners, and they started not by asking “what do you want in a code of ethics,” but, “what do you do to practice anthropology ethically?”  By starting (anthropologically) from a place grounded in actual practices, they could work towards a code that reflected the lived reality of anthropologists on the ground.

I think that something similar might be done with a publishing model.  How are anthropologists getting information about their field now?  What does that look like?  What kinds of scholarly communications are they producing?  What forms does that communication take, how are they disseminating the information and analysis they produce?  What parts are digital?  Which are analog?  How much takes place in face-to-face interactions?  Why?

In short, we need to be anthropological about it.  And we also should not let the request for information in two weeks badger us as an organization into producing a statement that might fall short of representing a perspective that reflects the priorities of our membership.  If we need more time to figure things out, we should say so.  If we’re leery of mandates in the form of federal instructions about OA, we should say so.  But we should also be open to possibilities.  And we can be most open if we are anthropological in our approach.

Get out there and figure stuff out.  And also:  collaborate with libraries.  They really do know what they are doing.

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