Former Cultural Anthropology Editor Speaks Out About #AAAfail

Posted on February 9, 2012


I had recently edited my previous posts about the AAA less then great response to open access ( The 30 Pieces of Silver the American Anthropology Association Sold Us Out For, American Anthropology Association FAIL!!!! This Time on an Epic Scale, and Why this #AAAfail is Epic- How the American Anthropology Association is throwing the public under the bus and killing books for no good reason!) to reflect a new statement that the AAA had come out with that seemed to indicate they were reversing course on their poor choices.

The AAA’s role is to be vigilant when it comes to proposed legislation that aims to limit dissemination of research, and that may disproportionately protect private over public interests. At the same time, AAA’s role is to protect the sustainability of our publications program, for anthropology as a whole and for individual authors.  We continue to investigate models that both support broad dissemination of knowledge and a sustainable publishing program.

To this end, the Executive Board has adopted the following motion:

Acknowledging the Association’s commitment to “a publications program that disseminates the most current anthropological research, expertise, and interpretation to its members, the discipline, and the broader society,” but also the need for a sustainable publication strategy, and building on the Association’s support for a variety of publishing models, the AAA opposes any Congressional legislation which, if it were enacted, imposes a blanket prohibition against open access publishing policies by all federal agencies.

I had commended them for reversing course but now several other people has pointed out some flaws in this statement. From the comments on the post-

From Chad-

I assume this is in response to the Research Works Act (HR 3699). That bill would prohibit “dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher” or policies that require “network dissemination of a private-sector research work”. In other words, it doesn’t prohibit open access; it prohibits the government from mandating public access.

At the same time, Executive Director Davis’s letter to the Office of Science and Technology Policy suggests, “broad public access to [peer reviewed publications that result from federal funding] currently exists, and no federal government intervention is currently necessary.”

Taken together, are these statements an expression of support for the current status quo, and a request that the government do nothing to support or oppose open access?

Mike Fortun

I have to conclude that the confusion this statement creates in people like the commenter above is intentional on AAA’s part, so that it’s own members can’t really tell what its positions are. Other observes like open access scholar Peter Suber,are also left wondering “What happened between January 12 (date of AAA submission to the White House RFI) and February 3 (date of the new AAA public statement on OA)?”

For those trying to understand the murky, vague statement here, I offer the following history:

On January 18, the Executive Board of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, in response to statements opposing the Research Works Act (HR3699) that had begun coming out in early January, passed the following resolution:

“To: Bill Davis, Executive Director; Leith Mullings, AAA President,
From: SCA Executive Board
RE: Research Works Act (HR 3699)
On January 18, 2012, the SCA Executive Board voted UNANIMOUSLY to pass the following resolution:
On behalf of the SCA membership, the SCA Executive Board urges the American Anthropological Association to oppose the Research Works Act (HR 3699) introduced into Congress on December 19, 2011, and to distance itself from the endorsement of this legislation by the Association of American Publishers, of which AAA is a member.
The Research Works Act would repeal the open access policy of the National Institutes of Health, whereby publications produced with federal funding are made publicly available in a repository 12 months after their publication, and block similar policies at other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Opposing the RWA does not entail a full embrace of open access philosophies; for-profit publishing is perfectly compatible with the current status quo. Opposing the RWA does not entail renouncing membership in the AAP; a number of AAP members have distanced themselves from the AAP position on RWA but continue to affirm their relationship.
Indeed, a number of AAP members have spoken out against the RWA while remaining committed to AAP. The University of California Press, the MIT Press, the Rockefeller University Press, ITHAKA and Penn State University Press have all done so, and this motivates the SCA to request that AAA follow their initiatives. As the Director of Corporate Affairs for Cambridge University Press stated, ‘We support all sustainable access models that ensure the permanence and integrity of the scholarly record… The Bill as proposed could undermine the underlying freedoms expected by and of scholarly authors.’ (See
The Executive Board of the SCA shares this view of the proposed legislation, and urges the AAA to formally oppose it.”

No one on the SCA Executive Committee was aware that, on January 12, AAA Executive Director Bill Davis had already sent his letter to the White House (linked by the commenter above), which while not mentioning the Research Works Act, was nevertheless unrepentantly defensive of the status quo and unequivocally opposed to open access mandates from the federal government. The commenter above cites one telling passage from that letter; here is another:

“We know of no research that demonstrates a problem with the existing system for making the content of scholarly journals available to those who might benefit from it…[and] we dispute assertions…suggesting that the federal government has the legal right to mandate public access to scholarly journal articles which result from federally funded research…Mandating open access to such property without just compensation and lawful procedural limitations constitutes, in our view, an unconstitutional taking of private property…”

On February 3, the SCA executive board received an email from AAA President Leith Mullings, which simply directed them to see the statement posted above. But there is no reference to the Research Works Act (the subject of the SCA resolution sent to Mullings and Davis); there is no date, or any account of why the executive board made this statement at this time; there is no mention of Davis’s letter; there is no link to this “position” of the AAA on either the “Issues & News” page, or on the “Public Policy/Advocacy” page, or on the “Public Position Statements” page. It just sort of floats out here in cyberspace, unattached to anything, only creating confusion should you happen to find it.

(By the way, if you decide to add those appropriate links for the sake of clarity and honesty, you might want to go ahead and update the “Partners” page ( so that we don’t have to see that sad reminder of what Anthrosource was supposed to be.)

As a former editor of Cultural Anthropology, I thought I had become inured to the murk, doublespeak, or outright hostility that any mention of open access elicited from the upper levels of AAA. But apparently not: I find this statement, which skillfully avoids stating anything at all of substance, absolutely discouraging. Who could possibly want to join in a “conversation” about the sustainability of AAA publishing, which the AAA claims it wants to have, when Davis’s strongly and clearly worded letter isn’t even posted here as a AAA “position” or “statement,” but instead we get this kind of non-statement from the executive board, completely untethered from real world events and issues? And who could possibly want to join in a “conversation” about the sustainability of AAA publishing, when years of previous “conversation” with numerous dedicated AAA members have only led to Bill Davis informing the White House that “we know of no research that demonstrates a problem with the existing system”?!?! That’s a recipe for frustration, and I have had enough of that…

Mikes Second comment-

Well, I guess not quite enough: since I’m here, I’ll just add that if the AAA would like to learn how to make a clear statement about the Research Works Act, it could learn from the American Association of Universities and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities:

After reading these comments I fully agree the AAA is waffling and are trying to hedge their bets. Giving token lip service to open access but at the same time hoping for status quo. I know that the economics of publishing are tough for societies but they are hoping for a status quo that is going to hurt them in the long run. They, the AAA, estimate that by 2013 (next year) they will be back into the red as far as journals are concerned, losing money. Instead of seriously embracing the need for change they are hoping by extend their deal with wiley-blackwell till 2016 (2017? not clear) they will have enough time to find an alternative. In the mean time hoping that this status quo, that will start to hurt them next year, doesn’t change. I don’t see this as leadership that is needed right now.

Posted in: Publishing