November 2006

Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, recently alerted me to this important discussion about FRPAA. It is a strong rebuttal to claims that FRPAA (.pdf text of the bill) will endanger the sustainability of scholarly publication, wreck the peer-review process, and harm professional societies. Such concerns underlie much of the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) stated opposition to FRPAA.

The debunking of the objections to FRPAA comes from the Treasurer of the American Society for Cell-Biology. Obviously, in his capacity as Treasurer, Gary Ward is keenly aware of financial sustainability issues. Here are some important excerpts:

2. Forcing journals to release their content for free will destroy their revenue base. False. Scores of prestigious and financially successful journals offer their content for free after periods of time ranging from zero to 12 months”

4. The legislation threatens the peer-review system. False. It is unclear on what grounds this argument is made, but it is made often and it is made loudly”

6. There is no serious access problem; everyone who needs access to the scientific literature already has access. False. This is an understandable misconception frequently held by those who reside at the most well-funded research institutions. For everyone else, the lack of access is a real and daily problem. The ’subscription havenots” include not only large, financially stretched state universities that serve many students and faculty, but also small colleges.

9. The public doesn’t care about this issue. Perhaps, but this may also be changing. Recent articles in The New York Times and The Economist suggest that the issue is starting to get the public ’s attention. Furthermore, a recent Harris poll published by the Wall Street Journal shows that 82% of those surveyed believe that “if tax dollars pay for scientific research, people should have free access to the results of that research on the Internet”

Click here to download the whole thing (.pdf file)

Now, it is not my purpose to bash the AAA on this matter. I believe very strongly that they are mistaken in their opposition to FRPAA, but I also believe it is essential to fully explore and address the concerns of scholarly societies and their publishing arms. A paper (or a research database or image archive) may be expensive to produce, review, and edit, but virtually instantaneous global distribution is nearly free. This cost equation has the potential to make free and open access economically viable, provided production and editing costs can be sustained. In moving toward open access, we need to consider how the costs will be covered. It is obvious that not every open access model will be sustainable or appropriate for disciplines such as anthropology or archaeology. I can’t imagine “author-side fees” (such as those expected by PLoS) working in these disciplines. I can imagine a system where professional societies, university libraries, and other consortia come together to underwrite and subsidize open access dissemination. Universities and university libraries already spend a great deal of money on publication, and shifting some of these resources toward lower-cost open access systems seems viable. Peter Suber has devoted much attention to this issue and explores many pragmatic options (two examples: here and here.) I”m glad open access advocates in anthropology are careful and judicious in how they approach this issue (see this open letter on Savage Minds). Not all routes toward open access are the same. Some may be more sustainable than others, and some models adhere to the ideals of “open knowledge” more than others. FRPAA represents one strategy, and as noted by Gary Ward (above), FRPAA represents little risk to existing publication frameworks.
That said, we must not loose sight of the fact that the current publication regime is in trouble and is not sustainable (here, here, and this imporant letter about cost pressures on the University of California libraries). The AAA needs to remember this broader context before they entrench themselves even further in their opposition to FRPAA. In the name of protecting their subscription revenues, they run the risk of alienating their most important customers: university libraries. After all, these libraries represent one of the groups most supportive of FRPAA. If the AAA refuses to listen to their customers and try to meet their concerns, then those customers will naturally seek alternatives.

Hopefully, heads will cool and the AAA executive staff will realize that the (now defunct) AnthroSource Steering Committee recommendations, especially for the development of a “member-informed policy on open access” are sound and reasonable. FRPAA and open access should not be summarily dismissed. They are important issues that need to be aired and debated by the membership and other anthropological stakeholders. Hopefully, we”ll continue to see some progress toward these ends.

The International Congress for Archaeozoology (ICAZ) and the Alexandria Archive Inst. (AAI) announced winners of the first “Junior Researcher Open Zooarchaeology Prize”. Five prominent zooarchaeologists reviewed all eleven entries and have determined the following winners, based on the conference papers’ scholarly merits and their potential for reuse in research or teaching. To encourage the widest possible dissemination and reuse of this scholarship, all of the entries are licensed under open Creative Commons. copyright licenses.

This winners are:
Christian Gates St-Pierre (1st Prize)
Ana Belen Marin Arroyo (2nd Prize)

Congratulations to the winners, and many thanks to the five judges for volunteering to participate and for their careful review and evaluation of the entries. Finally, special thanks go to all those who entered into the competition.

All of the entries provide valuable resources for the zooarchaeology community in a variety of ways. Many of these conference papers demonstrate important contributions to zooarchaeological understanding of the past. Students now have access to good, professionally evaluated examples of conference presentations. Looking at these examples can help prepare young scholars on preparing for their first professional conferences. Secondly, some of the contributions provide invaluable reference material for research. For example, Krish Seetah developed an impressive set of materials that will help zooarchaeologists better document and understand ancient butchery practices.

Additional Note:
It looks like the prize winners are already receiving some wider recognition from their home institutions! This is an important step in establishing professional rewards for open scholarship. Again, congratulations to the winners and all those who participated!

The saga of the American Anthropological Association (AAA)’s response to FRPAA (Federal Research Public Access Act) continues. Rex at the Savage Minds Blog just reported that the AnthroSource Steering Committee, a group leading AnthroSource, the AAA ’s digital repository system, has been DISBANDED. Here ’s an excerpt:

I finally got the memo on 30 October making official what we knew was coming: The AnthroSource Steering Committee (ASSC) has officially been disbanded and will be replaced by the new “Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing.” There were lots of problems with the ASSC; it ’s relationship to the finance committee and sections was never spelled out, for instance. But it is transparently obvious to everyone involved why the ASSC was replaced: as one member of the committee put it (not me) ‘we were all given pink slips soon after we pushed for FRPAA.’ We are all, every one of us, tremendously disappointed in this decision.

As noted across the anthropological and library blogosphere (see summary and here too), the AnthroSource Steering Committee recently issued a public statement in support of FRPAA and urged the AAA leadership to reconsider its rejection of the open access bill. Now the AAA sacks the AnthroSource Steering Committee.

To echo Peter Suber, Wow.

What a mess! This heavy-handed action is indicative of how much the AAA is on the defensive on this issue. They”re starting to remind me of the recording industry and their rearguard actions against file-sharing and online dissemination in general. This speaks volumes about how beholden this organization is toward failing and outmoded publication business models, models that hurt AAA members, universities, libraries, students, faculty, groups with limited financial resources, and the public (see evidence: here). The current system sees publication cost escalating unchecked, and according to Rex, the AAA ’s publication program is still loosing money. So, I just don’t get it, why stick with a failing business model, one that is not meeting the needs of its constituents, and not explore alternatives?

Trying to horde anthropological research seems self-defeating. It seems that anthropology should do more to attract more people to its research. FRPAA, which would require government funded archives of paper drafts accepted for publication, would be a great way for anthropology to become better known to a larger community. There ’s no direct financial threat to the AAA, since government agencies will foot the bill for the archives. Besides, overly proprietary and closed models become too inconvenient and expensive for people to want to use. Alternatives are already proliferating, and it is getting much easier and cheaper to set up an open, peer-reviewed, e-journal.

The AAA ’s attempts to horde anthropological scholarship is bad enough, since this research is often very important for human rights activists and development. But by opposing FRPAA, the AAA is also working against the dissemination of vital knowledge in other disciplines that directly impact health, conservation, and economic development. That makes this whole affair sordid, ironic, and even somewhat tragic, especially for a discipline that positions itself in advocacy on behalf of marginalized peoples and communities.

BTW: Changing the AAA is going to require some grassroots organizing. Some anthropological bloggers want to get together at the AAA meeting in San Jose to discuss ways to push forward an Open Access agenda. Find out more here!