I just stumbled across an article in the New York Times:

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

As an archaeologist who’s never really seen himself as an anthropologist but, truth be told, more as related to historians (I was originally trained in Belgium), I must admit that I wasn’t too much aware of this issue. So I went over to the Savage Minds group blog, my usual source for what goes on in anthropology. Two posts seemed most relevant: “Why anthropology is ‘true’ even if it is not ‘science’” and “Ethnography as a solution to #AAAfail.”

… we don’t have to go that far afield to recognize forms of knowledge that are rehabilitated when anthropology jettisons its label as ‘science’: history, epigraphy, historical linguistics, and the humanities in general. The opposite of ‘science’ is not ‘nihilitic postmodernism’ it’s ‘an enormously huge range of forms of scholarship, many of which are completely and totally committed to accuracy and impartiality in the knowledge claims they make, thank you very much’.

At times I feel like the real distinction here is between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers. This approach is, of course, not very scientific and verges on being the close-minded inversion of the fundamentalist Christianity that thinkers of this ilk so love to oppose.

What do most anthropologists think anthropology does? What do the terms they use to evaluate it mean to them? To the best of my knowledge, we simply have no answer to this question beyond our impressions that ‘cultural anthropologists are taking over’.

The Neuroanthropology blog has collected a lot of  the online discussions. Hmm… How would I normally characterize what I do to the general public? Luckily, archaeology is sufficiently popular that I can just use that term and leave it at that. Only occasionally does someone engage me on whether it’s a science or not. I guess I associate “science” with empiricism, in other words, can my explanation be tested, measured, replicated? Obviously, archaeology which destroys much of what it studies in the act of excavation is not fully empirical though we do use a lot of empirical methods to describe what we excavate. To me, it seems that the context for the question “Are you a scientist?” determines my answer. Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not an empiricist. I’m not even going to venture into the issues surrounding the formulation of theories which then are tested in a targeted excavation. Food for thought for sure.

By the way, this latest AAA meeting saw an uptick in the use of social media. Finally, Savage Minds posted some thoughts on what I guess one could call “anthroblogging”  :-)  (see my SBL post).

In the Ancient World Bloggers Group blog (AWBL), an interesting discussion was brought to my attention on the impact (or lack thereof) of anthropological blogs on the discipline. The Savage Minds blog features prominently as it was quoted in the title of a recent American Anthropologist article by David H. Price. Savage Minds has a blog post on the AA article, with comments. AWBL contributor Michael E. Smith notes:

“I haven’t seen anything remotely similar in archaeology. AWBG occasionally gets some interesting discussion going, and I’ve seen a few interesting discussions on other blogs here and there. I often post things on Publishing Archaeology that are deliberately provocative, hoping to generate discussion. But almost all of the interesting responses I’ve gotten have come in the form of emails to me, NOT comments on the blog. People want to respond, but evidently don’t feel comfortable doing that in a public venue. I don’t have any grand conclusions, just a sense of disappointment that archaeology doesn’t yet seem to have a vibrant and exciting intellectual venue on the internet. But anthropology sure does – check out Savage Minds, its great.”

On the Ancient World Online blog (AWOL), a post announced that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is now offering open access to important journals such as American Anthropologist and Anthropology News. One important caveat though: while the former’s issues are all open access, the latter’s are only open access through 1974 and for the latest issue. In fact, the many publications listed in AAA’s AnthroSource do not have a uniform access policy. The trouble is that one can only ascertain it through trial and error: there is no explanation of the access particulars of the individual periodicals. There are at least two more types: Museum Anthropology and Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe (open access for issues since 1997) vs. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and Transforming Anthropology (since 1997 but excepting the latest issue). By the way, the editor of AWOL, Chuck Jones, maintains the Alphabetical List of Open Access Journals in Ancient Studies with 501 entries as of today, and growing! It is an excellent source.

Checking up with Peter Suber, it looks like the AAA is at it again. They’ve just announced plans to make AnthroSource (the digitial repository of their publications) free for the following groups:

  1. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
  2. Tribal Colleges
  3. Qualifying institutions from less developed countries

Everyone else still has to pay. I suppose that more access is better than completely restricted access, so maybe this move is something of a good development. I guess in theory, they see themselves charging wealthy institutions to underwrite costs and support access for groups less able to pay.

However, it does seem somewhat paternalistic. Does this imply dependency and even subordination? I’ll leave that kind of discussion to the more theoretically sophisticated. Nevertheless, the AAA position here seems to take on the wrong sort of tone. As I see it, one goal of the OA movement is to make participation (not just reading but contributing) to scholarship more open and inclusive. True Open Access is a more effective equalizer, since access permissions are general. True OA means you don’t have to beg some gatekeeper that you’re worthy to read their material.

Speaking of gatekeepers- enforcing these kinds of rules seems rather expensive. I’d love to see a balance sheet about how much it costs AnthroSource to administer its subscription barrier system. Wouldn’t it just be easier to make the whole thing OA? Do away with managing accounts altogether? Shouldn’t anthropologists be more concerned with getting people to READ and CONTRIBUTE to their work than with paternalistic rationing of anthropology to those deemed wealthy or worthy enough to read it?

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 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!

Here is yet another interesting development in the world of Anthropology as it relates to the FRPAA (Federal Research Public Access Act). As many will remember, the American Anthropological Association came out in public opposition to FRPAA. In part, the AAA based its opposition to FRPPA because of a perceived threat to the financial sustainability of AnthroSource, its digital dissemination system (see their FAQ). As reported in the “Savage Minds” blog, the AnthroSource Steering Committee was not consulted on this decision.

Now, in an interesting turn of events, the AnthroSource Steering Committee itself has made a public statement strongly and unambiguously in favor of FRPAA. Many of the reasons they cite to support FRPPA mirror discussions shared by Peter Suber, Stevan Harnad and many others (also echoed in this blog here and here). Their endorsement of FRPAA is in direct contradiction to the public position of the executive staff of the AAA. In fact, the AnthroSource Steering Committee is urging the AAA to now reconsider its opposition.

Wow! This is indeed a major development for open access in anthropology and related fields. It also shows how the executive staff of learned societies is often at odds with its membership over these issues. I think it is very significant that a major digital dissemination initiative that works on behalf of a learned society has now issued a strong public statement in favor of FRPPA ’s open access mandates. The AnthroSource Steering Committee is obviously very well placed to understand these issues. They understand publication business models, sustainability issues, etc. They also understand how openness can be a great tool to further the interests of anthroplogy and anthropologists. The endorsement of this expert and experienced body is therefore an important development that highlights the value of this legislation.

Kudos to the AnthroSource Steering Committee for their clear and powerful stand on this important issue!