In light of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz and the scrutiny it has placed on JSTOR in particular, the economics of research publications, and the ethics of keeping research publications behind paywalls, I thought there were a few more things to say about open access.
I’ve contemplated the idea for some time now about publishing from here on out only in open access journals. I already freely e-mail my own publications to anyone who requests a copy. And I just feel better (more virtuous?) when I publish a paper in an open access journal. I’ve published in both open and closed access journals. It could be a coincidence, but I’ve noticed that when I publish in open access journals, those publications tend to get more citations. That’s not proof, but it is a good sign that open access does a better job of getting your work in front of readers (which is obvious because such journals are available to the whole of the Internet, not just those who can get past a paywall). The reason I’ve published in ‘closed’ journals has to do with the pressures of being tenure-track. Some of the more prestigious journals are not open access. I’m looking at YOU Science, Technology and Human Values and New Media and Society. Anthropology journals in particular are notoriously out of step with the push towards open access (see the many posts over on Savage Minds, for example).
It feels especially uncomfortable as someone who specializes in the study of Africa and who’s work is supposed to contribute to efforts to address marginality and alleviate poverty, to participate in the elitism of prestigious and closed access journals thereby ensuring that only people based at well-resourced Universities will be likely to access my work. It is apparent that asymmetries in education, library resources, time and money preserve a permanent system of inequity preventing scholars based on the African continent from participating as fully as they might in the research dialogue. This inequity includes barriers to consuming research which in turn becomes a barrier to producing research. This neocolonialist bent in research on Africa and elsewhere in the Global South, where outsiders get to dominate the conversation is really unfortunate. There are a few efforts to address this. JStor, for example, has a special program, the African Access Initiative that gives institutions on the African continent free access and the Developing Nations Access Initiative in many other countries. In the end however, not everyone who would benefit from this great store of knowledge is situated within any kind of institution. And there are many parts of the world that simply do not have public library programs where individuals can walk in off the street and access such publications. The facilities needed to support a public library program cost money too.
As part of #PDFTribute I put PDFs of all of my remaining publications up on my personal website. So did many others.
What I haven’t seen so far is research communities putting together a list of Open Access journals to focus their publication efforts on. If enough of us show preference for or entirely restrict our publishing efforts to open access journals then this could shift the balance of prestige as well. Imagine if open access journals were the venues for the very best, most novel, most methodologically sound and innovative, most well expressed work by virtue of the intense competition to get published in them?
Does prestige really matter? Setting aside careerism and ego, I think it does. Publishing in competitive journals offers some assurance of the soundness of your research. Not only that someone took a look at it, but that it was scrutinized, probably revised heavily, with all the odds and ends addressed to the satisfaction of the reviewers and editors. In other words it had to reach a high bar. Publication in a selective journal with a strong reputation can help your work to be taken a little bit more seriously than it would be otherwise. But peer-review is no absolute guarantee. My observation is that highly selective venues sometimes end up with an ever narrower body of (frankly) kind of formulaic work and tend to be confounded by interdisciplinary research.
I also think blogging and other forms of less formal publishing have an enormous capacity to make research more open, delivering it to broader audiences much more quickly. Access is not only about technical platforms for distribution, the question of paywall or no paywall, but also about format, language use, and clarity of self-expression. Blogging favors shorter pieces that aren’t so heavily larded with citations, academese, etc. There are many valuable contributions from research that don’t fit well within the 8000 word journal article format.
So where can we, as ethnographers, publish our work so that it is maximally available? What are our best options for open access publishing? This is #1 on the list of 10 ways to share your papers over at The Tree of Life. We’ve come up with a short list of publications where no compromise has to be made. They are both prestigious, competitive to get into, as well as fully open-access. Please make suggestions to add to this list. Or tweet your suggestions with the Hashtag #GoOpenAccess.
- The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
- First Monday
- Information Technologies and International Development
- Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (several votes @mi_anthro, @Theo_Kyriakides)
- International Journal of Communication
- Anthropology of This Century (via @Theo_Kyriakides)
- Language @ Internet (via parnopaeus – see comment below, also @mi_anthro)
- Journal of Computer Gaming (via parnopaeus – see comment below)
- Signs – the International Journal of Semiotics (via parnopaeus – see comment below)
- Journal for Business Anthropology (via Melissa Cefkin – see comment below)
- The Journal of Visual Ethnography (requires registration, but not payment to access articles)
- Ctheory.net (via @morgangames)
- The Fiberculture Journal (via @morgangames)
- Future Internet (via @morgangames)
- Global Ethnographic – brand new journal! (via @alexleavitt)
- African Studies Quarterly (via Tony Waters, see comment below)