What Does It Mean To Become An Open Access Journal?

Following an earlier interview with Eva Erman on editing the open access journal Ethics & Global Politics, another set of enlightening responses on academic publishing. This time with Professor Brad Weiss of the College of William & Mary and President of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, which publishes Cultural Anthropology, the premier journal of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). It is a major journal by other metrics too (take your pick of GoogleScholar or Impact Factor). All of which is as preamble to the point: Cultural Anthropology will be a fully open access journal from 2014. Not just that. It has a web presence and offers a set of connected resources that are without compare (at least in my experience). Brad was kind enough to offer his time to answer some questions on taking a learned society journal of prestige open access.

Cultural Anthropology Cover Trimmed

1. How did the decision to make Cultural Anthropology open access come about? Who initiated it, and why?

There is a longish story here. For several years prior to this action, many members of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) Board, and our Editorial Board had been interested in pursuing an open access option. That really wasn’t up to us, as we are only one section of the AAA that maintains a contract with Wiley-Blackwell to publish more than 20 of its sections’ journals. However, the director of publications with the AAA, Oona Schmid, proposed the possibility, last August (2012) to all of the publishing sections that one of them could be permitted to go open access for the duration of the Wiley-Blackwell contract (which expires in 2017) given certain provisions. Our Board formed a task force, including some real experts on publishing and open access in particular, and this group determined that it was a good idea to pursue this option. As it happened, we were the only AAA section to elect to do so, so were authorized to make the transition, which will begin in February 2014.

2. How was the move to open access funded?

Again, a little complicated. For one thing, the SCA is the biggest section of the AAA, and our membership dues are important sources of revenue; but in and of themselves, they don’t cover the costs of publishing, as well as all of the other activities (workshops, board meetings, special sessions at the AAA meetings, a biennial conference, etc.) that the SCA undertakes. We have been able to build our fund balances over the last several years, when the Wiley-Blackwell contract brought us significant royalties. Between these two sources of funding, we are confident that we can make open access work – for now. In the long term, we are looking to develop an open access model that will incorporate many more sections of the AAA, so that whatever happens next in publishing (post-Wiley contract) allows sections to share editorial and distribution costs, which will substantially reduce the costs of publications for everyone. Our hope is that the costs of open access become so reduced through cost sharing, that each sections’ member dues will provide sufficient revenue to fund, not only their publications, but all of their other activities. This will probably mean that open access won’t be profitable, but will at least not be prohibitively expensive – and, crucially, that the professionals we hire to edit, publish and design the journal will get paid for their work.

3. It seems that your open access model, as paid for through membership dues, could be characterised as Article Processing Charges by another name. How would you respond to the objection that this is another drain on academic funds? 

We are seeking a middle ground. We cannot sustain open access for long on just membership dues; and we already have a broad membership, so we’re not asking for more money from members, we’re just using these funds for this purpose.  Moreover, we added the membership requirement primarily to reduce the number of unwarranted submissions that take literally hundreds of hours to process.  We are trying not to charge our members extra, but hoping that the fund balances we already have will keep our enterprise going until the AAA can generate a new publication model, which we hope will at least make open access more widely available, if not the standard model.

4. Are Editors or their assistants still paid in the same way as before the transition?

Absolutely. And we hope that this continues – we would not have agreed to the transition if we thought this would not be the case. We are not trying to “do more with less”, as so many academic institutions are demanding. Again we hope more co-operation among sections will allow the costs of this indispensable labor to be shared.

5. How do you organise, and pay for, your online presence?

As indicated above, our dues memberships and past royalties have given us significant fund balances in the last several years.

6. How do you organise, and pay for, your submission system?

We are organizing the whole process through Open Journal Systems, which we find to be a very efficient system.

7. Cultural Anthropology has a rich and exciting web presence beyond published work (like this, for example). What was the impetus for this, and how has it been resourced?

The development of the website was the product of a lot of forethought by our board, who felt that we could reach our members – and recruit more members – through a dynamic website. The shape and content of the site owes a huge debt to Ali Kenner who recently stepped down as the Managing Editor of the journal in order to take a teaching position at Drexel University. She had a great deal to do with designing the cite, and soliciting the input from the vast team of graduate student who make a major contribution to it. They do a lot of the compilation and “curating” under the auspices of the managing editor (who we hire) and the graduate student representative, who is a member of our Board. It is, indeed, heavily reliant on (post)grad student activity, but we have lots of interns who seem interested in joining our community.

8. Have you encountered reluctance from particular groups of academics (by seniority, region or discipline) in submitting to the new Cultural Anthropology?

We haven’t yet gone open access, so it’s hard to say if this will happen. But the response we have received has been overwhelmingly positive. We also changed our submission policy to require authors who submit essays to be members of the SCA, in part because our editors were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of papers they received – almost 300 per year – and especially because we want to encourage our authors to share the commitment to open access, and the mission of the SCA, that the journal does.

9. Thus far, how have you found the transition to open access? Is it a viable route for other established learned society journals in your view?

Time will tell, of course, but I am convinced that open access has to happen – the for-profit model of publishing has been detrimental to our libraries, which in turn undermines the resources of our universities and departments. And this has had deleterious effects for university presses that publish books at a loss, that libraries can’t afford to purchase. Aside from its (ever declining) profitability, that offered revenues to professional societies at the expense of their members’ time and professional resources, it is hard to see a compelling reason not to rethink the for-profit publication model. In my own view, what will make open access viable is more partnerships. Scholarly sections and societies with common infrastructural needs can share those costs. Libraries that stand to see their expenses reduced by open access journals can contribute their expertise and some resources. And major universities that stand to benefit by making contributions that are much less expensive than the costs of renewing subscriptions every year can join these efforts, too. There seems to be a great deal of enthusiasm for these projects, and the SCA hopes we can provide a valuable model that can support such efforts.

What can those of us interested in opening access in the social sciences learn from this story? A few tentative points:

First, substantive open access is viable for established big name journals, even within the terms of contracts with commercial publishers. How that works out in practice will be vary, but it is not the case either that big journals have to be closed access, or that they can only be open by charging huge APCs to authors. Open access can, and should, be the norm for the mainstream masters of the field, as well as for the upstarts.

Second, learned societies, somewhat contrary to arguments heard elsewhere, may even be in a better position to make the move to openness, since they are able to fund such a transition, can draw on a wider range of resources, and already have a status in the field that commands respect, regardless of publishing model.

Third, an online presence can be achieved that is vibrant, scholarly and (shows signs of being) sustainable. Again, a robust intellectual profile makes this easier than is the case for marginal start-up journals, especially when the efforts and talents of postgraduates and experienced Editorial Boards can be drawn on.

Fourth, there is a serious role for Editors and learned societies in driving this process. These are not only structures being imposed from above, but can be reworked and captured for scholarly communities. Editors therefore should get serious about openness, regardless of what journal they edit, and impress the need for new ways of communicating on to their colleagues and associations. Or it will happen to them, on someone else’s terms.

Fifth, transitions are not without problems, as the current funding model for Cultural Anthropology shows. There is clearly a debate to be had about financing and innovation, but creative thinking can clearly lead somewhere exciting, so Editors should get to it.


10 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Become An Open Access Journal?

  1. And for journals without large membership, deep pockets and other subscription journals in the program to prop up the OA versions?


    • We’ve covered examples of other full OA journals before (ones that aren’t associated with learned societies). One of the arguments is that it is harder for big-name journals to go open access, since the journal subscriptions subsidise the societies, rather than the other way round. The Cultural Anthropology experience unsettles that narrative somewhat.

      One answer, the answer I would indeed favour, is to reroute monies currently being blown on subscriptions to closed journals (in turn generating huge profit margins for commercial publishers) and use them to bring more journals ‘in-house’.


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