Care for Open Access? Write a letter!

On December 1, 2016 by Alberto

captura-de-pantalla-2016-06-09-a-las-10-38-46The pressure to have journals move to Open Access keeps mounting. However, despite proclamations to the contrary, the truth is that the for-profit journal system won’t collapse unless we build something to replace it. By “something” I don’t mean endorse boycott campaigns against commercial publishers or setting up our own OA journals. As laudable as these efforts are they hardly address the complex system of subscription payments that libraries must negotiate on a daily basis. We need therefore something a little bit more audacious. We need to build an ecology of scholarly communications. This is for a number of reasons:

1. First, most subscription journals are owned by commercial publishers not academics. We anthropologists are a lucky exception in this regard: the AAA owns a 22 journal portfolio, whilst JRAI, Africa, Comparative Studies in Society and History or Social Anthropology, among others, are also in the hands of academics.

2. However, even if academics decide to take action on the matter, drop all their commitments with commercial publishers and jump start (or migrate) their own OA journals, this wouldn’t resolve the issue either because there is no alternative financial model in place for libraries to fund individual journal operations. Sure, libraries can fund selectively a few journal titles here and there (for instance, the way HAU gets funded). But if libraries were suddenly to redirect their funding streams to thousands of individual titles, they would have neither the accounting nor the financial infrastructure to process all such transactions. It’s one thing to reallocate a few thousand dollars to a specific OA budget operation. It is quite another thing to set in place a budget and payment system for $3million.

In other words, if we want to replace the current subscription model we need to come up with a portfolio-collective approach that can flip the model in terms that are meaningful and convenient for libraries.

3. Therefore, if we really care about OA, I don’t think it’s enough to endorse boycotts (eg. Elsevier), to refuse to do editorial/peer review work for commercial journals, or even to limit our publishing to existing OA journals. Nor would leaving the editorial board of an existing subscription journal to set up a new OA title would do much in this context.

As laudable as all these efforts are, they are but minor interventions in a much more complex and intricate ecology. Instead, if we really care about OA, we need to build an ecology for it.

4. As it turns out, this is something that we, as anthropologists, can aspire to, because we own the most prestigious titles in our field. We can bundle all our journals as a unique OA portfolio and get libraries to join us in shaping the provision of a public corpus of social science scholarship. This is what we have been working towards with LIBRARIA.

Imagine libraries, journals, learned societies and editors coming together to build an Open Access cooperative of scholarly communications. The cooperative would be funded by redirecting research libraries’ acquisition funds – currently spent in pay subscription fees to commercial publishers – to the cooperative fund. Other sources of external income might include innovation grants, agency funding and in-kind institutional support.

For instance, LIBRARIA’s financial scenarios show that a cooperative participated by c. 700 research libraries worldwide would enable publishing a portfolio of c. 30 Open Access journals in the humanities and social sciences at no additional expense to libraries.

5. Want to help? Write a letter!

If you really care about OA write a letter to the President/Executive Committee of your professional association / learned society saying that you demand of the society that it flip its publishing program to OA; that you are aware that there are alternative projects in place (such as LIBRARIA) and that you call for the society’s public and unflinching endorsement of one such project. Our professional bodies must be mandated to go OA. Below is a draft of one such letter for you to use:


Dear President / Executive Committee / Committee for the Future of Electronic Publishing of [Learned Society]

I am writing to you as a member of the [Learned Society] with a long-standing commitment towards the public value of scholarship. At a time where a crisis of expertise, fake news and demagogy are increasingly shaping our public spheres, the public availability and discoverability of scholarly knowledge becomes more important than ever. In this context, putting academic knowledge behind a paywall is a double treason: a treason of the scientific ethos of public exchange and debate; and a treason, too, of our civic responsibilities as recipients of public funds. However, the arguments for Open Access are well known and have been amply documented, and it is not to expound them yet again that I am writing to you on this occasion.

I am fully aware that the case for Open Access has been received with reservations by Learned Societies in the past. Embarking on an Open Access publishing program costs money and it has often been argued that there are no sustainable, long-term financial models available that warrant a Society’s migration to an Open Access scenario. It is also well-known that Societies receive up to 40% royalty payments from the publication of their journals by commercial presses, and that this income sometimes makes for Societies’ only source of revenue. 

These reservations are understandable but they are also outdated. The Open Access movement has made notable progress in recent years. There are now well-tested financial alternatives for both journals and learned societies (for example, SCOAP3, The Open Library of the Humanities or LIBRARIA, to name but a few). The precautions and conservativism of years past is therefore no longer justified. The time has come for our Society to do whatever it takes to migrate its publishing programe to an Open Access model. The expertise, the institutional context, the technical skills and the financial acumen are all in place to make it happen now.

I am therefore writing to you to demand that the Society take the challenge of Open Access seriously, and that it do so by setting in motion a transitional process straight away. Anthropology needs to go Open Access and it needs to go Open Access now. Therefore, as a member of the [Learned Society] please read my letter as a direct mandate to the Society to initiate this process immediately.

I hope you take my letter very seriously, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,


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