An Open Infrastructure for Anthropology

On September 27, 2018 by Alberto

The AAA recently announced its decision to build an Open Access repository. “Wow!”, you might think. Well, I beg to disagree, because it is partnering with Atypon, a Wiley-owned company, to do so (see here, p. 27).

This is terrible, terrible news for anthropology. Earlier today I sent an email to AAA’s leadership inviting them to reconsider the decision. This is what I wrote:

Dear Professors Agbe-Davies, Barker, and Gupta

I hope this email finds you well.

I read with interest the note (“A Repository for the Common Good”) that Professor Barker published in Anthropology News last week. To my surprise, however, I later read that the AAA has partnered with Atypon, a Wiley-owned company, to develop the infrastructure.

I am writing to you out of concern for the implications of the AAA’s decision. There is ample evidence today of the devastating consequences that delegating the design and management of Open Access (OA) repositories to proprietary and corporate vendors will have on the future of scholarly communications. Let me take this opportunity to briefly outline some these concerns here.

It is well established in the library community today that the future of scholarly communications does no longer depend on securing Open Access to scientific publications–not because the issue of OA is no longer of importance, but because it is now taken as a given that new policy mandates (by the EU and research councils worldwide) will make OA publishing very much a de facto scenario by 2025.

Instead librarians and OA advocate organisations are turning their attention to the ownership of the infrastructures underpinning scholarly communications. There is increasing concern about the vertical integration strategies that corporate publishers are advancing for taking control of the full life-cycle of scientific communications–and in particular of its data landscapes. (1) At a time when the introduction of data management plans and data archiving policies are reshaping the public spheres of scholarly communications, staying in control of the design and governance of data repositories has become of paramount importance. (2)

In this context, what is at stake is not simply a technical decision regarding who will manage the infrastructure for the AAA. Rather, it is a landmark decision about what the field of anthropology will look like in the age of data–how anthropological knowledge will be organized and classified, who will design the algorithms of relevance and impact, who will concoct the metrics that will shape its circulation and readership.

The decisions we make today on these matters will generate path-dependencies that could lock the AAA’s data ecology (and by extension, much of the discipline at large) into a commercial infrastructure for years to come. When ‘data discoverability’ rather than ‘content’ becomes the technical discriminator of scholarly value, the question of who designs, controls and governs such regimes of value becomes the key issue.

There are plenty of academy, university-owned and not-for-profit infrastructure providers that the AAA could turn to for developing such a service. There is absolutely no reason why the AAA should turn to a corporate vendor for this. There is more at stake here than the bells and whistles of the platform. Crucially, in the case of Atypon/Wiley, given the latter’s existing commercial relationship with the AAA’s journal portfolio, there is a very real risk that the integration of data analytics and interoperability across the journals’ and repository platforms will create an insurmountable barrier to entry to future service providers. This is exactly the vertical integration risks that librarians are urging us to pay attention to.

For all the above reasons, I call the AAA’s leadership to seriously reconsider its decision of partnering with Atypon for the building the repository, and to open up a wider consultation with librarians and public infrastructure providers that will truly warrant our working towards a “common good” for anthropology.


Alberto Corsín Jiménez
Spanish National Research Council

(1) Posada and Chen. 2018. ‘Inequality in Knowledge Production: The Integration of Academic Infrastructure by Big Publishers.’
(2) Lewis et al. 2018. ‘Funding community controlled open
infrastructure for scholarly communication’,…/crlnews/article/…/16902/18557.

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