Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, May 14, 2007

Why the AAA hasn't embraced OA

Bill Davis, Financing AAA's Publishing Program in an Era of Open Access, Anthropology News, May 2007.  Davis is the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).  (Thanks to  Excerpt:

Maximizing free access to the published work of scholars is a principle fundamental to the generation of new knowledge. Why then would the non-profit society publishing community fail to wholeheartedly embrace the arguments of open access advocates to make electronic versions of scholarly journals free to anyone seeking such access? The answer requires an examination of the numbers. Let’s look at those for AAA.

The cost of publishing and distributing AAA’s 22 peer-reviewed print and online journals is anticipated to be over $2.1 million in 2007. Individual journal costs will range from under $6,000 to over $300,000 per title, and $55 to almost $350 per page.

Library subscribers will pay 46 percent of the $2.1 million, while AAA and its publication-sponsoring sections will bear another 44 percent. Print advertising, royalties, permission fees, individual print and digital sales, and other publications revenue will cover the last 10 percent of these costs.

Unlike commercial publishers, especially in the scientific, technology and medical (STM) fields, who have raised subscription fees to exorbitant levels, AAA has kept individual publication subscription prices extremely low. We provide free access to AnthroSource to over 2,000 institutions —tribal colleges in North America, historically black colleges and universities, and libraries in developing countries. Compared to average institutional print subscription prices in anthropology of more than $400 per title, other libraries pay an average of $65 for AAA print publications and between $350 and $1,200 for online access to current and retro content of 16 AAA titles, and back issues of another 14 AAA titles on AnthroSource.

Unlike some association publishers who subsidize other organization activities from journal publishing profits, within AAA the subsidy flows in the opposite direction. AAA and section member dues will subsidize our publishing program to the tune of more than $900,000 in 2007....

In 2006, the London-based Publishing Research Consortium, in a study of the main drivers behind selection decisions of acquisitions librarians, found that a significant number are likely to substitute freely available content for the same content available by subscription. “As [much] as 40% believe that libraries are wasting their money subscribing to journals when almost the same content is available for free,” according to the report....

For scholars in our fields, unlike their colleagues in the medical, the biological and physical sciences, there is relatively little federal or college and university grant support available, and what exists will often not support “paying” to publish research results. For many scholars in these fields, it will fall to the individual scholar to pay to publish. If AAA were to adopt an author-pay model for our publishing program, costs could range from around $1,000 to over $5,000 per article, depending on the title and the number of articles in each issue.

An equally significant concern with the author-pay model is that it would privilege scholars whose personal financial resources enable them to dig into their own pockets to pay to publish over colleagues with lesser personal means....

Another proposal to fill the gap in financing nonprofit society publishing operations is to substitute member dues for library subscription income. For AAA, all other program expenditures remaining the same, this would require an average increase in individual member dues of 71 percent, an average rise from $133 to $227....

Maybe there are options not yet widely discussed. For example, the proposed legislation requiring that any federally supported research be published through an open access repository could be accompanied by a requirement that every federal research grant include in its amount the costs of such publication....


  1. The PRC study is flawed.  It studied the hypothetical preferences of librarians, not actual cancellation decisions, and it disregarded faculty input on cancellation decisions when all librarians acknowledge that faculty input is decisive.  Less hypothetical studies, like Mark Ware's March 2006 study for ALPSP, show that OA archiving is not a significant cause of journal cancellations and trails far behind high journal prices.  (My usual disclaimer applies:  high-volume OA archiving might really increase cancellations, but there's no hard evidence yet that it will, and abundant evidence to the contrary in physics, the field with the highest levels and longest history of OA archiving.) 
  2. It's true that anthropology has little research funding, compared to fields like biomedicine, and therefore may be less able to support OA journals that charge publication fees.  (Or at least for now:  until more universities start to pay publication fees for their faculty and until the money now tied up in subscriptions is freed up to pay for the OA alternative.)  But Davis seems to assume that all OA journals charge publication fees when in fact most do not.  Because so many others share Davis' assumption, the business models of the no-fee journals are still largely ignored and unstudied.  The AAA could be among the leaders in exploring them.
  3. Even when OA journals do charge publication fees, the fees are usually paid by funders or employers, rarely by authors out of pocket, and the journals often waive the fees in cases of economic hardship.  Moreover, the evidence shows that more subscription-based journals charge author-side fees (like page and color charges) than OA journals, so if the fees discriminate against indigent authors, the effect is worse for non-OA journals than for OA journals.  For all these reasons it's misleading to suggest that fee-based OA journals would privilege affluent authors.
  4. On the one hand, the low level of federal funding for anthropological research does affect the prospects for fee-based OA journals in anthropology.  But on the other, the same low funding levels mean that an OA mandate for federally-funded research will have little effect in anthropology.  Hence at the very least Davis should direct the AAA to stop lobbying against such OA mandates (like FRPAA).  Davis can't have it both ways.
  5. I appreciate that Davis is looking for solutions that will make OA work.  But he misunderstands a key fact about OA archiving when he suggests that FRPAA (which would require OA archiving for most federally-funded research) "could be accompanied by a requirement that every federal research grant include in its amount the costs" of such OA archiving.  OA repositories never charge deposit fees.  There are modest upkeep costs for the repository but no costs for authors or readers. 
  6. Finally, the AAA is a green publisher (according to SHERPA).  Its journals already allow authors to self-archive their peer-reviewed postprints.  Hence, even if the AAA can't find a way to convert its non-OA journals to OA, or to provide gold OA, authors should provide green OA on their own initiative and take advantage of the opportunity the AAA has already created.