September 18, 2011
Recent on-line articles have pointed out the enormous problem of money in academic publishing. As one seminal article explores (http://theconversation.edu.au/how-academic-journals-price-out-developing-countries-2484), academics in developing countries are priced out of the market for world knowledge—with prices for academic journals soaring way out of control, only libraries in the developed world tend to be able to afford subscriptions to journals. To quote from the above article, “students from poor backgrounds in large parts of the developing world will not have access to quality academic journals in their universities. This means that they will not be as well trained, and as a result will not have the same opportunities as the privileged.” In a discipline like anthropology, perpetually seeking to overcome its roots in Morgan and Tylor, its legacy as a colonial discipline, this is a major global problem. Differential access to journals separates anthropologists of the developed-world core from those of the developing-world periphery. To the extent that anthropologists from the periphery are cut off from developed-world anthropological knowledge, they are doomed to remain on the periphery—to not fully know what’s going on in their global professional world, and thus to remain at its margins.
The ultimate solution to this problem is open access (see http://theconversation.edu.au/explainer-open-access-vs-traditional-academic-journal-publishers-2511). Open access has been gaining considerable traction in recent years, with, for example, some authors posting pre-print versions of their articles on their websites. Discontent with closed-access journal publishing—which seems to have a greater stranglehold in the hard sciences, where journal prices are most expensive—have led institutions such as M.I.T. to make many scientific articles available on its data base, and has led protestors to place their work on various pirate sites (see http://theconversation.edu.au/putting-a-price-on-knowledge-the-high-cost-of-academic-journals-2475). Within anthropology, discontent with this system is what has led to the efforts of WCAA to put together a world database of anthropological journals.
However, fact remains that the highest-impact journals in anthropology as well as in many other disciplines are, almost as a rule, those that require paid subscriptions, because these are the journals that many scholars want to publish in, and thus that can afford to be expensive. The journal I edit, Asian Anthropology, is not open access; I would certainly like it to be, but it is not my journal but that of my department, most members of which maintain that closed access and a print edition are the only way to justify the journal’s existence. It is a professional necessity for increasing numbers of young academics throughout the world to publish in expensive print journals, with academics across continents worrying about what journals rank highest on the Social Science Citation Index. Those journals that rank the highest are to a rough degree, anyway, those that cost the most to access, which is no coincidence.
Ultimately open access will win out—this is inevitable—but it will be a long-term struggle, simply because it seems in individual journals’ best interests to charge money and remain closed. This is not because they are greedy for profits but because they seek the global prestige that closed access seems to often bring within the anthropological world. This is how anthropology remains colonial, a situation that I myself am sorry to be helping, in a tiny way, to sustain.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
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