How many journals can the anthropological community support?

Is open access a threat to traditional journals? Can they exist side by side, or is there a viable limit or advantage to maintaining a select few? Having asked my professors for interesting articles on online communities, I fell upon a discussion at the Media Anthropology Network regarding the feasibility of going open access which brought up a number of questions:

Given that most journals are understaffed, and underfunded, would an influx of open access journals stretch out the existing pool of reviewers too thin?

To answer this, I think there are interesting parallels to be drawn between open access publishing and open source software projects. Among open source projects, there are often competing developer communities working on very similar projects. The developers of the KDE desktop, and the Gnome desktop have both created excellent graphical environments that can be run on the free and open source GNU operating system. Arguments have been made to the effect that their talents are spread thin, and if they just worked together they could create something even better.

Over at, Eric Raymond, in a video interview, argues that “it turns out to be really important that theres a lot of fluidity and play and slip in the way that the linux world is organized basically as a bunch of little projects that people then sort of assemble horizontally into distributions but there are multiple competing distributions and if you don’t like a particular project its easy to plug in a competing project. Thats harder to do in the BSD world there distributions tend to be dominated by small elites and the distributions themselves are more rigid…

… that imposes a certain uniformity a certain rigidity that turns out to be a problem because if you have a policy disagreement or a philosophy disagreement with the elite that runs a particular distribution your only alternative really is to clone the entire distribution and go into competition with them and that means that the BSD world tends to be a lot more fractious and to have a smaller community and to have much more bitter politics than the linux community does… ” (

Having no experience with anthropological journals, I wonder how this argument holds up. Are traditional journals the small elite, with a smaller fractious community, and open access journals the new community charged Linux? But theres no reason existing journals can’t just go open access. And in the case of Linux and BSD, both are open source (with different license particularities). So here theres a difference between going open access, and the way we go about managing the production as a whole.

Along with arguments to go open access, are arguments to open up the review process and to speed up publishing times. A lot of it has to do with control, and responsibility to the larger community.

I think its important not to over complicate the matter however. Peer review is one thing, open access publishing is another, both can also work together. But if peer review is a challenge for journals, in that finding reviewers is a challenge and a burden on the academic community, then perhaps there are ways to open up the review process as well (having never published I am only beginning to look into all the pitfalls of anonymous vs public review, etc).

In my own experience I am pretty much clueless, even as a grad student, as to which journals bring prestige and which don’t. I certainly go out of my way to cite papers I find online -(aka out of my way to avoid digging through actual library shelves).

3 responses to this post.

  1. This is an important post I think because it raises many key issues. To be really direct, and here some people will object, it is fairly well established which are the prestige journals in anthropology. These are the ones that are also referred to as “tenure journals”, because in the United States (much moreso than in Canada), having published in one or more of these select few journals can help to assure you of tenure and/or promotion, and some universities (over)emphasize the value of publishing in journals (because of the often mistaken assumption that journal articles are more peer reviewed than books, and I say mistaken because one of my books in particular went through several rounds of review and revision and ended up being almost completely different from what was originally submitted). Those tenure journals are, typically, the American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Current Anthropology, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and, perhaps a few others such as Ethnohistory.

    Yes, the pool of available reviewers, not just for articles submitted, but also for book reviews, is thinning, mostly because most professors have far too much on their plates already, or they may undertake to do a review and never complete it because they cannot manage all of the competing priorities. I say this as someone with one book review that is 18 months overdue, and another that is 12 months late. But at least I will do the reviews–in many cases books are distributed to reviewers by the journals that received them, and nothing is ever heard from the supposed reviewers again.

    The peer review system as a whole faces an important crisis, one with multiple roots, and there are not enough people who are willing to openly talk about this crisis, let alone bring about change.

    These are just some of the problems in my view, and I must caution that I am writing with haste:

    (1) insufficient numbers of reviewers, or, an over reliance on the so-called experts and authorities
    (2) inadequate reflection on the very philosophical assumptions of peer review itself–What are we guarding against? Do people with PhDs really risk producing awful, misleading, nonsense, and if so what does this say about doctoral training? Why is the notion of “peer” restricted to the two individuals selected by a journal, and why does it have to be in advance of publication (thinking here of online journals)? To me, the journal article is a mimicry of the scientific report, and the peer review process is another uncritical adoption from the natural sciences, where we needed experts to review, for example, brain surgery procedures before too many people tried them and caused fatal damage. I don’t think our reports run the risk of even being read.
    (3) a failure to recognize the crisis of overproduction in academia–the “publish or perish” drive in most institutions means that there is a deluge of material being produced, far outstripping the number of people available to consume it–and if I am busily running away on my publishing treadmill, I have even less time to review the works of others, and if my university labels such work “service” and places it last in the list of valuable functions of a professor, then I have even less incentive.

    Working out a plan for the future is very challenging, especially if few people even consider the plan or discuss it further. The problem is that the average academic is so stressed and self-absorbed that even the act of a public discussion such as this is simply beyond their horizons.


  2. You certainly raise several excellent questions, ones on which I have little knowledge, and less clarity, despite being subscribed to Open Access Anthropology. But I am so glad to see someone has used a video clip posted on As I’m currently heads down writing my dissertation for a May defense, I only just noticed your link to it. If you like that clip, perhaps some of these others will amuse or inform, too:


  3. Thanks for the comments! I must seem rude not replying to fantastic comments like these for so long – and part of that is that I also speak with Max at Concordia, and its hard to weave conversations through two spaces, without repeating yourself a lot.

    Thanks for the links Jenny! Those videos have tons of great information in them. It would be awesome if we had some way to search through video conversations for content – did you ever produce transcriptions of them? Have you thought about posting those along with the videos?

    I notice your site is down. Looks like a big restore is in the works ? uggh.

    On the issue of peer review, and guarding against bad content – I have to say, that my ability to produce reasonable content is sporadic at best – I *wish* someone could review half the blog comments I’ve made because somehow I have an amazing ability to write complete nonsense. Having done that however, has led to me developing a heightened awareness of how permanent writing can be, and I’ve started self-reviewing my material a lot more.

    While doing a mini ethnography on “Why do anthropologists blog? for a class, I asked numerous fellow students “whats the most prestigious journal in your field”, and for the large part people just didn’t know. Further, most of the people I talked to didn’t pay attention to which journal an article came from, when they retrieved it online.

    Online access to journal articles seems to kill the identity of particular journals (especially over anthro source and jstor). I’ve never sat down and read through an issue of the American Anthropologist – but if such a journal was made available in the anthro reading room, then sure why not? (well its too expensive to have a copy sitting around for students to read with coffee).
    Are these prestige journals, also the most read journals?

    But this brings up something I’ve yet to investigate: If peer review is removed, then who controls for content? Is it then solely up to the editor to decide what goes into the journal? How does this work now… Do editors have veto power, on top of the peer review system? Who rejects papers?

    If peer review isn’t needed, are journals? Will a creative commons license, and online repositories for academic work, along with social ranking schemes being worked out on and other social network sites, remove academic publishers completely?


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