Anthropology and open access

As the open access debate creeps into journal articles, having been a hot topic for a number of years now, we begin to see how scholarship likes to make things more complex and perhaps more confusing than need be. One big confusion is the way anthropologists are interpreting “open access publishing” and the “open access movement” in new ways.

“Open access publishing” refers to making published material freely accessible on the internet. It was not meant to refer to making “any information” freely accessible on the internet. It is about taking things that would normally require payment to access, and to removing that barrier.

The point here is that there have always been ethical issues involved in creating and disseminating ideas – and these issues are not new to the Open Access movement – they tie in to publishing in general.

Ethical discussions as to what information should be shared are at the heart of anthropology, but I think we should be careful not to overly complicate the term “Open Access”.  Ie: one question is “should it be published at all”, while the other asks “now that I want to share it, how can I make sure the people I want to read it see it”.

Does information want to be free? (and who pioneered this phrase?) -> Yes, because in the sense used in the open access movement the information has been shared openly already, but is restricted by a price-barrier which results in no one reading it.

Does this refer to all information? Hell no. It never did! Should we admit we are making very little progress in our thesis on a blog where ones supervisor can read it? Probably not! The open access movement is not asking people to share every secret. It is trying to make the stuff we decide to share more accessible.

Check out Peter Suber’s “open access overview” page:


Open access is not synonymous with universal access.

  • Even after OA has been achieved, at least four kinds of access barrier might remain in place:
    1. Filtering and censorship barriers. Many schools, employers, and governments want to limit what you can see.
    2. Language barriers. Most online literature is in English, or just one language, and machine translation is very weak.
    3. Handicap access barriers. Most web sites are not yet as accessible to handicapped users as they should be.
    4. Connectivity barriers. The digital divide keeps billions of people, including millions of serious scholars, offline.
  • Even if we want to remove these four additional barriers (and most of us do), there’s no reason to hold off using the term “open access” until we’ve succeeded. Removing price and permission barriers is a significant plateau worth recognizing with a special name.”

What anthropologists can add is that along with schools, governments, and employers, there are numerous individual and cultural reasons for maintaining access barriers to information.

[universal != open]


16 responses to this post.

  1. This is an excellent post for so neatly and efficiently separating the various issues.

    Not to be stubborn, however, as a “reformed” open access enthusiast, I am still not convinced. What’s missing here is context, and being more reflective about the decisions we make to share information thinking it can or should be relatively harmless, at all times, yet in a world of shifting conflicts and interests.

    For those who produce ethnographies of political or otherwise potentially strategic interest, I don’t want to see any barriers removed; instead, I want to see them heightened and multiplied, to increase friction and increase the cost of gaining access to them. I do believe that we should share as much as possible with our collaborators, and that can be done directly and not “openly.” That applies to students and colleagues as well.

    You would ask: then should it be published at all? It will be, because too often researchers cannot predict the future uses of their work — so the choice is between giving it all away for nothing, especially in a format that allows for electronic harvesting and mining, and making it available but with some obstacles.

    Notice that “open access” usually presumes “electronic publishing.” That is a problem, since it is not, in a world where information access is commodified to begin with, all that “open” after all. Your post above makes reference to that basic fact. With a growing economic crisis, I would expect that the Internet population will shrink and become more exclusive. Just think about laid off workers here in Canada — spending $2000 to replace their computer system, and $40-$70 per month on broadband access, is just out of the question. These people are moving back into radio land.

    How about this as “open access”: I place my work in the Department reading room, and you provide ID to make a copy of it. That’s still open, right? You are not being charged anything, no subscriptions are involved, and you don’t even need a computer or an Internet account. How about you write to me asking for a copy of the paper, and I mail it to you? Still open access, right? In this latter case, you don’t even pay a cent.

    All I am asking is why is it that in making it available to those we want to have it, we have to make it ultra-easy and efficient for all those we don’t want to have it?

    The other question is: have we not had forms of open access already? Isn’t this what libraries by their very definition, always did?

    With reference to the national security state, yes, I want absolute zero information being shared, of any and all kinds, no matter how innocuous we might think that information may be. I don’t want their management of the world to be made any easier, in any manner, on any subject. That is a personal preference, I cannot speak for all. Unfortunately, “information wants to be free” does attempt to speak for all of us, and it admits little in the way of debate or diversity.


  2. So perhaps instead of arguing against the “information wants to be free” argument, anthropologists are really arguing against the “scholarship is meant to be shared” argument!

    Because what you are stressing is that there are interested parties that you don’t want to access your work. In this case, do not publish in a pay-for-access journal either, because it will be accessed by those parties you don’t want to share with. At this point it isn’t about “open access” anymore. It is about controlling how information will be used.

    “The other question is: have we not had forms of open access already? Isn’t this what libraries by their very definition, always did?”

    Well considering Concordia library does not have access to all anthropology journals, I will say, no.

    And since many interested parties cannot travel to a particular library to access material, but can access the internet, then again I will say no.

    My point is, no one in the open access movement argues “ALL information wants to be free”. I can’t track down who first said this, aside a wikipedia article though.

    In fact, I would say it is a deliberate misinterpretation that works to open the door to traditional anthropological discussions on ethics. Those discussions should be associated with publishing in general, and not confused with the “open access movement”.

    Publishing in a toll-access journal does nothing to control who reads the material. Arguing about “open access” in the sense you are using creates confusion, because the logic leap leads to “Max is right, I’ll just publish in a closed access journal so that its harder for the HTS to compile”… except that you never meant that – you didn’t want the material published in the first place, and you always knew the HTS paid for access to anthropology journals!

    If you use the term as you are suggesting above, then there is no difference between publishing in a toll-access journal, or in an open access journal. They are both open access since you cannot control who reads it, and both are archived in electronic form so its easy for people to mine it.


  3. (nitpick)
    I spend a lot of time on “fanboy” video game sites. First off, borrowing from the “PC vs xbox 360” debate, a computer does not cost $2000! Try $700 if you don’t already have a monitor. (or even $300 for a piece of crap Dell).

    My broadband costs $30 a month. Around the same I paid for internet in 1995.

    The internet has been growing at a phenomenal rate in countries with much worse off economies. The rates we pay are linked to national monopolies more than any form of reality. With its growth, I agree more and more boundaries are being made visible however!


  4. “For those who produce ethnographies of political or otherwise potentially strategic interest, I don’t want to see any barriers removed; instead, I want to see them heightened and multiplied, to increase friction and increase the cost of gaining access to them.”

    Well, another way of looking at the “information wants to be free” argument, is that no matter what you do to control your publication it will certainly be used in other ways. You don’t build a nuclear weapon and expect to keep the recipe secret!
    Even if you try to lock your information away, people will find a way to get it.

    Again, this comes back to the question “should it be published in the first place”.

    Also, since when did student access to information in the anthro reading room become any less problematic? Especially when students go on to become presidents, generals, and/or hippie burnouts?


  5. […] Max points out, there is a problem with the open access philosophy of “share it with everyone […]


  6. Hi Owen,

    those are a lot of responses, I don’t know where to start first.

    Let me begin with the quibble about access costs, and make my point more boldly: if you just lost your job, mortgage payments are due, bills have to be paid…replacing the computer system and maintaining any kind of Internet account become very low priorities, especially when food becomes a problem.

    The Internet is growing at a “staggering” rate in countries with worse off economies, you say. It is growing with those who can afford it, mainly the better off within the worse off economies. You don’t get away with dismissing the digital divide so quickly. Can you show that access is approaching universal?

    The idea that people who want the information will get it one way or another is true. However, this is what you are missing:

    (a) the more it costs and the more dispersed it is, the more barriers there are, the more the costs mount for accessing that information. Pay a lot to get little of immediate use, and pretty soon the interested authorities start facing difficult budgetary justifications. Listen, I am saying this as someone who is contacted by people in the Department of Indian Affairs for free copies of pre-published versions of papers in volumes I am editing — they want it free, and easy, as no government department can afford to buy everything and subscribe to everything.

    (b) those who run the kinds of state and corporate institutions and agencies that concern me, want electronic data, that can be mined by computers rather than persons. Making it all open access and online makes it very easy for them to do this — the fact that they DO in fact do this cannot be ignored any longer. The question now is do you facilitate their work, or do you look for alternatives? I am still not seeing your answer to this.

    I also raised other types of open access, that are not electronic. It seems they don’t count. I want to know why they don’t count as open access. I mentioned libraries, and you responded that by virtue of the fact that Concordia does not subscribe to all anthropology journals (by the way, I have access to all of them via Concordia, so I don’t follow this point at all), that means that Concordia’s very role and structure is not open access?

    As far as I am aware, anyone off the street can walk in and read whatever is on the shelves at the library. Why is that not open access?


  7. I should add — in the Cyberspace Ethnography course that I just completed, a few of the students owned no computers and had no Internet accounts at home. These are students at a university in a city in the so-called “first world,” for whom the Internet is still something strange. It made me feel real pain that my assumptions did not include the possibility of their situation, and it ends up being a motivation to change the course assignments for the future. Using shared computers on campus meant they could do very little online work in any given week, and some of the computers are in serious disrepair. Do you think it’s better for students in Malawi?


    • Posted by Graham on April 29, 2009 at 9:19 am

      A random fact for the wind from my own research:

      The average cost of access to the net in China, 2 RMB an hour or less, makes it one of the cheapest leisure activities in the country. This cost is low enough that even migrant workers are able to peruse the net now and then. Of course this is couched in the language of leisure, not in terms of access to critical academic knowledge.

      Of course China is what we would consider now to be a relatively ‘developed’ country. My trips to Mozambique and South Africa (outside of the disney land like aura of Cape Town) was mostly a world where the internet had no relevance.

      As a side note, it would be interesting to look into how countries like China are going about the whole publishing and access to information game, especially in a country where this game is still highly regulated…


  8. “those who run the kinds of state and corporate institutions and agencies that concern me, want electronic data, that can be mined by computers rather than persons. Making it all open access and online makes it very easy for them to do this — the fact that they DO in fact do this cannot be ignored any longer. The question now is do you facilitate their work, or do you look for alternatives? I am still not seeing your answer to this.”

    My answer: expect that everything you write will be read by the wrong people.

    Publishing in closed-access anthropology journals is no answer, and for this reason I am hoping to distinguish between “open access” publishing and “universal” access to information. We need to clarify the line between taking existing research publications and making them available, as opposed to sharing everything online. Open access was never about “care free information free for all”.

    The open access movement is trying to make existing scholarship more accessible. It is not asking for people to share “everything”, nor is it about sharing everything.

    For example: blogging is not “open access publishing” (at least as defined by the open access advocates I’ve been following) .

    Taking a peer reviewed article and posting it on a blog is open access. (aka self-archiving)

    And perhaps you posting un-reviewed essays of a high quality on your blog is also open access.

    Do you really think publishing behind a closed access journal run by the AAA, will make it harder for the military to mine? Are you saying you are against publishing these ideas at all, or that you just wouldn’t publish them in an open access journal?

    The OA movement is advocating that once you have decided to publish something that you don’t publish in a locked down pay for access journal, since few students (in Canada or Malawi) can access it. Instead they ask that you publish in an open access journal, or at least make a copy of your work available free of charge.

    I just don’t see the difference between sticking it in a library or sticking it online, at least when it comes to sensitive information and protecting it. I think if its possibly damaging, leaving it in a library is also irresponsible.

    But say it did work to keep the wrong people out – what good would it be if no one knew about it? Would these articles simply be used in your classes?

    Again, if it was possibly damaging information, why would you want to share it at all?

    How does collecting and sharing sensitive information benefit scholarship/communities/researchers might be a new angle to look at this from.


    • Although on further reflection, in trying to limit my exposure to advertising I’ve considered using something other than gmail. Considering everything I do online is being mined by advertisers, I can better understand your position. If I wanted to avoid “internet profiling” I’d probably not share anything online at all.


  9. Thanks Owen, this has been a good discussion for me.

    My worry remains, especially as one cannot predict, nor control, future uses of one’s work, and we do have very serious ethical obligations toward those who collaborate with us. I am therefore thinking of intermediate alternatives.

    Neither extreme will satisfy me. I am not for publishing nothing at all, nor for total closed access (by the way, I don’t think of libraries as closed access…unless it is one of the Harvard libraries whose name escapes me now). I am also not for just throwing all the doors open and giving it all away, to anyone and everyone.

    Information might want to be free…but does it also want to be a total slut? Please pardon my language.


  10. Thanks Max and Graham for helping me work this angle out!

    I still think I’ve failed to make my point clear – it’s that anthropologists are redefining the term Open Access in order to discuss the need to censor material.

    I do not believe Open Access publishing is trying to share material that is not fit to be shared.

    I understand your definition of open access, and it makes sense, but I find it is too broad. It ignores all the arguments for removing economic barriers to existing anthropology journals, which I hope are taking into account ethical issues that you discuss.

    If a library is open access, then publishing in a toll-access journal and publishing in an Open Access journal, are no different – both are “open access” as you and others are defining it.

    This is why I quoted the section from Peter Suber’s open access overview page, where he says that removing price barriers to academic research is “… deserving of a special name”.

    What name will we use for publishing research in Open Access Journals and self-archiving if we are to accept this broader definition where anything in a library is open access?


  11. Graham,

    I don’t have access the article, but it sure looks interesting: [woops, actually I do, just had to find the right database portal at Concordia library]

    “Perceptions of Open Access Publishing among Academic Journal Editors in China” 2007

    Xiaorong Shao”


  12. You would have to call it Really Open Access Publishing 😀

    By the way, since I see some have decided to have an Open Access Anthropology Day on what is international workers day — let me combine the two and wish you the best on both counts.

    As far as I am aware (I am choosing the word carefully), your thesis is the only one in the world on open access anthropology. On that count alone, you deserve a special shout out.


  13. @Owen, thanks for this post.I enjoyed reading it and its comments. I have to points which I would like to share here.
    First, how good or the right people will learn that you, anyone, or I conducted research on a certain topic if it is not online. In other words, from which channel they will know if it is not posted online. Should we publish online only the titles and the abstracts of our work especially when we think it might be used by the wrong people?
    Second, regarding the wrong people, I think and correcting me if I am wrong that there will always be wrong people for the same topic in the same and in the different context(s). It depends on how we define the wrong people. Is the knowledge we produce if it is open access online, is not it possible that it can be used by profitable companies, magazines, newspapers for profitable products, etc to gain money and gain profits in one way or another from such knowledge. My question is do we define such profitable organizations as wrong people?


  14. Perhaps it comes down to responsibility to academia, vs responsibility to communities involved in research, and about the need to publish everything we do. Is it really important to share our research, when already teachers say “no one will read it anyways.. don’t worry about it”?

    Well… I’m clearly on the share it and let people know what you are doing side.

    If the research benefits a community and the anthropologist – does it need to benefit all the other anthropologists? Can there be more flexibility than exists in the current system, where all research makes its way into a dissertation, thesis, article, or book?

    I can’t imagine doing research that couldn’t be published, especially in a university. If it can’t be published, don’t make it your dissertation! But this is probably too simple, and without any real context its impossible to develop any further. 😛

    @sara I missed Open Access in Anthropology day… Well, no I didn’t, since every day is OA day on this blog! But next year I’ll prepare a better post for it. Sorry about that Sara.

    And I missed one of your other questions Max,
    “Using shared computers on campus meant they could do very little online work in any given week, and some of the computers are in serious disrepair. Do you think it’s better for students in Malawi?”

    Hell yes. I had no problem opening PDF’s while traveling through India… even in the middle of a desert. Tell your students to get off their asses and to use the computers in the library building which have no issues whatsoever. The computers in the anthro reading room ARE challenging however. Did any of them tell you they couldn’t print their essays? There are lots of problems with the printers too 🙂


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