Sunday, September 7, 2008

What if the Society for American Archaeology were to make its journals Open Access?

What would be the positive and negative impacts if the SAA were to transform its scholarly journals (American Antiquity, “AA;” and Latin American Antiquity, “LAA”) from Toll Access to Open Access (“OA”)? This entry is a thought experiment whose purpose is to stimulate thinking about OA issues. I’m sure there are relevant factors that I am unaware of or can’t think of right now.

Positive Impacts

  1. Improved quality of articles and book reviews.
  2. Vastly increased access to the journal.
  3. Faster publication of articles and the reduction of backlogs.
  4. Journal web sites.
  5. An opportunity for journal reorganization.

1. Improved quality of articles and book reviews. One of the biggest problems with current SAA journals is the strict limit in the number of journal pages, due to costs of printing, binding, and postage. Authors are regularly asked to cut their manuscripts down—sometimes drastically—not for scientific reasons but for reasons of journal space. Now I am all for cutting the often windy prose of archaeologists (including mine), but I know that I have been forced by editors to reduce some of my LAA papers to the point where their quality was diminished, and I have heard numerous colleagues say the same thing. I have had readers ask me about cryptic statements in my LAA papers that derived directly from such cutting. OA journals do not have this kind of page limitations, so articles can be longer if they need to be. This would be an increase in quality.

The journals could also publish more book reviews! (see my previous cranky posts on book reviews). When I was Book Review Editor for JAA I was always agitating for more pages. With OA publication, editors can publish as many book reviews as they can obtain.

2. Vastly increased access to the journal. This, of course, is the main argument in favor of OA. Anyone could access the journals on line for free. Right now most of my colleagues in Mexico, for example, simply cannot get online access to any issues of LAA, one of the main journals in their discipline. If one is not affiliated with an institution with a subscription to JSTOR, then one has no access to these journals online at all. And even JSTOR is quite limiting, since the last 4 years of journals are not included.

Consider Principle No. 6 of the SAA’s Principle of Ethics:

“Public Reporting and Publication. Within a reasonable time, the knowledge archaeologists gain from investigation of the archaeological record must be presented in accessible form (through publication or other means) to as wide a range of interested publics as possible.”

Wow, this sounds like open access to me.

3. Faster publication of articles and the reduction of backlogs. Articles would appear much faster if the journals were OA, and the periodic backlogs would become a thing of the past.

4. Journal web sites. The SAA journals would have web sites! Can you imagine – these journals do not currently have web sites. Amazing. Presumably if they went OA, they would be forced to have web sites.

5. An opportunity for journal reorganization. Please see my previous post on this. Briefly, I suggested that AA and LAA redefine themselves as regional archaeology journals, and move their general papers on method and theory into a new OA journal. But if the SAA went completely OA, then all three journals would be readily available.

Negative Impacts

  1. Loss of subscription revenue.
  2. Potential death of the printed versions of the journals.

1. Loss of subscription revenue for the SAA. Members of the SAA would presumably remain members even if they got the journals for free. There are numerous professional reasons to belong to the society, and most members would probably continue their membership even if they didn’t get the journals. Therefore individual subscriptions would probably decline only slightly. Institutional subscriptions would be dropped, however, resulting in a significant reduction in revenue for the SAA.

2. Potential death of the printed versions of the journals. One solution to the drop in revenue from institutional subscriptions would be to discontinue the print versions of the journals. Articles would be available online, in pdf files with regular journal formatting, pagination, volumes and issues, etc. The savings from printing, binding, and mailing the journal could make up for the drop in institutional subscriptions (I have no idea of the actual figures here, and perhaps I’m way off base). Many people would be sad to see the demise of the printed journals. I know I would be sorry to see them go. I’d much rather have a paper copy of the journal in my grubby hands than just online downloadable pdf files. But what is really important for research and scholarship? A nice book-like journal you can hold in your hands, or the quality of scholarship as generated from authors, editors, and peer review? When you get right down to it, the essence of scholarly publishing is the peer review process. This would not change at all for OA. Alternatively, the SAA could decide that the continuation of the paper versions of the journals is simply worth the added expense.

So, how do the positives and negatives balance out for OA journals for the SAA? It should be pretty clear how I feel about this. What do YOU think?

NOTE: If you pay attention to the OA literature, you may notice the influence of Peter Suber’s ideas and writing in this entry.


Jay Woods said...

It is not an either/or proposition. For instance, the book reviews could go open source first.

Anonymous said...

Another for instance: back issues could go open access after 12 months.

Informal poll c.jay woods:
does anybody READ the book reviews??

Michael E. Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael E. Smith said...

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