Let’s Do This Together: A Cooperative Vision for Open Access

Let’s Do This Together: A Cooperative Vision for Open Access

by Marcel LaFlamme, Dominic Boyer, Kirsten Bell, Alberto Corsín Jiménez, Christopher Kelty, and John Willinsky

Over the past two weeks, public allegations of abuse at the (formerly) open-access journal HAU have touched off what one scholar has called “a fractal socio-technical controversy exploding in all directions.” Anchored, in part, by the Twitter channel #hautalk, responses from scholars across career stages have grappled with issues from power and privilege in a time of academic precarity to the status of the anthropological canon. Projects with no institutional connection to HAU have come forward to explain how they operate and what values guide their work. And while few have seriously suggested that the failings of one journal should cast doubt on the viability of open-access publishing more broadly, at least one commenter has lamented that we do not yet have a sustainable and ethical model of open access around which to organize.

In this post, we want to argue that such models already abound and that anthropologists ought to rally around them, rather than regarding open access as a proleptic promise that never quite arrives. The six of us draw on our firsthand experience as participants in a variety of publishing projects and observers of the scholarly communication landscape in anthropology and adjacent fields. We affirm, informed by scholars of indigenous and traditional knowledge, that openness is not an untrammeled good, and we endorse the cultivation of a diverse publishing ecology in which experiments can flourish and one size need never fit all. Yet, as the executive committee of an open-access publishing cooperative called Libraria, we also put forward our actually existing model of open-access publishing and invite engagement with it in the here and now.

As the conveners of Allegra Lab did in their own reflection last week, we want to acknowledge that the history of Libraria has intersected with that of HAU and its embattled editor-in-chief, Giovanni da Col. The idea for Libraria grew out of discussions between two of us (Willinsky and Corsín Jiménez) and da Col at a 2014 event in Madrid. HAU and da Col were active participants in the initiative’s early stages, as a research site in a broader study of open-access cooperatives. By 2016, though, HAU withdrew from full membership in Libraria and recast its role as that of an observer, in the context of disagreements over Libraria’s organizational structure and concerns that Libraria might compete with HAU for institutional support. The 2017 editorial in which da Col announced HAU’s retreat from open access went so far as to charge that initiatives like Libraria “do not offer much hope at this historical conjuncture.”

By synthesizing lessons already learned from the many successful open-access projects in anthropology and beyond and by describing the portfolio-scale model that we have developed at Libraria, we aim to push back against this statement of hopelessness and to turn the present moment into an occasion for a renewed sense of collaboration and common purpose.

Seven Slogans for an Open Anthropology

We have organized this review of best practices around seven programmatic statements, in an effort to shift the discussion around open access beyond insider debates that, one of us (Kelty) has observed, are “maddeningly complex and ultimately very boring.” The details matter, of course, and assuming that someone else would worry about them is part of how scholars ended up with the broken system of scholarly communication we have. Still, the six of us do not believe that mastering the intricacies of OA-speak (or putting one’s own research on hold to do so) should be a precondition for taking a stand as an advocate of open access.

Small is beautiful

Individual publications with a clear sense of scope, a small community of supporters, and access to fairly modest institutional resources can succeed on an open-access basis. Indeed, such publications may be less likely to succumb to what Jason Baird Jackson has called “the drive to do big and fast open access.” We offer the examples of two Libraria members. Limn, a scholarly magazine based in the United States, publishes themed issues—both online and in print—on a range of contemporary problems. Valuation Studies, a journal based in Europe and supported in part by the Swedish Research Council, fosters exchange in an emerging, transdisciplinary field. Each draws on a combination of volunteer and paid labor to produce a publication that seeks to move particular conversations forward. Neither aspires to become a publishing juggernaut. Keeping overhead costs low insulates these two projects from the pressure to recruit and retain a sprawling cast of sponsors.

But scale matters

Another member of Libraria, Cultural Anthropology, has advantages that Limn and Valuation Studies do not. The journal is sponsored by the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA), a section of the American Anthropological Association, and the dues paid by the SCA’s more than one thousand members help to cover the journal’s production costs. So do the royalties that the SCA receives in connection with the journal’s backfiles, which have not (yet) been ungated. These sources of support have allowed Cultural Anthropology to build one of the most dynamic websites in the discipline, with peer-reviewed articles sitting side by side with short-form content, films, and podcasts. Yet the costs of this platform (and its successor, presently in development) have been borne almost entirely by the SCA. Wouldn’t it be better if the costs and capacities of platforms like this were distributed across three or five or ten publishing projects? Here, scholars in the United States and Europe have much to learn from our colleagues in the global South, where initiatives like SciELO have long been built around a shared open-source platform.

Attention is scarcer than money

In an editorial published last week, da Col acknowledged that the funding model at the heart of the HAU Network for Ethnographic Theory had proved “too volatile and dependent on departmental budget finances.” This was, regrettably, apparent to many of us watching from the sidelines. Academic departments do not generally have dedicated funding lines for supporting publications not published by the department, meaning that projects like HAU must compete for attention with the many other claims on a department’s discretionary funds. Moreover, even if a project like HAU did attract an exceptional commitment of ongoing support, this arrangement would effectively cannibalize support for any other project that came along. Part of doing our “homework” as open-access advocates is to follow the existing flows of funding within colleges and universities, and the present reality is that those pass through academic libraries (some of which, it should be noted, did participate in HAU-NET). Even then, the message we have heard from the librarians with whom we have consulted about Libraria is that libraries cannot be asked to support open-access publishing one journal—one conference call, one invoice—at a time. This is not a reasonable demand on their attention.

APCs are not the answer

HAU’s previous funding model also included levying article processing charges (APCs) from authors who were understood to have access to funds earmarked for this purpose. As Emily Yates-Doerr’s post on this blog detailed, though, the way that this policy was carried out raised the specter of a “pay-to-play” arrangement for accepted articles and led to communication with authors that can only be described as a shakedown. Despite the widespread perception that open access is synonymous with APCs, these charges are far from the only way of funding open access and have been critiqued for reinscribing inequities between rich and poor institutions, facilitating journal rackets, and being susceptible to the same unsustainable increases that afflict subscription pricing. An international symposium devoted to “Envisioning a World Beyond APCs” recently charted a number of possible paths forward, building on a range of actually existing alternatives. As APCs become one more revenue stream for commercial publishers (and as funders begin to signal their impatience with this model), energy is gathering around projects that are open and free for both authors and readers.

Libraries are more than piggy banks

On either side of the Atlantic, libraries are flexing their purchasing power and walking away from exorbitantly priced “big deals” with commercial publishers. While moves like this are freeing up budgetary resources, librarians have also warned open-access advocates not to just assume that these resources are theirs for the taking. The instrumental relationship of vendor and client must give way to partnerships structured around meaningful consultation. Yet it is important to underscore that libraries do not simply write checks: they are publishers in their own right and sites of invention where new tools and services are being created. Museum Anthropology Review is one open-access journal that is capacitated by the vision, investment, and labor of a library publisher. Other publishing projects have looked to libraries for a more discrete set of services, from the LOCKSS model of digital preservation to products like Avalon, the media management system that powers Cultural Anthropology’s Sound + Vision section.

University presses are not the enemy

One unfortunate effect of HAU’s retreat from open access was the negative light in which it placed the University of Chicago Press, as the journal’s new publisher. Let us be clear: we support university presses as they work out how they can best participate in an open-access ecology. Indeed, Current Anthropology, which is sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and published on a subscription basis by the University of Chicago Press, is a Libraria member. The situation for university presses and other independent publishers is a tricky one, because these organizations frequently rely on a profitable journals program to cross-subsidize their less profitable books division. But open-access experiments are underway, whether at the scale of a single journal (as with Environmental Humanities, published by Duke University Press) or an entire publishing program (as with the Collabra initiative at the University of California Press). Meanwhile, new university presses are being founded on an open-access model, including Athabasca University Press, UCL Press, and Helsinki University Press. The one appeal we would make to our colleagues in this sector is to be honest with us: the doublespeak used by HAU to describe its “‘free-access’-cum-subscription model” is not helping anyone.

The next battle is for infrastructure

As libraries plainly state their intention to “responsibly transition funding for journal subscriptions toward funding for open dissemination,” commercial publishers are beginning to back away from the subscription model and are shifting their focus from content to infrastructure. Leading the way is Elsevier, which has rebranded itself from an academic content provider to an “information analytics company.” Through its aggressive buy-up of research infrastructure from the reference management software Mendeley to the institutional repository bepress to the altmetrics provider PlumX, Elsevier has inserted itself into virtually every stage of scholarly knowledge production. Clarivate Analytics is not far behind, with a product line that extends from Web of Science (arbiters of the Journal Impact Factor) to the manuscript management system ScholarOne and the reviewer database Publons. This move toward vertical integration supplies these companies with granular data on circulation, citation, and engagement. The endgame here, in our analysis, is to define metrological publics and then to design data-intensive services that cater to them—a business model that stands to be far more profitable than trying to lock down content in the age of SciHub. Unless we want the horizons of our scholarship to be defined by these algorithmic enclosures, academics must begin to direct resources toward open scholarly infrastructures. Initiatives like Érudit and Knowledge Unlatched point the way.

The Libraria Model

The core insight of the Libraria model is that we can redirect the existing flows of money in scholarly publishing to support a sustainable and ethical open-access ecology. Who will pay for it? It is already being paid for. By displacing commercial publishers and their 30–40 percent profit margin from the center of the model, the savings effected are enough to maintain existing levels of service and to apply the freed-up surplus to some combination of reductions in overall spending and new cooperative investments.


In this diagram, which depicts the status quo in anthropology and adjacent disciplines, the commercial publisher sits at the center. Authors and journal editors provide the publisher with content and services for free, while scholarly societies earn enough to lull them into what one of us (LaFlamme, with Nina Brown and Sarah Lyon) has called “a condition of learned helplessness.” Libraries, meanwhile, pay these publishers ever-escalating subscription fees, which they are often prohibited from publicly disclosing; ironically, libraries are also the ones tasked with denying access to nonsubscribers through the maintenance of elaborate authentication systems. As a result, the scholarly output of entire fields of knowledge can only be accessed by readers who are: a) affiliated with an institution that can afford a subscription; b) affiliated with an institution in a country that qualifies for philanthropic access, or; c) a member of the right scholarly society. Other readers are left to rely on preprints deposited in institutional repositories, open their wallets for pay-per-view access, or else turn to the pirate sites.


In this second diagram, which depicts the Libraria model, many things stay the same. Authors, editors, and reviewers still work together to develop a submitted manuscript into a publishable article, and societies still get income from the journals they sponsor (if perhaps not at the same level as they did before). But instead of a commercial publisher at the center of the model, we now have a mission-driven, transparently governed cooperative, Libraria. Rather than paying subscription fees to the commercial publishers, library members pay into the cooperative over a fixed multiyear term. This gives journals that are currently published on a subscription basis the stability they need to “flip” to open access. Libraria’s focus on established journals means that our model provides continuity with the editorial legacy of these publications and ensures that scholars do not need to choose between publishing open access and publishing in titles that hiring and tenure committees know and value.

So who would do the actual publishing? The answer comes in two parts:

  1. If a journal wants to continue its relationship with an existing publisher and if the publisher is willing to work with Libraria on capping costs and offsetting payments made to the cooperative when selling larger bundles, then the journal could continue to be published just as it was before (except open access!). Instead of collecting subscription fees, the publisher would receive a direct payment from Libraria.
  2. If a journal’s existing publisher does not wish to participate in Libraria, then the journal will be published on a platform maintained and staffed by the cooperative, likely in conjunction with one or more library publishers. In cheeky tribute to a road not taken during the health-care reform debate in the United States during 2009 and 2010, we have come to refer to this scenario as “the public option.” Maintaining a publishing infrastructure of our own would also allow us to work with editorial teams who are rebooting a publisher-owned title that they were forced to abandon.

There are more details to share (and others to be rigorously worked out in the months ahead), but we want to close by emphasizing that the challenge of the Libraria model is not, ultimately, a financial one. The challenge is to develop, first, relations of mutuality, and second, processes of coordination among a diverse group of actors that are not accustomed to working together in cooperative ways. This is the challenge set forth by Anand Pandian, in daring us to approach open access with “minds open to being remade by the unexpected.” This has been our shared project since Libraria was established in 2015: to create the conditions for a care-ful ecology of open-access publishing that marks a principled break with the extractive system we now have.

Many others have joined us in this work, including Libraria’s Governing Council, our Advisory Board, and the charter library members whose support we gratefully acknowledge: Duke University, Iowa State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rice University, the University of Rhode Island, and the University of California system. Will you join us too? Whether you are a librarian who is looking to expand your institution’s commitment to open access, or a publisher who is surveying the landscape and wanting to explore a different revenue model, or a journal editor who’s willing to have a low-commitment conversation, or a newly elected member of a society board who is starting to think that a new direction is needed: we invite you to reach out to us at join@libraria.cc. As we collectively process the many lessons of the #hautalk moment, let’s also start working toward the world we want to win.

Marcel LaFlamme is Visiting Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. Dominic Boyer is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University. Kirsten Bell is Professor of Social Anthropology in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Roehampton. Alberto Corsín Jiménez is Reader in Social Anthropology at the Spanish National Research Council. Christopher Kelty is Professor in the Institute for Society and Genetics and the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. John Willinsky is Khosla Family Professor of Education at Stanford University and the founding director of the Public Knowledge Project. Together, they serve as the executive committee of the open-access publishing cooperative Libraria.