Open access publishing has been the subject of a great deal of discussion, and more than its fair share of anxiety in the academy, and in the social sciences in particular. These discussions have raised questions about everything from maintaining the quality of scholarly publications, to recognizing the value of scholars’ labor, to inevitable concerns about how such projects can be funded. I am by no means an expert on any of these matters, but in my one-time role as the president of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA), I did contribute to important conversations that eventually lead to our journal, Cultural Anthropology, being offered as an open access publication in February 2014. I can offer some insights from the process of bringing Cultural Anthropology to open access, and the ongoing issues this created, that may be of wider relevance to thinking about the future of open access, as well as of academic publishing more generally.

The first thing to note is that the history of publishing journals that are part of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), as Cultural Anthropology is, brought about the specific issues that led to an interest in going open access. Until 2004, the AAA had a contract with the University of California to publish all of its journals. The individual sections, like the SCA, that published a journal paid for this publishing program. Typically sections that publish journals would collect their members’ dues and budget for the business of running the section, in some instances for a periodic conference, and for publishing costs. What changed in 2004 was that the costs of publication became not only substantially more expensive but largely unpredictable from year to year because AAA journals were bundled together for electronic distribution in a product called AnthroSource. In some instances, the costs of adding electronic publishing were so onerous that many sections felt they would have to shut down, or at least shut down their journals, in order to remain solvent. In some instances, the costs of adding electronic publishing (which requires archiving, software and infrastructure expenses, and a range of licensing fees) were so onerous that many sections felt they would have to shut down, or at least shut down their journals, in order to remain solvent. In order to address this immediate fiscal challenge, the AAA sought alternative contracts, and—in 2006—signed an agreement with Wiley-Blackwell, a large, private, commercial press, to publish AnthroSource and its journals. Wiley-Blackwell guaranteed substantial royalties for a fixed time period, and, indeed, many journals—including Cultural Anthropology—made substantial revenues under the terms of this contract.

At the same time, the idea of publishing with a commercial press did not sit well with many, many members and board members of the SCA. Critics wondered: why should academics give the products of their scholarly labor—in the form of both their articles and their work as reviewers—to a for-profit press that generates its revenue by selling those products back to our home institutions in the form of (rather expensive) library subscriptions? As academics most of us have had to grapple with the challenges libraries face with shrinking budgets and an ever expanding array of publications to choose from. Of course, the revenues Wiley-Blackwell received also benefited the AAA in the form of royalties; but many felt this was a Faustian bargain that undercut the universities that made our scholarship possible in the first place. Those that shared this assessment of for-profit publication—and there were, and are, many—began to ask the AAA to investigate alternative methods of publication, including open access.

In 2012, Oona Schmid, at the time the AAA’s director of publishing, made an offer to all of the sections that published as a part of AnthroSource. One journal would be permitted to go open access so long as it covered the costs of distributing its journal (i.e., maintained a website, and all of the complex infrastructure that entails) for the balance of the time left on the contract with Wiley-Blackwell. The SCA was enthusiastic about this option, but somewhat skeptical as well. As the president of the SCA, I convened a task force of some really smart and well-informed scholars who met (virtually) over the course of a month or two in order to make a recommendation to the board about whether to pursue this opportunity. Would the SCA retain control over its back catalog so that older articles could be made available through open access? (Ten years of content is now available.) Could the SCA continue to use, for example, the online submission systems, and some of the copy-editing services the AAA and Wiley-Blackwell provided? (No, we do that for ourselves.) Would Cultural Anthropology continue to be part of AnthroSource? If not, how could we ensure that researchers looking for our content would actually find it? (We still are in AnthroSource and it’s a great way for subscribers to find us.) In the end, this task force did recommend going open access, and got some assurances from the AAA that we felt would allow us to do this in a fair and substantial way. In February of 2014 the first open access issue of Cultural Anthropology was published.

Of course, this was not the end of the story. It was barely the beginning. A host of questions followed from this process. Some concerns are (relatively) easily addressed. Can you maintain the publishing standards of a high-impact journal like Cultural Anthropology? Our board was firmly committed to doing so, and we have. The editorial and peer-review process is unchanged under open access. Cultural Anthropology continues to be one of the leading journals in the world for anthropological research. Part of the way the board maintained this standard was to insist that we continue to employ a managing editor, who is responsible for coordinating many aspects of production, from advising on website organization to selecting grad student interns who generate a great deal of the content that the website hosts. Of course this commitment immediately raises the unavoidable question: who pays for all of this? One vital point that advocates of open access must make clear: open access does not mean that publication is free.One vital point that advocates of open access must make clear: open access does not mean that publication is free. Somehow the very real expenses of publication (and they are many, from website architecture to editorial costs to outreach to libraries) must be met. How can a scholarly society give its journal away freely and still generate the revenue it needs to produce this outstanding publication?

The answer to this question is still very much in the works. For a variety of contingent reasons, the SCA had funds in its accounts that it had saved up over the years that allowed it to buy itself a cushion. In effect, we could finance the conversion to open access and hope that the AAA would join with us and come up with a publication program that could make open access viable for the all of the journals that hoped to pursue it. Moreover, we found that giving away our journal actually increased our membership. Scholars liked the idea of being a part of an innovative and fair publishing model, and were willing to pay section dues even for a journal they could receive for nothing. Of course, these revenues are not enough to sustain publication indefinitely—though they certainly help. I have come to the view—and it is only my view, based on this experience, and not something the rest of the SCA, or its board, necessarily shares—that making open access viable and sustainable as a publishing platform really depends on questions of scale. If a single scholarly section, like ours, tries to go open access on its own, it can probably pull it off for a few years. But the revenues will not be there in five or ten years if we act entirely independently. What are critical are partnerships that can distribute the costs of publication and—it must be emphasized—share the benefits of open access publishing. For example, if multiple, smaller sections that produce journals agree to share a portion of their membership dues with one another (or perhaps with one large section), they could help share the costs associated with the infrastructure of publishing (e.g., a single website that hosts multiple journals, a managing editor overseeing multiple submissions processes, etc.) and everyone could avoid the expense of duplicating these services. Moreover, a number of librarians have contacted me to express their enthusiasm for open access because they have seen subscription costs skyrocket in recent years. If scholarly societies can partner with libraries—perhaps especially libraries at major research universities where subscription costs are so high—it should be possible to figure out a way for these universities to take a fraction of their subscription fees and use them to help subsidize open access publications, thereby reducing their overall subscription costs substantially. Universities could become not customers, or simply benevolent patrons, but actual partners in open access endeavors. Universities could become not customers, or simply benevolent patrons, but actual partners in open access endeavors.This would also mean that libraries would become, in effect, publishers of many of the materials they catalog and curate. And this is an ideal arrangement, as librarians have the very skills and experience that are demanded by this form of knowledge production and distribution. The SCA has formed an independent board, Friends of Cultural Anthropology, which is exploring models that will allow the journal to remain solvent into the future.

So what are the wider lessons that can be gleaned from this condensed history of a single journal’s fledgling experience with open access? Is this a highly idiosyncratic case? A bellwether for publishing to come? I certainly hope it is not a cautionary tale! While the dust is still settling on this transition, there are some important insights to be drawn here. The first is that there is an enormous amount of goodwill and genuine support in the academic world, and perhaps especially in the social sciences where such efforts have been largely tentative thus far, for open access as a project. The almost immediate success of a project like HAU, its ability to recruit some of the most interesting scholarship around, and support a wide range of formats and activities; and the tremendous enthusiasm with which the SCA’s move to open access has been met clearly demonstrate that this is a direction a lot of active scholars want publishers to pursue. The sense of expanded, truly global communities of scholarly participants in these endeavors is palpable. But what follows from the scope and dynamism of these projects are the inevitable questions of cost. These are real challenges, to be sure. Enthusiasm will not pay for talented managing editors in today’s web-based order of things. But enduring collective partnerships do seem to offer genuine hope for a sustainable future. Journals like Cultural Anthropology can serve as case studies that reveal what is required, demonstrate how the highest editorial standards can be maintained, and make explicit what the actual costs of publishing are likely to be going forward. It will undoubtedly take some collective efforts, of imagination and of material commitment, to craft a viable future for open access. But the current state of the field gives us plenty of reason to be optimistic.