In this context, recent actions of the Society of Cultural Anthropology (a section of the American Anthropological Association) bear some examination. Brad Weiss of the W&M Anthropology Department has written: "Starting with the first issue of 2014, CA [Cultural Anthropology, the Society's journal] will provide world-wide, instant, free (to the user), and permanent access to all of our content (as well as ten years of our back catalog) ... Cultural Anthropology will be the first major, established, high-impact journal in anthropology to offer open access to all of its research, and we hope that our experience with open access will provide the AAA as a whole, as well as other journals in the social and human sciences, valuable guidance as we explore alternative publishing models together." This can be classified as a bold experiment, but one which is in line with a strong and growing current in academic attitudes.
Vetting, editing, formatting and publishing academic articles (even 'just' on the web) costs real money. Academic audences are miniscule by block-buster standards, and across the spectrum thousands of articles are published each year by thousands of academic journals and periodicals of all kinds. In addition to the tasks of producing publications, indexing and other means of providing effective, comprehensive access to this enormous and heterogenous mass of information, added to each week and month, is equally daunting. Most of these publishers charge astronomical subscription fees in order to cover these costs in such a restricted market. Most students and researchers are affiliated with universities or other schools and have (on a personal level -- someone is still paying!) relatively free access to many, even most, of these articles.
So what's the problem? The system has limped along well enough until now, even enjoying new efficiencies as computer data-bases and the emergence of 'the cloud' as the world's most consulted library have changed and expanded the way we all access these publications. But not every one is affiliated with a school or other sponsoring institution who will provide 'free' access. Many schools, their budgets constrained in all directions, are forced to re-evaluate their use of this dazzling but increasingly expensive tool, and many have cancelled their subscriptions. And as academic research expands and more and more results seek publication and dissemination, the ability of traditional subscription platforms to keep up with this torrent is frazzling. So the system is breaking down at both ends -- unable to vet and accomodate the flood of research, and unable to provide the articles which do see the light of day at a reasonable cost and with the widest possible access. And there's an even more salient point lurking just below the surface -- most of those research programs, and many of those researchers, are paid for directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, with Federal and State tax dollars. So the astronomical subscription fees and restricted access to this information represents a 'double' payment from the public, once to support research and then again to use the results in further research or 'real-world' applications.
Academic publishing is at a cross-roads, with increasing costs and irksome, monopolistic 'bundling' contracts increasingly limiting even academic libraries' access to these matierals. In response a growing chorus within academia is seeking to make academic research results 'open access' -- free to all on the web. This approach generates it's own problems, perhaps foremost among them fostering the central role of and logistical/financial support for peer review, still at the heart of formal academic discourse. By going 'Open Access', the Society for Cultural Anthropology is stepping into the breach and pioneering a new way to communicate within and beyond the academy. The results of their new policy should be of interest to us all.