Column / On Publishing Well – May 2019

Column: On Publishing Well
by Ashok R. Chandran


Anthropology is moving closer to Open Access (OA). At a workshop convened recently at MIT, several anthropologists, Libraria (a consortium of libraries), and Berghahn (an independent publisher) decided to shift 13 anthropology journals from closed/subscription to OA next year. In this pilot project, the publishing costs are expected to be met by research funders and libraries. (Also see ‘Opinion’ section below.)

Based on a forthcoming article in the journal, Nature reported that ‘countries in southeast Asia, Africa and South America lead the way on free-to-read literature’. The news report observed that, in these countries, governments played a key role in promoting OA publishing (e.g., SciELO online library funded by Brazil and others).

Science magazine reported that ‘Facing Plan S, publishers may set papers free’. It lucidly sketches the green vs gold debate in OA, particularly in the context of Plan S.


The push to open access (OA) can come from different directions — research funders, governments, or librarians. But for real change, attitudinal change among scholars is the key. The news from the MIT workshop is significant primarily because it signals such an attitudinal change among academics. Congratulations to Anthropology @ MIT!

What is the attitude I am referring to? Academics must realise that they are at the heart of scholarly publishing. Only then can they gain control of how their work is disseminated.

The value of a journal or article comes mostly from scholars (not any publishing company). It is the scholars who produce the knowledge and, through peer review, assure an article’s quality. A journal is only as good as the quality of its peer review process.

So, academics must display self-respect and give themselves credit, rather than cling on to publishing company brands.

Suppose you publish an article in the Journal of Quantitative Economics, you should not believe or say, ‘I have published in a Springer journal’. Instead, you must believe and say, ‘I have published in the Indian Econometric Society’s journal’ or ‘I have published in the Journal of Quantitative Economics’. That journal is a copublication, and the quality of your work was attested not by Springer but by a professional society of Indian econometricians. Your achievement is in being recognised by peers, and not in getting copyedited or proofread by a particular publishing company.

Often, the journals are owned by a professional society or an academic institute (i.e., they are not owned by the publishing company that copublishes). Look closely at the initial pages of a print copy of the journal or at the ‘About’ page of a journal’s website to discover who the journal is published ‘in association with’ or ‘in partnership with’. Do not be fooled by the publisher’s prominent logo or that you are submitting the article through the publisher’s website; the publishing company is secondary in journal publishing.

Which brings me back to the anthropology folks. Armed with the right attitude — a combination of realising their self-worth, knowing their relative importance in scholarly publishing, and learning that it takes a village to shift to OA — they mobilised to do the right thing.

I wish that academics in India too, at least in one or two of the social sciences, would similarly mobilise and decide to collectively shift to OA. Professional societies in economics, political science, and sociology should take the lead to spread awareness among members about OA. Please do not sign contracts with private publishers and lock up publicly funded scholarship behind paywalls.

Tailpiece: The news from anthropology @ MIT is attractive to us for another reason too. Berghahn, the publishing company involved in the project, publishes/copublishes journals such as Social Analysis, Anthropology in Action, and Religion and Society. These are spaces that have published articles and book reviews on Kerala in recent decades. Anthropologists studying Kerala (and their readers) have reason to rejoice: a familiar and hospitable territory is turning OA.

Add your comment at the Kerala Scholars Messenger website.

Ashok R. Chandran is a book editor and writing trainer. He serves as Publication Officer, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. Views expressed are personal.

CC BY 4.0 Ashok R. Chandran, 2019.

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