In May 2012, the Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing, working in conjunction with the AAA Publishing Office, conducted a survey of association members. We are now reporting on our findings. The survey is a key component of the large-scale effort to assess the state and future of the association’s publishing program. This effort, in turn, is motivated by the recognition that the publishing program must face two striking trends: economic changes that make it vulnerable to financial unsustainability, and technological changes that alter our audience’s preferred forms of publication and reading.
The CFPEP survey was conducted between April 18 and May 30, 2012 to learn what members know about technological alternatives, what values they place on AAA publications, and what views they hold of more commonly proposed financing options. A total of 2,427 completed the questionnaire, an 18% response rate. The survey was a long one and we invited respondents to participate in a drawing for a $50 gift certificate. Amber Clifford, Luis Cardoso de Oliveira and Ronald Hicks each won a gift certificate. Both the survey details and an independent consultant’s report may be found online behind the membership login. (AAA members are urged to login and access the materials under the header Members-Only Documents.)
The results of the survey and the consultant’s findings are at once troubling and promising. On the positive side, digital technology has created new forms of publication and some of these offer lower costs. On the negative side, the environment for scholarly publishing is ever changing as a result of shrinking budgets, new technology, and new expectations by readers and researchers. The most disturbing news is financial: if current trends continue, the consultant’s report clearly shows that in the very near future, the AAA journal portfolio will cost more to produce than there is revenue to support it (the consultant’s report provides extensive details about this situation). The AAA publishing program currently uses subscriptions to offset its costs. The traditional subscriber base (primarily libraries at colleges and universities) has shrunk, as it has for many other publications in the social sciences and humanities. The harsh reality is that the AAA publishing program is headed for a severe crisis unless we make significant changes.
The AAA’s unusual organizational structure also presents challenges and opportunities. There are nearly 11,000 members in the association and its forty sections. Our publication portfolio comprises the flagship journal, American Anthropologist; the member newspaper, Anthropology News; and 21 section-sponsored journals. This breadth of titles has historically been a boon, supplying a diverse array of materials that demonstrate the many strengths of anthropology, and also giving authors a large number of outlets. But this broad and decentralized publishing base leads to large expenses. We will all need to work collaboratively to find responsible, creative solutions to managing these large and increasing costs.
While the publishing program is not sustainable in its current form, it is critical to emphasize that this same publishing program is highly valued. Members particularly ranked academic journal publication very high, and gave Anthropology News somewhat lower rankings. The highest scored item was the AnthroSource database, which received a mean satisfaction rating of 4.23 on a scale of 1 (strongly opposed) to 5 (strongly support). There were also high scores (between 4.1 and 4.2) for publishing in journals “that count,” in journals that archive materials, and in offering wide array of specialized journals.
Findings suggest that over half of the survey’s respondents are open to significant changes in the publishing program. However, the survey also suggests that a large proportion of us do not appreciate that the current publishing program overall is itself unsustainable.
Since some academic societies have decided to increase income to offset losses from subscriptions, CFPEP gathered data on views of the membership about specific sources of revenue to assess this option. These answers suggest views varied significantly by the source of revenue. A clear majority strongly oppose manuscript submission fees (82%) and author fees for publishing manuscripts (62%); and only 16% support raising member dues as compared to the other alternatives. Open-ended comments provided by respondents on these issues reveal strong concerns about author-pays models, and new charges in general, with some respondents using unambiguous words like “adamantly opposed,” “awful,” “despicable,” “terrible” and “absolutely unacceptable.”
Increasing subscription rates, another possible change, is not a feasible solution in the long term since levying author fees and raising member dues are not steps supported by the membership. Thus the survey also asked questions about reducing costs. Nearly 40% of respondents indicated support for eliminating parts of the publishing program to cut costs. The three most popular proposals for costs are:
1) Publish book reviews online only (mean level of support: 3.85)
2) Decrease the print frequency of Anthropology News (mean level of support: 3.69)
3) Eliminate print copies of all journals (mean level of support: 3.02)
Respondents also indicated support for decreasing the frequency of print issues of Anthropology News as a cost-savings measure. In keeping with these results, AAA Publishing Director Oona Schmid and AN Managing Editor Amy Goldenberg moved ahead with modifying Anthropology News’ print schedule to six issues per year in 2013, while increasing online publication.
The survey shows a split on support for eliminating print copies entirely. When only looking at graduate and undergraduates (n = 512), support is very high and the percentage of respondents who are “very opposed” drops to only 17%. In contrast, for retired survey respondents (although sample size is no longer statistically reliable, n = 136), only 15% are “very supportive” and 46% strongly oppose the elimination of print copies.
Comments suggest that tiered dues might be well received by members. Respondents expressed willingness to opt out of print if there were a financial incentive or personal financial benefit to the individual. Member comments encouraged charging a premium for print or offering a discount for digital-only subscriptions.
o “Consider 2 payment options—1 for only online access and 1 higher price for print materials with 100% access to all online materials. Multiple print journals could be purchased at a discount rate after the 1st 3 selections.”
o “Offer reduced membership fees for members who choose to receive the electronic version only.”
o “Make print copies subject to fee, and online version free of charge”
o “Offer print as an opt in with higher fees to members. Most will choose to read online, saving cost of publication.”
The association is at a critical juncture. We must now consider alternatives and select the ones that, taken together, offer the best solution for our publishing program to survive and to thrive in the landscape of changing technologies and economies.
Section leadership has already provided thoughtful input. We again invite our members to help determine the options that will work best for our association by emailing Chelsea Horton at firstname.lastname@example.org. To work, the solution must be practical and palatable. Through the spring of 2013, CFPEP will continue to work closely with the Section Assembly to explore alternative scenarios. By the fall of 2013, the committee will make a recommendation to the AAA Executive Board.