AAA Meeting Abstracts online? Only viable if it’s Open Access

The AAA is currently conducting a survey on how to implement a website that would be hosting AAA Meeting Abstracts. As they write,

Specifically, we’re investigating posting the 2007 and 2008 AAA annual meeting paper abstracts, which would be posted exactly as they were submitted to AAA and would not be interactive, although they would be searchable. Posting these two years is a substantial project, because the combined total is nearly 7,000 specific abstracts.

Obviously, this would be an interesting resource. With a fulltext search you could track down previous research on your topic of interest, find potential collaborators, or just look up specific abstracts to refresh your memory of a talk. Besides, these abstracts are a record of the collective effort of AAA members; it is somewhat of a letdown that hitherto they have only been available in a bulky printed booklet obtainable at the meeting.

After a number of very helpful questions on how the resource should be designed, one page of the Survey is devoted to the question of how to finance and maintain it. The first option is to host paid advertisements and make it free for members. That option is out of course: with member-only access, advertising income would be next to nothing. Options 3-6 rely on users paying for the information, which I wouldn’t expect to be very successful either: the added value is too low for users to be willing to pay a fee or have their membership dues increased for it. So it seems we’re left with advertising + free access to all (option 2), or with not using the site (option 7).

How about Open Access?

Note however that one option is conspicuously absent from this list: (8) Stop worrying about the cost and make it open access. But that’s just because it is the most stupid option, isn’t it?

Well, that depends. First of all, let’s face the truth: in any of the advertising scenarios it is doubtful that there would be enough visitors to get ROI. The content of the resource simply isn’t fit for that business model. More importantly, what is missing in all of the scenarios is the benefit the AAA would be deriving from it. Developing this resource improves the AAA’s web presence and shows that the AAA cares about representing the collective efforts of its members. That is worth something.

I also think the cost shouldn’t be that much of a factor. Bandwidth and hosting fees for a resource like this would be negligible, as the whole thing boils down to an interface pulling short texts from a database. There would be no hassle with PDF files (and the attendant bandwidth use); it’s all just text. Copyright of the abstract fulltext is probably already with the AAA, so that’s again one problem less. Finally, in an open access model one doesn’t have to worry about costly integration with an authentication system.

Could we crowd source it?

But surely developing the resource, be it open access or not, would require a considerable investment? Again, that depends. If you go for a commercial solution, it might very well be. As a freelance graphic designer and web developer in another life, I know the kind of profits some companies like to make from unsuspecting academics with complex-sounding ideas. It’s always good to take a step back and see how things can be simplified. I’ve already made the point that this resource is not going to be much more than an interface that pulls texts out of a database. So how would one go about developing it?

Here’s a wild idea: crowd source it. The AAA has in excess of 10,000 members. It is unlikely there wouldn’t be some very qualified people among them willing to join hands to just get this going; and don’t forget the scores of skillfull research assistants and grad students. Developing a web resource like this is not going to be very complex. Building it using open source technologies would help to keep full control over content and format, and would avoid commercial licensing costs.1 The team of developers could be compensated for their efforts by a small remuneration or some kind of public recognition. The result could be easily integrated into the look and feel of, but it would be open access to increase the use and reach of the site.

Anyway, regardless of the question whether crowd sourcing it would be practical or not, there are huge advantages to a true open access approach. Let me just reiterate them. First, it improves the web presence of the AAA because useful content is made more widely available (and as we know, content is king). Second, it is a great way for the AAA to once more turn words into deeds and to show their commitment towards open access. Third, having these abstracts freely available online is a token of recognition and appreciation for the collective efforts that AAA members put into their meetings. Fourth, a closed model with fees or advertising wouldn’t work anyway; Open Access is probably the only way in which a resource like this could be viable. Fifth and finally, crowd sourcing it would show that the AAA is a community with a human face, whose members can pull off something together.

That’s my two cents. Call it a belated contribution to Open Access Anthropology Day. I’d be interested to hear your comments.

  1. I can think of ways to implement something like this using MySQL and Drupal, WordPress, Joomla, or Plone. There are no doubt other possibilities that I’m not aware of. []

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