Category Archives: From the editors

Best of Material World: Digital Media

Since the Material World Blog began, the digital media landscape changed dramatically. In social media terms, we have moved from Friendster, MySpace and Orkut to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, with a range of other digital, mobile and social media becoming embedded within many people’s everyday lives around the world. These transformations resulted in an increasing number of posts that explored the changing relationships with digital media and made visible the materiality of the digital worlds. In my review of the best of digital media on Material World Blog, five key themes emerged.

(1) The first theme clusters around questions of place and materiality with the growth in digital media. These include Jean-François Blanchette’s wonderful post analysing bits and the software history  as well as Toby Wilkenson’s examination of the consequences of google earth for our relationship to place in a time of google earth. Graham H. Roberts’ discussion of the transition from alcohol branding on bottles to branding on websites and social media in Russia and Lane DeNicola’s post on online shopping and retail also inspire readers to consider the ways in which the online retail experience may be changing our relationships to objects, including objects of consumption.

(2) Research on relationships form a second wave of blog posts. We see this through Mihrini Sirisena’s discussion of dating and missed calls (ring-cut), Elad Ben Elul’s post examining the creation of photo archives among Ghanaian transnational families (including a follow up post on the design process used to connect transnational families),  Sandra Rubia Silva’s analysis of the relationships people have with their mobile phones and the discussion of these relationships on Orkut and last (but not least), Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller’s introduction to the concept of polymedia and the relationship between the desire to control the nature or content of communication via different platforms.

(3) We also had a fair number of publications focused upon young people and digital media which collectively worked to complicate a series of assumptions about the relationship between young people and technology. This comes out quite explicitly in Tylor Bickford’s analysis of earbud sharing children using mp3 players, Christo Sims discussion of young people’s media practices and identity work, as well as Matt Voight’s post on the trend towards technology deprivation strategies in US summer camps.

(4) A fourth strand of research emerged around the nature and form of online communities. This includes Patricia Lange’s work on video bloggers relationship to place, Larissa Hjorth’s discussion of social media gamers and online communities based on research in Shanghai (with some fantastic photos to illustrate her post!), and Dan Perkel’s analysis of theft among artists who post their creations on Deviant Art.

(5) The fifth and final strand of research explored protest and digital activism. For example, David Thompson’s post examines the Occupy Rio movement and the relationship between the physical space of protests and the online arenas in which photos and videos were constantly uploaded and discussed, not only from Rio but also from Occupy protests around the world. Finally, Gabriella Coleman’s shared her work on humour and hacking in anonymous and a link to an audio recording of Coleman’s public talk at UCL earlier this year. Finally, Chief Editor Haidy Geismar’s thoughtful posts on Open Access highlighted the ways in which forms of digital activism have also impacted our own scholarship through the rise of alternative models of journals, books and other forms of scholarship.

Best of Material World Blog: Landscape and Place

Patrick Laviolette (EHI, Tallinn University, hosts of EASA2014)

In terms of providing reflections on the material dimensions of place and landscape, here are some links to what I feel have been amongst the more provocative postings on the blog over the years. Many of the authors to the links below implicitly, or sometimes even explicitly ask: how do we depict our spatial experiences through the digital medium of blogging?

In Feb 2007, Graeme Were put up a piece simply entitled ‘Footpaths‘ by Kate Cameron-Daum. It is an eye-catching post which stirred my own curiosity on methods of walking, particularly in the countryside. Similarly, Peter Oakley’s observations at Tyntesfield house in A Roof with a View, reflects upon the postmodern condition of a heritage site standing below some scaffolding.

With some contrast perhaps, Dimitris Dalakoglou’s research summary on roads in the border region of Albania and Greece talks of movement, fixity and transgressive ‘materiality’. In a stunning photo-montage, Tony Whincup’s Water on Water project equally raises politically charged issues over morality, national agendas and cross-cultural understandings.

David Sutton’s post Looking Good gives MW readers an informative review of Cristina Grasseni monograph Developing Skill, Developing Vision (Berghahn, 2009) — a book about the environment and so much more. Similarly, anthropologist and curator Claire Melhuish provides a review of the exhibition ‘Land Architecture People‘.

In keeping with the themes of design and urban space, Jo-Anne-Bichard & Gail Knight posted a ‘toiletscape’ piece that is both fun as well as seriously challenging at the same time. Aliine Lotman’s research synopsis on ‘Dumpster Diving‘, waste and disgust in Barcelona equally captures much of the essence to approaches grounded in material culture studies (i.e. those which are anthropologically informed whilst also being innovative, inter-disciplinary and ethnographically rich).

Similarly, an in-depth posting in our ‘Occasional Papers Series (no.3)’ by Sabrina Bradford & Abby Loebenberg recently sparked the possibility of rethinking the impacts of hurricane Katrina. Theirs is a multi-media reflection on ‘disaster landscapes’, a theme which resonates with my last two selections from MW blog postings.

Matt Voigts (picking up on a reoccurring public transport meme which Aaron has also identified as one of his favourites) sent a digest on memorialisation cycles. It is a telling personal account in the vein of ‘contemporary past archaeologies’. In seeing a ‘ghost-bike‘ relic, he reveals how things of mourning can create social affects upon both our historical imaginaries as well as the design possibilities for urban planning.

And at around the same time, Francisco Martinez & Larissa Vanamo offered us an astute interview from a few years back with the fascinating and controversial ‘doomsday prophet’ Pentti Linkola.



Best of Material World Blog: Museums, Exhibitions, Archives, Memorials

– Compiled by Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center) 

Since its inception, Material World has treated museums and archives not only as repositories of material culture, but as material culture–that is, material products as well as producers of culture and social memory. As institutions, they are sites of collection and exhibition, acts that have their own material and materializing dimensions.

Here are some of our favorite posts about museums, exhibitions, archives, and memorials:

Graeme Were reviews the Musée du Quai Branly a year after it opened.

Anna Weinrich examines two permanent museum exhibitions in Australia featuring Aboriginal culture and collections by a foundational anthropologist, testing out the new museology against the politics of Aboriginal voice.

Diana Young discusses her curatorial efforts to enliven museum collections in dialogue with Aboriginal artists.

Bethany Edmunds reviews two British exhibitions of Pacific material, reflecting on the role of language in framing both historic and contemporary art and material culture.

Gabriela Nicolescu writes about the aesthetics and ideologies behind changing representation of peasant culture in the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant.

The History Rising project brings together artist and curator to explore the architecture and design of exhibition space, technology, and furniture.

Paul Williams investigates the global trend for museums memorializing atrocities.

In one of the innovative formats on Material World, a conference report details the papers given in a conference called “Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies, and Creativity.”

Matt Voigts discusses London’s vernacular “Ghost bikes” in the context of other urban memorials.

Anna Haverinen explores virtual memorials as means of mourning online.

Christopher Pinney writes about the salvaging of an individual’s photographic archive after monsoon flooding.

Corinne Kratz shares a link to an online archive of publications by Ivan Karp, one of our most prolific and insightful anthropologists of museums and exhibition practice.

And finally, I include one of my own book reviews to call further attention to Museum Pieces, the important 2011 publication by Ruth Phillips that brings togethers essays from her entire career working in and thinking critically about museums.


Material culture in Hungary and everywhere else

Daniel Miller, UCL


Krisztina Fehérváry 2013 Politics in Color and Concrete: socialist materialities and the middle class in Hungary. Indiana University Press

Léna Pellandini-Simányi  2014 Consumption Norms and Everyday Ethics. Palgrave Macmillan

Hungary is a good place to take stock of the current state of material culture studies. Because Hungary is simply a good emblem of `anywhere,’ in that it represents neither a vanguard nor a backwater, but works as simply another ordinary place. That is significant to me because the material culture studies that I guess I have always wanted to promote are precisely about this same ordinary whether as blue jeans, or domestic interiors.

Fehérváry’s exemplary scholarship, both historical and ethnographic, takes us through both socialist modernism and post-socialist consumer modernism in the development of contemporary Hungary. We see the discrepancies between the creation of demand and the problems of actually fulfilling the expectations that these gave rise to, a problem in both socialism and capitalism. We see unexpected links between modern organicist appeals to nature and older socialist appeals to collectivism. Above all this leads to her ethnographic sense of the contemporary middle-class. The middle class is always beset by contradiction and ambivalence. It is there is the very words `middle’-class. But it is rare to see the routes and reasons so carefully laid out, or its consequences.

Central to this is the appreciation that the built landscape as a palimpsest of various historical periods works to a quite different temporality. It means that having considered how it expresses a relation to ideology we than have the additional problem that as times changes the built landscape becomes at once both anachronistic and yet maintained as the landscape of the present. Her book shows the impact this has on ordinary people’s understanding of their worlds and the betrayal of successive ideals. While also grounding foundational notions of normality and morality, creating what she describes as the normal state of abnormality. These are obviously important issues that can be generalised across the world as people in all regions struggle to literally build their modernity and aspirations in the teeth of failures of all kinds.  I was particularly impressed by the way she blends the descriptions of these material worlds with a sense of humanism and poignancy in respect to their impacts upon ordinary people.

Pellandini-Simányi tackles several of the same themes concerning the normative foundations of contemporary consumption but relates them more to current concerns with `over-consumption’ and sustainability. Rather than using historical and ethnographic sources she focuses on the underlying issues of consumption norms and their moral foundations in a given society. This is a more general, comparative and sociological book though some of the material is from her own research, also in Hungary. What is particularly valuable about that part of the book is that she looked at households which sometimes spanned three generations so she could observe the way these norms change over time.  As in the best of material culture studies this again excavates the most taken for granted aspects of what simply looks appropriate in the same way that Bourdieu examined taste. She has far more emphasis on change compared to Bourdieu with a focus on the reasons that something so engrained is nevertheless subject to change even if this is simply the replacement of one generation by the next. At the same time, as with Bourdieu she retains a strong sense of the link between the normative and practice. She makes good use of comparative studies of how norms of consumption change over time including the Osella’s excellent work in South India, while not ignoring the pressures from commercial institutions. I admit that in some ways I would have liked to see more of her own research findings which here get a bit buried within the more general discussion. But along with Elizabeth Shove she makes an important contribution to seeing consumption as normative pertaining to local ethical debate. She ends with what she calls a qualified liberal approach Habermas and Rawls.

These books are very different with Pellandini-Simányi looking to more sociological debates and Fehérváry exemplifying the depth of engagement and scholarship found in classical traditions of anthropological ethnography. But both speak to the way in which contemporary material culture studies, whether based in Hungary, but equally it could have been Argentina or Australia retain this driving ambition to expose the lightness of materiality. That objects seem to contain a kind of cultural gravity that makes them a heavy burden – they want to remain grounded and foundational and taken for granted as the landscape we live within. It is only by refusing to accept this and giving them an almighty academic kick, that we can excavate underneath to find that actually they came to be there through quite historical, cultural and sometimes fleetingly fashionable reasons. Without this consciousness we lose the ability for introspection with regard to our own material foundations, and granting us this consciousness is the greatest boon that such modern material culture studies has to offer the world.


Best of Material World Blog: On Making, Craft, and Unmaking

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In this post, I link to the very best posts in our archive focused on making, doing and craft.

In Fixing, Things, Fixing Ourselves, Lydia Nicholas writes about Suguru, an open source material for extending the life of mass produced (or any other) artifacts.

In Plan B for a Nuclear Reactor, Paul Williams describes the transformation of a nuclear power plant into a heritage site.

Gabriella Coleman outlines her  theory of hackers, liberalism, and pleasure, which became an important part of her book, Coding Freedom.

Ian Ewart was an Anthropologist Looks at Engineering. 

Adam Drazin presents the Mechanical Postcard, an intervention into UCL Ethnography Collections by Mattijs Siljee, of Massey University, New Zealand.

And on the opposite side of making, unmaking, Helen Polson writes about how Death Bear Wants Your Unhappy Things.



Best of Material World Blog: Art

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In this new series of summer posts, we, the editors look back at the past 8 or so years that Material world Blog has been going and curate a series of “best of” themed post. Here, I link to what I consider to be some of the very best postings about art on the site.

In his post Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway Christopher Pinney presents a series of his own technicolour photographs, inspired by Ed Rucha’s 1963 series.

Jonathan Patkowski and Nicole Reiner unpack Alfred Barr’s infamous artist network diagram and unpack the neoliberal logics of the avant-garde as presented in the exhibition “Inventing Abstraction“.

Ryan Schram describes the tensions and identity around the speaker of the Parliament of Papua New Guinea trying to destroy the carvings evoking customary art and identity, made upon independence to decorate the new Parliament House.

In Museums Get the Best Gifts, Marcus Moore describes several gifts from Marcel Duchamp to collections in New Zealand.

Ross Hemera reviews Damien Skinner’s The Carver and the Artist: Maori Art in the Twentieth Century.

Dan Perkel writes about The Art of Theft: Creativity and Property on DeviantART

Fernando Dominguez Rubio looks at the conservation of modern art as a Material Ecology of Culture

A team of scholars from Leiden University examine Photographic Traditions in South African Popular Modernities

Jennifer Deger presents her collaborative exhibition about a Yolngu Christmas: Lights, Tinsel, Presence.

William Viney writes about the work of Mark Dion

Edmund Clark presents his work on secret detentions in the UK: Control Order House

Finally, in our most popular post ever, April Strickland discusses the case of Maori tattooing, appropriation, and Mike Tyson.(in the case of the film Hangover Part Two)


On Facebook, Death and Memorialisation

Over at the UCL Social Networking Sites and Social Sciences Project, Danny Miller writes about his research at a London hospice where he has been exploring the resonance of new media at the end of life:

Alongside my ethnographic research in The Glades I have now been working for over a year alongside The Hospice of St Francis. When I am in the UK I try to spend a day a week interviewing their patients who are mainly terminal cancer patients. I was delighted to hear this winter that the wonderful hospice director Dr Ros Taylor was awarded an MBE in this year’s honours list. My intention in working for the Hospice was a concern that a project of this size should also have an applied or welfare aspect where we could see the direct benefit. The initial work was simply an attempt to see how the hospice could benefit from new media. The report was published on my website, but once I was working with them I realised that in a way the hospice was the clearest example of what the whole team have endeavoured to demonstrate through this blog.

The hospice movement represents no kind of technical or medical advancement. It is entirely the product of a transformation in collective consciousness. Previously it was assumed that when people knew they were dying this was tantamount to a stage in merely their withdrawal from the world. We talk about ‘investing in our children’ as though there were long-term financial assets. The same logic would condemn the dying as of limited value. The Hospice movement was all about saying that knowing someone is terminal should be seen as an opportunity. It is no longer a medical issue, they will not be cured, instead we can concentrate on their quality of life and make this stage of life, since that is what it is, as enjoyable and fulfilling as it could be. Everything that Dr Taylor says and does demonstrates this, as does my colleague in this research Kimberley McLaughlin a senior manager of the hospice.

On reflection this is perhaps our single most important finding also as anthropologists of social media. People become fixated on the technological advances of new media. What each device can now be capable of – the latest app or smartphone or platform. These certainly feature throughout our work. But the vast majority of our blog posts are not about that. Instead they describe changes in the same collective consciousness: the social uses that people creatively imagine for these media as part of their lives.

The two issues come together in my observations of Facebook in relation to death and memorialisation. One of my early informants was a woman who felt that she wanted to use the experience of terminal cancer to help educate the wider world about her experience. A subject people tend to avoid but need to gain a better understanding of. I last saw her six days before she died and she was quite clear that using Facebook as almost a daily blog had enabled her to do just that. I am hoping (if I obtain the funding) to make a film based on her and other patients who have used Facebook in this manner.

I would be equally positive about the ways people have found to use Facebook in memorialisation and grief. Previously we have tended to use highly formal and religious institutionalised frames for dealing with death. As I argued in my book Tales From Facebook, this was out of synch with changes in our notion of the authenticity of the individual. Where once we took formal posed pictures, now we like to capture images that seem spontaneous, informal and thereby more ‘real’ to us. Similarly we needed a form of memorialisation that contained this element of personalisation and immediacy. People on Facebook can put both serious and jokey memories and do so at a time of their choosing. I find these sites poignant and effective. I don’t find other social media sites, such as Twitter or Instagram, as having the same potential, so I hope we retain this capacity of Facebook.

But the point is that the inventors of Facebook were certainly not thinking about its relationship to death or memorialisation. Rather, as in the case of the invention of the hospice movement, this reflects a change in our collective imagination in what we could potentially do in relation to death and grief. This is why we argue it is anthropology rather than more tech-driven studies of new media that are most suited to understanding what social media actually become. Most of these reports reflect not the technological potential, but the imaginative realisation of social media.




An update on our perspective on Open Access

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In October last year (2013) I posted a draft of an editorial for the Journal of Material Culture which rehearsed some of the options we (the editorial board led by myself and Susanne Kuchler, with guidance from Danny Miller) have been working through regarding taking the journal towards Open Access. The take home message for that piece was that we felt strongly that the current recommendations for open access “compliance” in the United Kingdom were inadequate and inappropriate in terms of their effect upon ideas not just of scholarship, but on scholarly community. The prevailing models in the UK for Open Access, known as Green and Gold, both depend on individuals to decide whether or not their individual articles should be made open access. Gold Open access costs significant amounts of money but results in an article openly available through the journal’s home page. Green means that any author has the right to post the accepted version of their article on their homepage or institutional repository (for some journals after a specific embargo period). This is very much a national situation for OA in the UK and it’s different in the US (and indeed in many other places), but in our editorial, Susanne Kuchler and I argued against models that sidestep the journal itself as an intellectual frame for committing to OA by passing the buck to individual authors. We raised questions regarding the implication of moving to a view per article/pay per article model for the future of scholarly journals.

Some people interpreted the editorial as a statement against OA. In fact, we take the journal’s responsibility for open access very seriously and have spent considerable time (after hours from our regular job and duties as editors) exploring these issues as we really want the journal to be accessible to everyone who wants to read it. we are balancing these desires with the fact that Sage owns the journal’s name, the back issues and has said that they will reform the journal with a different editorial board if we leave to move to an open system (like open journal).

Our editorial launched an online questionnaire with which we hoped to gather more opinion from material world readers and Journal of Material Culture readers. This probably says more about electronic survey burnout and the limitations of our own reach, than it does about the question of open access but since December 2 we have had only 16 respondents to the survey (If you would still like to participate you can by following this link.).

Whilst 16 is obviously far to few a number to make any kind of generalization, I can report that out of the 16 respondents (15 of whom work in academia), most only read the journal in digital form accessed via a university subscription. Of those 16 people, 5 would be prepared to pay a submission fee to a journal without guarantee of acceptance (and 11 would not). The following chart shows how people felt about paying for open access, upon acceptance for publication:


The following response was more interesting:


People had many different ideas about the most appropriate source of funding for open access, but NO ONE thought that authors were the most appropriate vessels to provide for open access.

People were also given the chance to provide substantive comments about open access and 5 people chose to share their opinions, which I cut and paste here:

Respondent 1: Publishers views should not be considered. They are not neutral stakeholders. Their goal is to maximise profits, not to further scholarship or increase accessibility, despite the lipservice they may pay.

Respondent 2. Elsevier, T&F, OUP, and many others are multinationals using slave labour of tenured individuals (not me – I’m unemployed though I have a visiting fellow position) to maintain the high standards of journals. They are taking public money and putting it into private hands, just like in war time. Some of the most interesting, innovative, and exciting journals are open access. While stodgy publishers need to make their buck somehow, knowledge and research should be shared among those to whom it is relevant. The multinationalisation (a fantastic nominalisation) of publishing is as boring as it is restrictive and elitist.

Respondent 3: The questions are confusing. The question of whether I am prepared to pay for my article depends on how and by whom the journal is edited. I refuse to pay submission fees if the journal is edited by a large publisher such as currently is the case with JMC with SAGE. As long as the journal is with sage, I don’t pay any submission fee. If the journal would move to Gold open access and away from SAGE to an independent, not for profit platform, I would be prepared to pay. The question is not: to pay or not to pay, but about the relationship between publisher and author. The main point is to get away from for profit publishers.

Respondent 4: In principle I am fully supportive of the move towards open access. However, as an early career researcher (postdoc), I am concerned about the transition to open access on two different levels: 1) Whether my financial situation (be that personal finances or relating to grants/institutions) will limit my ability to publish my work in a timely manner; 2) How the costs of open access AND the changing nature of publications under these changes will affect my ability to be competitive on the job market. We have very little information, for example, about how hiring committees view open access/non-traditional publications vis-a-vis more established journals, or whether open access will make the road towards a monograph publication (still considered a basic requirement for permanent employment in anthropology) more difficult/costly.

Respondent 5: effectively is a ‘pay to publish’ system that also completely excludes early career or independent academics who have neither the money nor the backing of an institution to pay for them. This will ultimately mean that material from these types of researchers and writers will never be published, thus compromising the academic exercise and diminishing the scope of debate as some excellent work will be missed, go unheeded. A disaster for the future.

These figures show that there are many different opinions and feelings about open access even within our admittedly tiny sample.

At the same time as publishing this editorial, impatient and unsure of our options, we also decided to experiment with Green open access. We emailed all the contributors to the first issue of this year and asked them to upload their author version (which we handily appended as a cleaned up pdf) to their own home page or institutional repository, in compliance with Sage’s Green archiving policy. We also asked them to send us the link and we set up a sort of mirror page of the journal, with the intention of creating a Green archive. So far, only one person has even replied to this email so the site remains empty apart from our editorial).

Now there are many reasons why people may not fill in online forms, reply to emails from me, or want to self-archive their publications, but to my mind these experiences highlight the need to make decisions about journals at the highest level, in the model of Cultural Anthropology, rather than leaving it up to individual authors or readers which will naturally result in a patchy experience of open access at best, and no open access at worst.

They also indicate that there is a much more complex field of engagement with these ideas than would be seen from the presentation of very polarized debates in the media. I present these partial perspectives here not as an indication of any complete picture of opinion regarding open access, more as the beginnings of an ethnography of how open access is currently being parsed by some people in the academy whose views are not often represented in literature that presents the voices of editors and publishers, but far less often authors. Indeed, in a conversation I had recently with another journal editor, they observed that many of their authors are content to have their work behind paywalls. They observed that many people working in South Asian studies are extremely fearful of cases like Wendy Doniger‘s, namely of having their work willfully misinterpreted by others in what are highly fraught political contexts (in Doniger’s case, Hindu nationalists succeeded in having her scholarly book on Hinduism pulled from the shelves in India). This is NOT my view, as I do not think we should write or publish defensively or with only a control audience in mind (and Doniger’s book was published by Penguin and was hardly behind a paywall) but I cite it, and the comments above, to reflect the fact that there are large number of academics who are either disinterested, or fearful, of open access, for numerous different reasons (sometimes just because they are plain old tired!) and that we need to take stock of their opinions and situations, if we are to convince them that open access is something that they should sign up to.

This experience has also shown me how geo-located these debates are – the conversation in the US is different to the UK, which is different again to France, India, China or Australia. The Journal of Material Culture has an extremely international author pool which may (or may not) explain why many of our authors seem to be less engaged than we are in the highly specific questions that are emerging around OA in the UK.

So now – alongside the issue of how to take the Journal of Material Culture forward in terms of open access, I am also wondering why this isn’t of concern to many people, what issues do drive decisions around publication and how we can participate and even intervene in those conversations, expanding the one we are already having. I see this is a nascent anthropology of open access which would locate OA as an experimental moment within a very particular institutional discursive frame that constitutes authors, intellectual property, and openness in specific ways. I’ve started a small dossier of these fragmented perceptions, misgivings, and complex feelings that may not only help us to see OA as some others do, but help us to unpack the assumptions about OA that we ourselves are working with. As always, comments more than welcome here or on the survey.


More commentary on iconoclasm in Papua New Guinea

After a legal case to have the speaker of the PNG Parliment’s order to destroy several of the building’s carvings recognized as illegal failed, a group of academics has published a discussion paper entitled “Purging Parliament: A New christian Parliament in Papua New Guinea“.

The piece debates whether or not it is appropriate to understand the iconoclasm of the Speaker of the house in religious terms, or whether or not the event “signals deeper social transformations underway”.

Chipping into the debate on Open Access

Haidy Geismar, UCL Anthropology

As the incoming co-editor of the Journal of Material Culture, as well as one of the editors here at Material World Blog, I have been involved in many conversations regarding the politics, economics, and materiality of Open Access.

It is clear that there is great concern about open access in many arena from policy (see for instance, the UK’s Finch Report  ”Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications”), within academia (see the discussion on Open Access in the new online only journal, Hau and this interview with Tim Ingold) and in the world of cyber-(h)activism (a good summary of the Aaron Schwartz case is actually presented on JSTOR’s website).

It’s hard to find a place in which all the issues in fact coalesce: some people are concerned about democratizing accessibility to research (particularly across national borders, and to people without the support of privileged universities). Others are concerned about who should pay for, and who should profit, from academic publications. Yet others are interested in the implications of Gold open access (where authors pay or fundraise for their invidivual articles to be made publicly available) or Green (where final versions of peer-reviewed articles are placed within institutional repositories) on the form of journals as the need for issues is replaced by an emphasis on individual articles.  Many of us are wondering about the implications current policy requirements have for open access on the fate of academic monographs and are also following with interest the move in the sciences towards “open data” (which naturalizes many assumptions about data versus research, and raises problems for past informed consent and research ethical clearances). Finally, lies the overarching question of value: how is research valuable and for whom, who should profit and how. For instance, I was intrigued to have the value of peer review laid out as “in kind donations” by a representative of Taylor and Francis.

Below, is an editorial upcoming in the Journal of Material Culture, laying out our current concerns and thinking about Open Access. The journal is undertaking a survey of readers. If you are a reader of the JMC please take some time to fill it out. If you aren’t a reader, you can still take the survey, skipping the couple of questions specific to the journal. The link is here.


On Open Access and journal futures

All academics are, by now, aware of the on-going discussions and key policy directives concerning “open access”. Philosophically, open access publishing has the potential to circulate scholarship more broadly and democratically, to more diverse audiences, allowing for potentially greater impact of, and engagement with, research. Logistically, thinking about how to achieve open access also provokes us to rethink how we evaluate the labour that goes into academic publishing, who should be entitled to profit from academic research, and who research is really for. Pragmatically, many important questions are currently being raised about the allocation of resources for the dissemination of academic researchers and the sustainability of academic publishing.

In the United Kingdom, where the editorial board of the journal of Material culture is based, the National Research Councils, the primary organs of British academic funding, have stipulated that in future their audits will only accept Open Access publications, which will make research funded by taxpayer money available to all readers without subscription. The UK Government commissioned a working group, chaired by the sociologist Dame Janet Finch, to evaluate the best methods to achieve Open Access. Their report, “Accessibility, Sustainability, Excellence: how to expand access to research publications” (2012) identifies two principle routes to open access. The Gold route involves direct payments by the author (or their research grant or university) to the publishers to cover the costs of publication and distribution.  The Green route, which is supported by most publishers, permits authors to make available the final accepted, but unbranded or copyedited, version of the article through their institutional repository, usually after a specified period of embargo. Details such as fees or periods of embargo vary considerably from press to press.

Members of the Journal of Material Culture’s editorial board have been discussing these issues for some time. One of our founding editors was recently part of a broader debate in the new online journal Hau ( In his piece, Daniel Miller (2012) argued that anthropologists in particular have an obligation to ensure that the people they work with should have access to research and that we have a moral responsibility to make our work as accessible as possible. Since then, we have been considering the different models available and discussing with great seriousness the future of the journal, entering into conversation with Sage, our publisher, and with UCL’s Library and Repository services. Our discussions have highlighted that the issues are in fact more complex than those presented in the Finch report. The wider contexts include the ethics of accessibility,; the shift from print to digital publishing (with potential for additional visual and other materials); and the shift from print to online consumption. It also raises hard questions about how “profits” are defined and who should benefit from research outputs.

The problem with Gold

The Finch report is generally concerned with the UK situation, and is responding to concerns by both national publishers and funding bodies. Since 2007, the share of submissions to the JMC from within the UK has fallen nearly year on year, and now stands at roughly 20%. We currently receive about as many submissions from North America and Continental Europe.  The Finch report also does not concern itself with unfunded research. In this journal, funded research comprises about one third of published articles in the past 5 years and its share shows a falling trend, accounting for only 10% in 2012 and 5% in 2013: and just 20-30% of submissions between 2011 and 2013. Whilst the Gold route makes open access the decision of individual authors, from the perspective of the journal we cannot think of open access solely in the narrow and exclusive terms of work produced by UK funded researchers.

In turn, publishing houses are notoriously opaque in quantifying the price of journal publication, especially article by article. If the burden of financial support is being passed onto individual authors, do they not have a right to know how the money is spent, what percentage is profit for the shareholders of the company, and what is not included in the business model? Editors and reviewers are perhaps the most essential part of a journal’s “value”, yet their work is considered to be a “time/expertise donated4free” (@Taylor&Francis Open 2013). In fact, commercial publishers are also concerned about the Gold model, which shifts the burden of paying for future articles onto authors but still maintains a subscription model for back issues and articles not paid for by authors to be open access, a phenomenon that has come to be called “double dipping”.

For all of these reasons, as academic editors we do not favor the principles of the Gold model. We do not think that shifting the decision to go open access onto individual authors is good for the integrity of journals as a whole and we challenge the economic rationale behind the pricing of the Gold route.

The problem with Green

Whilst making an important leap towards accessibility, the Green model also raises significant problems from the standpoint of both journals and authors. Like the Gold route, the Green route transforms journals from curated intellectual conversations into a more ad-hoc presentation of individual research. Green open access requires the additional support of an institutional repository and an institutional investment into a digital infrastructure that will by no means be consistent from institution to institution, or from country to country. It also potentially compromises our scholarly integrity: putting the accepted but not final version online means that there is the potential for multiple versions of articles to circulate with multiple forms of citation, different paginations and so forth. Fundamentally, the Green route places the burden of archiving and maintenance onto the individual repository and also undermines the intellectual support and framing that a journal itself is supposed to provide. We are exploring the possibilities of creating a parallel Green archive for the JMC, but we also wonder how the Green route will ultimately effect the future of journal publication. Both Green and Gold dismantle the structure of journals in favour of the dissemination of individual articles and it is important to evaluate the impact of this on the editorial policies and intellectual framing of journals.

What do we mean by “Free”?

Both Gold and Green routes demonstrate that open access may ensure an opening up of readers, but that there are still significant costs. The recent success of the new online only, open access anthropology publication Hau, demonstrates that open access journals can work well, but also demonstrates that they depend upon significant financial support from Higher Education (or equivalent) Institutions as well as a significant amount of freely donated labour. In the longer term is this a model that can be applied to the entire realm of academic publishing? This journal certainly requires a robust institutional framework that ensures the income and the labour required for its production. It is important to carefully assess what kinds of support journals need to be successful, ethical, and sustainable.

Alongside the supportive environments of some universities and learned societies, organizations such as JSTOR have been established to consolidate and archive scholarly material, made available by subscription, but on a non-profit basis. Whilst it is not without its detractors, as the Aaron Schwartz case made clear, JSTOR makes its content available for free or at low cost to high schools and to other institutions in more then 69 countries. The cost of its subscription has not gone up since 1997 (source: In turn, it does not claim copyright on any of the material it archives which means that that material may freely (or at cost) circulate elsewhere as well. Perhaps the non-profit model of economic costing and institutional infrastructure instantiated by JSTOR, and some University Presses, alongside the critical regime of the creative commons license, will create a publishing ecology that is both ethical and liberal, allowing authors to make strategic choices within a strong framework of accountability.

We also wonder if the possibilities of electronic publishing have been realized within academic journals as they transition to online. At present online journals generally maintain the form (largely text based), the structure (set numbers of issues per year, set word limits for articles) and the coherence (themed issues, centralized editorial staff) of print publications. Yet we now have the capacity to present other kinds of data hyperlinked and internally cross-referenced. We can present articles simultaneously in multiple languages, amongst many other possibilities. What are the implications of electronic media for the form of the journal essay – a tightly written textual argument, limited to a set number of words or pages? These developments are attractive, especially for a journal such as ours, but may require further costs and skill-sets that cannot be taken for granted amongst most academics involved in editing journals.

The climate of open access has therefore provided an opportunity to rethink the intellectual framework, as well as the economy, of scholarly publications. Accessibility means more than electronic circulation – it requires us to think about the politics of language, of inclusion at every level, to understand our current and possible constituencies, and how we may best engage with them. The current shift of publishing practice must make us reflect on the intellectual frameworks and aspirations of academic journals, as well as on their place in the world. Conceptualizing open access as the reduction of each article to a single payment makes what should be a collective and on-going conversation and responsibility into a one-time individual decision.

We are currently debating all of these issues at the JMC so that we can make a considered decision about the future of the journal, in terms of its form, content and its model of distribution. Before any decisions are made, we would very much like to solicit the views of our readers. So please take some time to answer the short survey below by following its link. Our readership is the most important part of our community and we would like to hear from you.

Survey Link:

Haidy Geismar and Susanne Kuchler, Editors, Journal of Material Culture

(with thanks to Daniel Miller, UCL Anthropology and Martin Moyle, UCL Libraries)


Miller, Daniel 2012   Open Access, Scholarship and Digital Anthropology, Hau 2 385-411

@Taylor&FrancisOpen,  Twitter exchange with @haidygeismar July 3, 2013.


Our editor at Sage, very kindly provided us with a series of links about OA publishing from their perspective, focused around a conference they convened in association with the Academy for Social Sciences and the British Academy.

*   View conference presentations that Sage organized at LSE to discuss Open Access here and here

 *   Watch the recording of the event here
 *   View the twitter conversations, and here, and here