As we all know, several months ago the African Studies Association decided to investigate possibilities for outsourcing its remaining two journals (*African Issues* is now thought to be DOA). It was hoped that doing so would prove to be time- and money-saving. A number of publishers were canvassed and in the end two scholarly presses and two commercial presses responded, in most cases in great detail-running to as much as sixty pages.
A variety of packages was offered, ranging from managing only the printing and distribution of the journals to taking over the entire process, from the points at which papers were first submitted. The editors of the journals involved expressed considerable doubt about the need for this latter approach, generally feeling that there would be a significant risk of losing editorial autonomy in the interests of making a profit. (For instance, one publisher wanted the right to insist on titles that were keyword-sensitive.)
A few things were common to all the proposals. One was that prices would rise, sometimes precipitously, but that institutional subscribers (us!) would not find this so onerous as actually to cancel subscriptions or withdraw membership. It was agreed by ALC members that this was entirely quixotic. Similarly, there was the optimistic argument that, if they were properly marketed, use of the two journals would increase markedly-doubling, even perhaps tripling.
There are worrying things about this commonly-expressed assumption. It casts librarians as a kind of delightfully acquiescent and surreally benign group that does not bother in its deliberations to consider the relative merits of prices, costs, and worths of publications with a collective cold eye. This seems gratuitous in the extreme-perhaps even disingenuous-since the publishers in question cannot help but understand the extraordinary and inflexible budget circumstances under which virtually all research libraries are now forced to operate and which are characterized most obviously precisely by . . . serial cancellations.
The idea, noted above, that ASR and HA are now being woefully underused represents another fairly incomprehensible aspect of the universal promise to increase access and visibility by digitizing the journals involved. As we all realize, this is already being achieved via JSTOR and Project Muse, well-established and well-known databases with proven track records in terms of visibility, popularity, and economy. Although only one bidder went so far as to intimate that JSTOR and Project Muse would have to be jettisoned under its dispensation, it seems reasonable to suspect that none of the others would/could tolerate the competition either. One likely result is that access to the contents of the journals would be hamstrung, as libraries with lesser in Africa would not be willing-and/or able-to subscribe to the databases into which these would be placed and would also not have access through JSTOR or Project Muse (although JSTOR at least has recently adopted some practices that could allow local mounting).
Beyond that, more seriously, and more easily assessed in the more objective realm of mathematics, all four publishers predicated their visions of gentrification, digitization, and preferential rates for Africa-based institutions on the notion that substantial increases in rates would not result in much-if any-cancellation. As much as I've tried to penetrate their thought processes on this, I believe I have failed. Perhaps the assumption is that all the institutions who now receive these journals would be willing to pay any price for them because they have as undying an interest in things African as those of us on the ALC listserve do, but we know that is far from being the case. To my mind then, these promises, and others, cannot be have the predicted effect in the long run, and the price for this will be paid by the ASA. For example, even those major research libraries (again, us) would no longer need to continue membership in ASA, but could easily rely on local Africanists donating copies of *ASR*, which they would receive 'free' as members, and, if they chose, could purchase *HA* separately, as they do now. But with spiraling prices, resistance would increase.
Along the way, I offered to take the responsibility for *HA* off the hands of the ASA Secretariat by having it published by the African Studies Program here under-or not-the aegis of the ASA, in which case little would change from the present reasonably-priced publication. There has never been a response to this, yea or nay.
All this toing and froing took place several months ago and since then-and as far as I know-no members of the task force (which also included Peter Malanchuk from among us) have heard a thing about any developments despite e-mail messages to Carol Martin and Bruce Berman, the chair of the group, pressing for an update. Apparently the process continues with negotiations with individual publishers.
It was interesting-but also depressing, eye-opening, and infuriating-to observe the tactics, assumptions, and empty promises that were bandied about by all the bidders. In their specificity they only reinforce all our reservations about the future of scholarly communications. If the other members of the task force listened to Peter's comments and mine, which were forcefully made, they too will be cautious and suspicious, but, as I said, I cannot only guess at what has happened since, including whether they, unlike us, have had further input into the process.To sum up, from the data I have seen and contemplated, it's my feeling that outsourcing at the present time and under the terms offered is not appropriate to the principles of untrammeled access, not ultimately beneficial to the ASA in any way, and, most of all, not necessary to achieve the desired economies.
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