Category Archives: opinion

Framing Fossil Exhibits, Part 1

This post started out as a review of “Evolving Planet”, the expansive paleontology exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. The short version is that it’s very good exhibit constrained by a somewhat frustrating layout. We’ll get back to that eventually, but first it’s worth considering the purpose of large-scale fossil exhibits in a more general sense.

Fossils, particularly the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, have been central to the identity of natural history museums since the late 19th century. In the early days, public exhibits were afterthoughts to the primary work of the museum (research and curation of collections), and if there was any logic behind their layout, it was an aesthetic logic. Typically posed in neutral, trophy-like stances on centrally-situated pedestals, mounted skeletons were the highlights of a natural history display for most visitors. For anyone not trained in comparative anatomy, however, these exhibits ultimately amounted to prehistoric pageantry. People could marvel at the great size of the animals, but there was very little to be learned besides the names of the species in question.

Hadrosaurus cast on display at the Field Museum. Field Museum Photo Archives.

A typically random assortment of fossil specimens at the Field Colombian Museum, ca. 1898. Image courtesy of the Field Museum Photo Archives.

These days, we try to do better. Exhibits are designed with a clear narrative structure, as well as specific learning goals for the audience. The focus of the narrative varies depending on the exhibit and the team behind it, but most modern natural history exhibits are explicitly designed to answer “how” as well as “what.” For paleontology displays, this means telling the story of life on Earth while also communicating how scientists collect and interpret evidence to put that story together. Crafting an exhibit has been compared to writing a popular nonfiction book, except designers are using the three-dimensional space of the exhibition hall as their medium. In this way, modern exhibits are more about ideas than specimens, or at least, the specimens are present primarily to illustrate the major scientific principles being communicated.

That’s how it works on paper, anyway. Despite this focus on education (and institutional mandates to provide learning opportunities for the widest possible audience), visitor surveys show that dinosaur pageantry is still the default mode of understanding for the majority of people passing through paleontology exhibits. No matter how carefully we craft our stories, most visitors still leave these displays recalling little more than a list of cool specimens they saw. Dinosaur pageantry has its place and can be employed for good. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are undeniably impressive and spectacular, and it is absolutely worth taking advantage of that fact. We want people to pay attention to science, and in that respect mounted skeletons of favorite dinosaurs are great ambassadors to the world of research and discovery. The challenge is getting past the attention-grabbing stage. Prior experience has led visitors to expect that dinosaur pageantry is all paleontology has to offer, and many seem unprepared or unwilling to commit to a deeper understanding.

peabody mammals

The great hall at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, one of the last unmodified early 20th century fossil displays in the US. Photo by the author.

So are these people just hopeless rubes? Should exhibits be tailored only to visitors that care enough to put in the effort to understand? It should go without saying that this condescending attitude is completely wrongheaded and goes against the very spirit of museums. Education is half about knowing your content and half about knowing your audience. If visitors are not picking up on the content as desired, then a reassessment of who those visitors are is in order. Many museum exhibits still seem to be pitched at interested adults traveling alone with all the time in the world. This is a good description of many of my museum visits, but I’m also part of an increasingly small fraction of museum visitors. Most people who come to natural history museums come in groups of friends or family, and these groups often represent a range of ages. What’s more, most visitor interactions while in the museum will not be with the exhibits, but with each other. For the typical visitor, the museum experience is primarily a social one.

With this demographic in mind, a textbook on the wall (or a long video lecture*) is the last thing natural history museum audiences need. Visitors are absorbing exhibit content while simultaneously navigating a complicated, unfamiliar space. In the case of parents, they are also monitoring the attention span, hunger, and bathroom needs of their charges. Caught up in this whirlwind of information, visitors frequently fall back on what they already know. In the case of paleontology exhibits, this often means identifying familiar dinosaurs and ignoring the more intellectually challenging contextual information.

*It’s worth pointing out that a long video is NOT an improvement over a long label. Transferring label copy to a video or computer terminal does not inherently make the exhibit more interactive or more interesting. In fact, when the disruptive noise and need to wait for the next showing are taken into account, poorly implemented multimedia is probably less useful than traditional text labels.

The challenge for exhibit design, then, is dealing with the fact that visitors are not passively ingesting information. Visitors passing through an exhibit pull out relevant pieces of information and filter them through the lens of their existing worldview. Exhibit designers want visitors to also learn new information and challenge their preconceptions, but it’s easy to go too far. Survey after survey has shown that visitors do not appreciate exhibits that force them to move (or think) on rails. For practical reasons noted above, few visitors are able to look at every display, watch every orientation video, and work through every interactive in the prescribed order. Visitors need flexibility in order to make the exhibit experience their own. Finding the balance between providing informative context and providing a customizable experience is quite challenging, and not every exhibit succeeds.

struggling to contain the dinosaurs

The dinosaur hall in “Evolving Planet” at the Field Museum. Photo by the author.

On top of that, paleontology exhibits are particularly difficult to design because of problems with relatability. The story of life on Earth is immense, complex, and frequently counter-intuitive. It’s not enough to just explain what happened, we have to explain the history and methodologies of the half-dozen scientific disciplines that have contributed to to our understanding of that narrative. Even something so basic as the numerical age of a given fossil taxon requires a deluge of explanation to convey how we know. And all of this needs to be conveyed concisely, without being alienating, overwhelming, or condescending. Most importantly, it has to be made relevant to what audiences already know and understand.

Over the years, major natural history museums have attempted a variety of organizational strategies for their fossil exhibits. Each of these has been an attempt to break the dinosaur pageantry barrier and to portray the true complexity and relevance of paleontological science. Some arrangements, like taxonomical organization, have generally fallen out of favor. Others, like chronological presentations of life through time, are reliable mainstays that have been re-imagined in varied ways at different institutions. Still others, including cross-sections of specific extinct ecosystems, biogeography, and environmental change over time are relatively new and untested.

Keeping everything in this meandering introduction in mind, the upcoming series of posts will explore the strengths and weaknesses of each approach from the perspectives of science communication, aesthetics, and for lack of a better term, hospitality for non-expert audiences. Stay tuned!

References

Asma, S.T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. 1992. The Museum Experience. Washington, DC: Whalesback Books.

Wands, S., Donnis, E. and Wilkening, S. 2010. “Do Guided Tours and Technology Drive Visitors Away?” History News 93:8:21-23.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, opinion, science communication

The Stan Gallery

The first-ever mounted skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex went on display at the American Museum of Natural History in 1915, and for nearly 30 years, the New York museum was the only place in the world where one could see the world’s most famous dinosaur in person. The situation today could not be more different. More than 50 individual Tyrannosaurus specimens of varying degrees of completeness are now known, and thanks to casting technology the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons on display may well exceed one hundred.

A significant fraction of those displays are casts of BHI 3033, the T. rex specimen more commonly known as Stan. Excavated in South Dakota in 1992 by the Black Hills Institute (a for-profit outfit specializing in excavating, preparing and mounting fossils), Stan is significant for being over two-thirds complete and for including the best preserved Tyrannosaurus skull yet found. Since 1996, BHI has sold dozens of casts of the complete Stan skeleton (missing bones are filled in with casts from the original AMNH T. rex, among others) to museums and other venues around the world. At a relatively affordable $100,000 plus shipping, even small local museums and the occasional wealthy individual can now own a Tyrannosaurus mount. Stan is, by a wide margin, the most duplicated and most exhibited dinosaur in the world today. As of 2008, BHI had sold more than 30 Stan casts, and that number has grown substantially since then, particularly with the increased interest in dinosaur displays in Asia.

One might argue that this extreme amount of replication lessens the cultural value of museum displays. What allure do museums have when the specimens on display are fiberglass replicas, of which identical versions can be seen at dozens of other venues, including corporate offices and amusement parks? I would counter that this is a small price to pay when we consider the immense educational benefits of this unprecedented availability of dinosaur skeletons. Children and adults around the world now have  the opportunity to see a T. rex in person, an experience that was until recently limited to citizens of a handful of large cities. What’s more, the huge body of research on Tyrannosaurus makes it a veritable model organism for vertebrate paleontology, so increasing access to T. rex fossils for international scientists is definitely helpful.

Besides, a fossil mount is far more than the fossil bones it is composed of. Mounts are in equal measures natural specimens and man-made objects, works of installation art designed to communicate a story through pose, posture and a carefully arranged mise-en-scene. Below are 14 examples of Stan on display, highlighting the great range attainable with a single dinosaur.

Image sources: Orientation UofMa_leistra, Bill and Sandra WayneReluctant Drifter, Roadschooling America, dinonikes, Texas Tigers, Momotarou2012, Helana Handbasket and Marie Thomas.

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February 2, 2014 · 11:55 am

There are “fake” fossil mounts after all…in China

I’m always bummed when I hear museum-goers describe fossil mounts, particularly those that are entirely or partially made up of casts, as “fakes.” It is inaccurate, if not inflammatory to describe mounts in this way, and I always make sure to offer a correction (see this ancient post of mine or Christopher Norris’s much better explanation for details).

Well, it turns out I was wrong, or at least trapped in a western-centric worldview. There are fossil mounts that can and should be called fake…in China. Earlier today, Brian Switek linked to a brief radio story at CRIEnglish about the recent appearance of dinosaur-themed parks throughout China. According to the clip, local governments throughout China have been competing to built the biggest and best dinosaur park. The parks are apparently the equivalent of attention-grabbing and income-building public works projects, such as stadiums or fancy shopping centers, that are created regularly in the U.S. But while these new parks might have been inspired by the torrent of spectacular, paradigm-shifting fossils found in China over the last two decades, they are not museums. These are amusement parks, featuring robotic and fiberglass awesomebro dinosaurs. They are entertainment, not educational or scientific enterprises by any stretch of the imagination.

So where are these municipal dinosaur theme parks getting their dinosaurs? As it turns out, there are literally dozens of new companies in China that exist entirely to supply these attractions. I had encountered some of these sites before, but didn’t know the context of their existence until now. Google “China robotic dinosaurs” or something similar and you’ll find them. Most of these products are what they are: big, goofy looking animatronic dinosaurs that aren’t especially attractive but at least can’t be mistaken for scientific reconstructions. But then I saw the “dinosaur skeletons”:

It’s possible that parts of these might be casts, but I doubt it. These are pretty much abominations, sculpted with little regard for the actual appearance of these dinosaurs, or animal anatomy in general. I’ve written at length about how the public conception of dinosaurs is irreversibly intertwined with its conception of museums. When we think of fossils, we think of grand museum halls populated by towering skeletons. This connection is so ingrained that mounted skeletons have become, in the public eye, the only proper way to display dinosaurs. It’s therefore not unexpected that these companies would capitalize on that association.

The problem is that unlike a mural or life-sized model, which are obviously reproductions, mounted skeletons retain the aura of authenticity that comes from displaying known fossils. To display a skeleton is to imply that we are seeing real specimens, or at least replicas standing in for specimens that exist somewhere else. Displaying “dinosaur skeletons” with no regard for accuracy ruins that association. For nearly 200 years, fossil mounts have been symbols of credible science, and I hate to see that good reputation sullied.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, opinion

In Defense of New Museums

As a museum* educator, I work with two kinds of experts: researchers who create knowledge and education specialists who disseminate knowledge. Both groups have ostensibly the same mission, which is to effectively communicate credible information about the world around us. Generally, both sides collaborate effectively, due in no small part to a shared enthusiasm for their work. But there is one issue (that has been raging for decades) in which researchers and educators frequently seem to be shouting past each other, complaining about what one another are doing wrong but not making much progress in reconciling their priorities. This issue is, of course, “new museum” exhibit aesthetics, the trend toward replacing traditional academically-oriented displays of specimens with dynamic, interactive leaning experiences that use specimens alongside interactive activities and multimedia to communicate specific educational messages to a broad audience.

*When I say museum, I mean natural history or science museum. Art museums are a completely different beast, and one I won’t pretend to understand.

From the perspective of many researchers and certain sets of museum-goers, these newer exhibits are frivolous lowest-common-denominator attractions better suited to amusement parks than serious institutions. For example, in a recent Tetrapod Zoology review of the London Natural History Museum’s Extinction exhibit, Darren Naish criticizes computer-based interactive exhibits because they “take up space that really should be spent on something far more worthwhile” and “give visitors the excuse to do the same old crap they do every other day of their lives (look at screens, play videogames, use touchscreens) when they really could be treated to a more unique experience.” Likewise, an all-encompassing rant about new museums can be found in this (admittedly 6 year old) post by Matt Wedel, which is well worth a read (seriously, read it now and then come back to this).

The Hunterian Museum as it appeared in the 1600s: all  of the specimens, not much else.

The Hunterian Museum as it appeared in the 1800s: ALL OF THE SPECIMENS.

But in direct contrast to Wedel’s insistence that the intrinsic value of real specimens is all museum-goers want or need, there are editorials like this one by James Durston, which I will charitably describe as provocative. Durston tells us that museums that only display artifacts for their own sake are “classrooms made of cold granite, the only sense of life emerging from the tourists.” He argues that most objects on display in museums don’t matter as much to visitors as museum workers think they do, and pleads for more context and more reason to care.

So what’s the deal? Are modern museums too focused on providing context for their collections, or not focused enough? Let me begin by explaining why modern museum exhibits look the way they do. A century ago, or even 50 years ago, exhibits were arranged and labels were written almost exclusively by expert curators. These exhibits were, by and large, created with an audience of “interested people” in mind, meaning either other experts or clientele with enough leisure time to learn the jargon presented to them. The majority of visitors who came through the door were not directly catered to, because exhibits were considered an afterthought to the real work of the museum: research and collections management.

In the past 30 years, however, the museum field has decided that it can do better. Museums shifted from inwardly focused, primarily academic institutions into focal points for lifelong learning that operate in service to a wide community of visitors. Go to the website of your favorite museum and check out their mission statement (it should be pretty easy to find). I just did, and the mission of the National Museum of Natural History is to “increase knowledge and inspire learning about nature and culture, through outstanding research, collections, exhibitions, and education, in support of a sustainable future.” Note that the museum doesn’t seek to increase knowledge and inspire learning just for a core audience of studious, well-read people, but for everyone. That means the museum needs to offer content that is interesting to all sorts of people, whether they learn best by reading and absorbing information, by physically doing something, by making choices for themselves or by discussing an issue with others. Preserving  and studying collections is no less important than in museums of yore, but these activities are understood to be in service of providing knowledge to the widest possible audience.

This shift in focus has inspired museum exhibits with more explicit educational goals, as well as attempts to create learning experiences that reach visitors other than those already keyed in to the customary language of academia. Drawing heavily on Gardner’s multiple intelligences, modern exhibits are intended to cater to diverse audiences that learn in a variety of different ways. In particular, hands-on mini experiments and computer-based games have become staples in science exhibits in order to reach visitors who learn better by doing than by observing. These interactive elements (we just call them interactives in the biz) are not appealing to everyone, but museums serve a broad community and have no business being exclusionary in the services they provide.

Beyond any moral or educational imperative, however, modern museums must be accessible because they are nonprofit institutions that rely heavily on public funds. They are funded based on the promise that they will provide educational resources for their communities, and that means serving more than a small subset of the population. Furthermore, ever-tightening budgets mean that museums need to be strictly managed. Educators have no choice but to establish clear standards of success for their exhibits, and to develop means to track attendance and audience engagement. Just to keep our jobs and keep museum doors open, we need to be able to clearly articulate who we are serving, how we are benefiting them and how we know.

The new Ocean Hall at NMNH: a $90 million new museum extravaganza.

The new Ocean Hall at NMNH: a $50 million new museum extravaganza.

If it was not clear, I absolutely agree with the goals behind new museum design. As  was argued in the American Alliance of Museums’ 1984 “Museums for a New Century” commission report, “if collections are the heart of museums, what we have come to call education – the commitment to presenting objects and ideas an an informative and stimulating way – is the spirit.” General audiences can certainly experience awe and wonder when presented with neat stuff, but museums can and should provide more than that. A hundred birds from around the world look impressive on a shelf, but they are much more interesting when the viewer understands the evolutionary processes and biogeography that produced such diversity. A little bit of context goes a long way to making such an exhibit is accessible and valuable to the widest possible audience.

In practice, however, I will concede that many attempts at broadening the appeal of natural history exhibits are pretty bad. Some modern museum exhibits use technology in terrible ways, and many attempts to increase interactivity are bafflingly pointless or even counterproductive. For instance, a dinosaur exhibit I visited earlier this year includes a green-screen stage where visitors can place themselves in a scene with dinosaurs running around. The result is not only painfully dated, but it has no educational purpose and may well encourage people to think that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed. Likewise, an exhibit on human evolution features a glorified photo booth that makes visitors’ faces look like other hominids. This non-educational attraction is consistently the most popular element of the gallery, distracting visitors from the fantastic displays and specimens all around it. More generally, an increasing number of exhibits are incorporating profoundly pointless touch-screen computers that let visitors browse photos of the specimens on display right in front of them. Just because an exhibit element is hands-on doesn’t mean it is actually helping visitors interact with exhibit content.

One reason lousy interactives keep being designed is that our evaluation procedures* are not always great at separating good exhibits from appealing ones. A good interactive provides informative content in an engaging way, while an appealing one is engaging but lacking in content. Many visitors may speak highly of just-appealing interactives, but that doesn’t mean these belong in museums. The aforementioned budget woes are also a factor here: interactives that draw crowds for any reason are a big help when scrounging for ways to fund research and preservation. There are tough calls to make when deciding between what visitors most want to see and what is actually worthy of an educational institution. There are no easy answers, especially when museums are consistently hurting for funding.

*Do note, however, that actually testing whether exhibits are meeting their educational goals has finally become commonplace…for far too long museum workers just assumed anything they made was good enough.

Nevertheless, when an interactive display works, when visitors’ eyes light up with understanding by working out a scientific problem for themselves, the process is absolutely worthwhile. Earlier this year, I raved about the low-tech brilliance of an activity in the Academy of Natural Sciences that let visitors physically act out the difference in upright and sprawling gaits. And the NMNH Human Origins exhibit features a fantastic computer game where visitors play the part of a future world leader and experience firsthand the challenges and consequences of overpopulation, food shortage and invasive species. Exhibit interactives, both technology-based and otherwise, are difficult to pull off, and many museums have failed at the task. But we owe it to our visitors to try.

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Filed under collections, education, exhibits, history of science, museums, opinion, science communication

Another JP4 Feathers Post

Okay, I’ll bite.

A week ago, Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Treverrow tweeted two words and a hashtag that set the corners of the internet I hang out in aflame for days afterward. The dinosaurs in the upcoming third sequel will not have feathers, in defiance of the twenty years of irrefutable fossil evidence that has come to light since the original film’s 1993 release. Reactions to this news demonstrate a clear divide among dinosaur enthusiasts: there are those who hate the idea of scientifically inaccurate dinosaurs appearing in mass media, and those who are enamored with the “classic” dinosaurs of their youth, and vocally resist any change. And in this case, I don’t really agree with either.

The problem is that dinosaurs straddle two different roles in our culture. There is the scientific reality of their existence, informed by careful scrutiny of hard evidence. Brilliant researchers collect and interpret fossils, broadening our understanding of not only the lives of dinosaurs, but how life on earth evolves and adapts to change in general. As a science educator, this is the perspective on dinosaurs I am usually invested in.

But dinosaurs also have what John Conway calls “awesomebro” appeal. From this angle, dinosaurs are appealing because they are monsters with big teeth and are generally super cool. This is coupled with an innate association of dinosaurs with early childhood that people are remarkably protective of. For example, on Brian Switek’s 10 Dinosaur Myths that Need to Go Extinct article for Tor Publishing, commenter Alan B. declares “I don’t care what anyone says, the dinos we learned about when I was in grade school were awesome! And given a choice between factual and awesome, I will choose awesome every time!” Clearly there is a a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor at play here, but comments like this appear virtually anywhere feathered dinosaurs are discussed. Many people genuinely care about their “classic” dinosaurs, and react negatively to new discoveries that threaten the dinosaur paradigm they associate with childhood bliss.

As Conway points out, the typical reaction of anyone with a vested interest actual scientific paleontology is to reject and belittle pop-culture dinosaurs whenever possible. Unfortunately, this we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong approach veers into deficit model territory, and doesn’t seem to accomplish much other than make the rift among dinosaur enthusiasts more antagonistic. It makes our audience of potential learners defensive, even angry, that scientists are “ruining” dinosaurs. And focusing conversations on the fact that popular conceptions of dinosaurs are wrong removes focus from the real benefits of researching past life.

I think it would be more helpful to recognize the validity and significance of pop-culture dinosaurs, but to work towards separating them in the public consciousness from real dinosaurs. A potential conversation: You think the Jurassic Park Raptors are cool? Great, so do I, but I think they’re cool in the way other movie monsters like the Predator or the T-1000 are cool. But perhaps you’d be interested in learning about the real animal Velociraptor mongoliensis that the movie Raptors were inspired by? My point is, the widespread appreciation/nostalgia for pop-culture dinosaurs (or fantasy dinosaurs, or classic dinosaurs, or awesomebro dinosaurs, whatever you want to call them) is potentially valuable, but I think it often gets dismissed too gruffly. If would-be educators are outright dismissing what their audience is bringing to the conversation, that audience has little incentive to learn more.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, reptiles, science communication

Exhibits with an Agenda

I am currently part of a team preparing a small exhibit on sustainable energy for a Midwestern history museum. Our original goal was simple: to review the regional history of renewable energy production and use, in order to illustrate that “green living” is not a new concept. However, as with most creations of passionate people, the size and scope of the exhibit has expanded quite a bit, and the exhibit is now intended to be a more forceful argument for responsible energy use and the importance of being aware of one’s own energy footprint. There’s no denying this argument has always been an implicit part of the exhibit plan. In this part of the world, there is an unfortunate resistance to, if not outright demonization of progressive energy policy, and we absolutely want to undermine the assumptions and misconceptions that fuel this anti-green discourse. What has changed is that we’ve stopped hiding our agenda.

In his 1994 essay Evaluating the Ethics and Consciences of Museums, Robert Sullivan proposes that museums are “moral educators”. Either deliberately or through unconscious subtext, museums inherently shape the opinions, worldview and conception of self of their visitors. It is unavoidable that museum content will be shaped by subtextual ideologies and assumptions. Identifying and unpacking these biases is a huge issue (it’s basically the entire focus of the humanities for the last 50 years or so), but one can still exert a degree of control over which assumptions are expressed.

Museums are among the most trusted of media forms, and are widely considered to be far more reliable than books, television or newspapers. This public trust can be intimidating, but it does present a unique opportunity: if a museum takes a stand on an important issue, it will probably be taken seriously. Obviously, trust is not a resource to be squandered needlessly, but when wielded with care and deliberation it can be very powerful.

With our sustainable energy exhibit, we are trying very hard to harness that power in an effective way. The issues that surround energy use are very serious, as the availability and ready access of energy are critical to our modern economy, infrastructure, and way of life. Unfortunately, the discourse around renewable energy, diminishing fossil fuels and climate change is highly politicized. We want to be plain about the economic and environmental dangers that good, solid research tells us is in our future, and we want to call out sources of misinformation. Above all, we want to give people the intellectual tools to evaluate controversial issues for themselves, and to identify which arguments are backed by concrete evidence and which are not.

Our exhibit may well raise some eyebrows for taking a hard stance on a topic that many in this region consider to be “controversial”. I think this is a good thing. Museums really should not be playing the “both sides of the story” game that other media forms play when the evidence and experts clearly favor one camp. If we are avoiding asking our audiences hard questions, then we are not teaching, and we are not doing our job.

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Filed under education, exhibits, museums, opinion, science communication

WTF, AAA?

Over the past couple months, as I have hoped in vain that the folks at SV-POW will post cool stuff about sauropods again, I’ve learned a great deal about open-access publishing and the Research Works Act. Kudos to them for creating awareness. The sinister implications of the RWA are well documented around the web, so I’ll just provide the short version.

At present, taxpayer funded research institutions in the U.S., namely the NIH, require that research results must be freely accessible online. This is a reasonable requirement that is hard to argue against: if the public pays for science, the public should be able to see the results. However, this open-access policy gets in the way of the profits of the academic publishing industry. Publishers like Elsevier and Springer have astonishingly high profit margins of 36% or more, dwarfing even those of Apple, and they aim to keep them that way. Academic publishers have a pretty sweet scam going, in which (largely publicly funded) researchers supply the papers and the peer review for free, while the publishers take the full copyright, and charge $30-$50 to view a single article. All the publisher does is format the manuscripts into a physical volume, which is irrelevant since most people now access papers online. Enter RWA, an effort by publishers to push back against increasing awareness of their unnecessary and monopolistic role as gatekeepers of knowledge.

Until this point, the voices of dissent from the academic community seemed to paint a fairly straightforward picture. Researchers, who know the academic publishing industry well, are more-or-less unanimously opposed to the unbridled corporate greed represented by the RWA. But then this business happened (.pdf link). The American Anthropological Association, with which I’ve taken issue before, has thrown in its lot on the side of the publishers. The previously linked AAA statement was a response to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy’s ongoing Request for Information (check out all the responses to date here). The AAA claims that there is currently no problem with the accessibility of research, and that it is unfair to undermine the right of publishers to sell their property at market value. Here are the choice quotes:

We write today to make the case that while we share the mutual objective of enhancing the public understanding of scientific enterprise and support the wide dissemination of materials that can reach those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge (consistent with our association’s mission), broad public access to information currently exists, and no federal government intervention is currently necessary.

Mandating open access to such property without just compensation and lawful procedural limits constitutes, in our view, an unconstitutional taking of private property – copyrighted material – an expropriation without fair market compensation. In our view, such a practice cannot and will not withstand judicial review.

Both of these arguments are nonsense. If the AAA believes that “those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge” currently have appropriate access to research, then their definition of the public must end at researchers at large institutions. As articulated at Neuroanthropology, this insular view is unhelpful and unacceptable, and it is particularly surprising that it is coming from a group of anthropologists. Do the non-profit groups anthropologists work with in developing countries not require access to papers? What about the people the research is about? Interested lay-people? Under the current system, and to an even greater extent should the RWA pass, anybody not affiliated with an institution with a well-funded library* has to pay exorbitant prices out of pocket to view research. As a result, the research remains largely in the academic sphere. Given the political nature of anthropologists in general, it is shocking that the AAA deems this acceptable.

*Side note: Even as a grad student, getting access to papers can be a real problem. Even large universities sometimes only provide access to volumes of journals within a certain date range, and when I’m doing field work or an internship, I can no longer get access.

The second quote is bunk because, as explained previously, the services provided by academic publishers are minimal, if not counterproductive to the dissemination of knowledge, and do not constitute anything that researchers could not do themselves in this information age.

As they did a year ago when they removed the reference to science from their mission statement, the AAA has demonstrated that their interests are not in sync with researchers. Honestly, I don’t know who they are trying to represent. They are working against the interests of serious researchers, advocacy groups who help the people anthropologists work with, and the dissemination of knowledge in general. AAA, please stop.

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Filed under anthropology, field work, opinion, science communication