Monday, April 28, 2014

Archaeology Blogging (and Publishing)

The bloggers for the 2014 “Archaeology Blogging Carnival” were asked a final question about the “future of archaeology blogging” (or something like that). As I’m currently stuck on a plane to Austin, I thought I’d summarize some of the thoughts that I have on the topic and use this post as an opportunity to explore more general aspects about publishing.

First, I think blogging has the potential to facilitate academic discourse leading to some a degree of scholarly “activism" within the discipline. While traditional journals serve as broadcast mechanisms, we have few ways of carrying on cross-university conversations outside cramped poster sessions or random encounters at the bar in the yearly meetings. We need social network and the generation of media to create grassroots effort to make a number of changes.  PLOSOne is one venue that creates a platform for some limited feedback through its inline comment feature but archaeology is not the journal’s primary focus.  While blogs are still broadcast oriented, they encourage feedback in the comments that can contribute to debate and idea exchange.  

It is clear to me from the recent SAAs that we need more debate our our discipline. While polemic is tiresome and often pointless, we need everyone to continue to challenge each other in a positive way to improve the work that we do. If our goal is to do archaeology as a science then we need to think deeply and carefully about how we construct our observations to produce explanations. It is easy to get complacent or to slip into common sense thinking given the implicit nature of our own common sense. We need to call each other out on sloppy thinking, poor use of reasoning, and botched analytic applications. This criticism need not be Flannery-esque (and other like him) name calling though I suppose some of that goes with the territory. But as a discipline we are much richer and and productive when we are explicit in our thinking about what we do and when we tease apart the often implicit relations between our ideas and the empirical world.

Such clarity has been increasingly difficult to find in our discipline. I find that some of the “Processual Plus” mindset of the past 15 years has led a large part of the discipline to simply accept everything that everyone does as satisfactory: it's all under the big tent. But “inclusive” archaeology need not be “sloppy” archaeology nor does it necessary have to include simply any random idea that people cook up. Discussion provides a process by which ideas can be shaped and honed. Blogs, I believe, could be a significant part of that process.   

Most blogs, I think, are going to have visibility largely within academia while a few will reach a more public audience: so much of what we actually do as an archaeologist is obscure and tedious for the lay person. But that is fine. It is the day-to-day work that has the most to gain from the informal and interactive form of communication that constitutes blogging.  

And when we speak to each other, we all have the potential to affect larger change. As a way of an example, I would like to focus a bit on publishing in archaeology. Aspects of blogging overlap quite a bit with publishing (or should) as both are means of sharing information that we generate (one in a formal episodic way, the other in an informal continuous fashion.) I believe that we are long overdue for a change in the way we (as academics) consider places to publish and choose the journals for which we do reviews. This need comes from recent changes that have taken place in publishing as well as in academia. In terms of the publishing, the industry as a whole is struggling to find a way of doing business. Much of their existing models and practices depend upon dead-tree media and the capital machinery required to produce physical copies of articles. Publishers used to print books and journals and these required physical infrastructure and major investment. As academics, we did our share of the work: we generate the ideas, produce the writing, review the work of others.  Both sides of the publishing world were enriched. The publishing world used to ‘work' on the basis of mutually beneficial activities. 

A couple of things have changed with regards to this scenario. First, commercial publishers have grown fewer in number and the surviving journals have been consolidated into multi-national mega corporations.  These companies pay their CEOs and shareholders millions of dollars by charging individuals libraries skyrocket high rates.  For the few companies that control 95% of the academic journal, publishing is an exceedingly lucrative business. The CEO of Wiley and Sons, Stephen Smith, makes over $5MM a year ( Erik Angstrom, CEO of Elsevier took home $7.5MM ( These companies are generating record profits on the backs of publicly funded research , subscriptions taken from public funded libraries, the labor of academics who are working for low pay while handing over copyrights, and by prohibiting sharing of ideas that were paid for by taxpayers. They oppose self-publishing and open access — anything that might eat into their massive profits. And this is true of AAAS’s Science and Macmillan’s Nature, the two most prominent science journals in the world ( 

Second, the nature of the academy has dramatically changed. No longer do universities value the service faculty do for their disciplines.  The modern university is measuring bottom line one way or the other: impact factors, numbers of students graduated, numbers of classes taught per faculty, dollars raised and so on.  Worse, the numbers of faculty who are working outside of the tenure-track system continue to grow. These adjunct/affiliated academics ONLY make money on the basis of their teaching: they largely do research in their spare time with the hope of landing a job.  Non tenure track faculty now make up a staggering 76% of ALL faculty regardless of institution type ( These faculty simply have no incentive to participate in the process of reviews (much less publication). Even those that do have a tenure track job are being made to teach more so that ‘student throughput’ can be maximized as administrations become increasingly corporatized. While some of the gray-beard faculty still enjoy a relatively burden free teaching existence, the reality is that an ever-smaller proportion of faculty have any reason to participate in the publishing process except for the submission of written articles, a metric used for promotion. 

There are a number of actions that should become call to arms for archaeologists in terms of publishing (and blogging):

  1. We should publish open access whenever possible. The public paid for our research time. Every tax payer should be able to enjoy the products of this work. 
  2. We should publish in non-profit journal exclusively:  American Antiquity is run solely for the benefit of archaeologists through the Society for American Archaeology.  Antiquity is run by a non-profit (the new editor, Chris Scarre assures me that a new website will vastly improve the online nature of this journal). . Current Anthropology is funded through Wenner-Gren. These (and other) journals are not out to carve profits out of the public and the labor of poorly paid academics: they are there to benefit us through the distribution of the work we do to our colleagues and the rest of the world.
  3. We should cease donating our time reviewing articles for mega-profit commercial journals until they properly compensate us for our professional time. We shouldn’t be donating our (publicly funded) time for corporate earnings. If we do, that time should be paid - or at least some equal type of compensation be made such as student scholarship funds, open access or other kinds of community benefits. PeerJ, for examples, offers an open-access model which costs just the basic costs of the work required to get the work published — not giant million-dollar bonuses for CEOs.
  4. We should publicly archive all of our work and our data. is an excellent place to archive pre-prints as is  Our data should also be archived in publicly accessible repositories. With the explosion of cloud storage such archives are easily obtained at low cost even for relatively massive archaeological data sets (We should also refuse to play the “security through obscurity” game and make information about the record known so that everyone can participate in its preservation. The argument about secrets making good protection is not well supported by evidence.)
  5. Returning to the issue of blogging, we should blog as part of our regular communication between each other and with the public. We should preference and value all efforts that produce an impact regardless of venue and the “status” of the outlet.  A million-view blog with suitably professional content should have as much value (if not higher) than a published “comment” in a journal. Our mission should be about the generation and communication of knowledge about the past and we should reward anyone who achieves those goals in as many media as there are available. 

I suspect that some of these changes will happen regardless of what we do - they will just take longer. Pressure for open access publications already exists (e.g., the NIH mandate, the mandate by the UCs to have all faculty archive all publications).  Journals are in crisis mode since they cannot easily get reviewers. We are increasing our electronic presence each year (SAA even had a hashtag for the first time #SAA2014). Consequently, these comments may simply be one view into the future. The sooner we full grasp this new reality, however, the easier the transition will be.