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The AIA and Open Access: An Open Letter

- April 30, 2012 in Discussions

The following is a joint letter to the AIA from several members of the Open Archaeology Working Group.

A recent editorial by the President of the Archaeological Institute of America, Elizabeth Bartman, made the claim that “the [AIA], along with our colleagues at the American Anthropological Association and other learned societies, have taken a stand against open access.”  As might be expected, this has led to a degree of consternation among many of its members. After all, access to information is one of the most significant issues of our age and those who aim to restrict it should expect some opposition. Bartman is not objecting to freedom of speech, however, but ‘free as in beer’, in particular a proposed piece of federal legislation that would make archaeological scholarship ‘available to the public, on the Internet, for no charge’. This is not a simple issue and, as practicing archaeologists from the international community, we respect the AIA’s right to express such views. Despite this, it is our opinion that this proclamation has done both the AIA’s membership, as well as other academics and the general public, a grave disservice.

The editorial constitutes the public version of an official response (PDF) to the US Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Request For Information with regard to their policy on open access in general. In this formal submission the AIA makes clear that the current journal subscription and pay-per-article paradigm is entirely satisfactory in its eyes, and that “Access to [archaeological] information currently already exists and no additional federal government intervention is necessary.” In making such a claim it has urged the US Government to keep the dissemination of publicly funded knowledge in the hands of private commercial interests. It is notable that the AAA, whom the AIA quote at length in justifying their position, have since changed their position following an outcry from their own membership, and now  advocate a move to facilitating open access to anthropological research.

All this being said, we choose to see this situation as an opportunity, rather than a disaster for public access to archaeology. In making her case so boldly, Bartman has brought the issues surrounding open access front and center. Indeed, were her editorial itself not open access, it is doubtful that many would have noticed that the AIA had an opinion on the matter at all. It is also a positive step that Bartman has responded constructively to calls for a reassessment of the AIA’s position. We would urge the AIA to go much further, however, using its own open platforms, most notably its blog, to host a range a voices on this issue so that the genuine opinions of its membership can be heard. Of course, it is quite possible that many AIA members do believe that the terms under which their work can be read by others should be dictated by commercial publishers, but we suspect that this is far from being a consensus. Secondly, Bartman’s argument that the costs of dissemination are not covered by research grants, is not an argument against open access. It simply acknowledges the fact that there is a cost involved. The real question, and one on which we feel there is a worthwhile debate to be had, is how that cost should be borne.

We therefore respectfully urge the AIA to:

A. Retract their objection to open access, just as the AAA have done. Of course, they may wish to abstain from advocating for open access, but actively opposing those who wish to see public research freely disseminated among the American (and indeed global) public seems unworthy for an institution whose mission is to promote “archaeological inquiry and public understanding of the material record of the human past worldwide.”

B. Use their community services, including their blog and mailing list, as a forum to engage in a debate that has become one of the most important public questions of our time.

Furthermore, we encourage the AIA’s members to speak out on behalf of open access for the following five reasons:

1. Archaeology, unlike the physical sciences, typically destroys the very subject of its study in the process of investigation. Chemistry experiments can be repeated but excavations cannot. Archaeological interventions should only be sanctioned on the basis that the record – which includes the interpretations of those present, as well as the ‘raw data’ – is made available to those from whom it has been irretrievably taken: the public. Selling that information for profit is little better than selling archaeological finds for profit.

2. The cost of publishing in closed-access journals is not only high, but it actively hinders the spread of knowledge within academia and the wider society. Almost all academics will have experienced the inability to access journals to which their university does not subscribe. This is insignificant however, in contrast to the lack of access to the general public. The problem is not simply the accumulative cost – it is the fact that it is impossible to know whether an article is truly helpful until one has read it. A pay-per-view TV show that charged $20 per episode would soon go off air, yet such sums are considered reasonable for an individual journal article. To make matters worse, libraries are usually required to pay high costs for cross-disciplinary ‘packages’ of journals, the majority of which are irrelevant to its readership. The overall cost per article is therefore extraordinarily inefficient from the perspective of the library, and thus those who fund it.

3. It is often suggested that journal publishers make efforts to reduce costs for students or those residing in developing countries. We contend that it should never be the role of a commercial company to arbitrarily decide the conditions under which publicly funded scholarship can be seen. Such decisions should clearly be made by those who paid for it, i.e. the taxpayer or their representatives.

4. The massive digitisation programmes of recent years have made articles more discoverable and portable than ever before. But this is just the beginning. Digital methods for analysis and visualisation are evolving just as fast and yet they have had almost no impact on archaeology for the simple reason that the data is not accessible. Instead, researchers are applying twenty-first century methods to nineteenth century journal articles because they are freely available online without restrictions from publishers. Meanwhile, twenty-first century articles are still restricted to methods practised in the first century.

5. Through its editorial and submission to the US Government, the AIA has made itself a poster child for private publication of public scholarship. We agree that sometimes it is important to take a stand on an issue, but we think it wise to ask which side of history one is likely to end up on. The evidence from politics, the media, social practices and the commercial sector suggests that simply ‘taking a stand against open access’ is inadvisable. We do not underestimate the risks involved in ‘going open’, but swimming with the tide may be more advisable that commanding it to turn back.

These are just five reasons to support open access. There are many more, and there are also some important arguments against open access which we hope others will air. The US has long pioneered the notion that public funds should be spent for the benefit of those that pay them, not academic or commercially vested interests. It is our sincere hope that the AIA will in time also lead from the front when it comes to making archaeological scholarship available in the Information Age.



Dr Leif Isaksen, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton

Dr Anthony Beck, School of Computing, University of Leeds

Jessica Ogden, L – P : Archaeology

Stefano Costa, Dipartimento di Archeologia, Università degli Studi di Siena

Colleen Morgan, University of California, Berkeley

Doug Rocks-Macqueen, University of Edinburgh

Dr Andrew Bevan, UCL Institute of Archaeology

Dr Eric Kansa, The Alexandria Archive Institute

Paul Cripps, Archaeological Computing Research Group, University of Southampton