Archaeological Data and Publishing: A Fragment

I spent time thinking about Elizabeth Bartman’s recent letter from the Archaeological Institute of America regarding open access to the Institute’s journal, the American Journal of Archaeology, and Archaeology magazine. I comment here on this letter knowing full well that other people have far more informed and sophisticated views on this topic. 

In short, the letter argues that recent legislation requiring that the results of federally funded research be made available online and then for free within six months of publication is not financially sustainable or ethical. She argues that moving the AJA more substantially toward an open access model will erode it subscription base and make the journal financially unsustainable. She bluntly states: “If libraries could get access to its articles free within six months they would rightly cancel their subscriptions and wait.” Some have already pointed out that the percentage of articles in the AJA that receive federal funding is rather small (around 5% over the last decade) and in the current economic climate, one can imagine this number shrinking smaller. 

What I found the most jarring, however, was Bartman’s assertion:


“Another objection to the proposed bill is to the online publishing of the published research reports. Federal grants usually do not cover publication costs; they normally cover only the acquisition of raw data. Published reports add interpretation and expertise, both the result of years of contemplation and the combined efforts of many scholars, not to mention the involved and expensive publication process itself. None of this is usually paid for by Federal grants.  Nor do these grants cover our costs, especially editorial and production.

We support the concept of open access and we will encourage and facilitate ongoing discussions with our professional members about what open access entails. But perhaps the public should get access to what it has actually paid for: if raw data (e.g., the photographs of objects) or finished article, both would be available through open access.”


What Bartman argues here may be technically true: the collection of raw data may be funded separately from its analysis and final publication which may rely on the market to support production and distribution costs. On the other hand, the idea that, somehow, the collection of raw data is separate from the processes that lead to its publication strikes me as rather disingenuous, and, while rhetorically expedient, it dangerously subverts the intent of federal funding, the last 25 years of research on archaeological epistemology, and the spirit of research. After all, no project ever collects data – federally funded or otherwise – simply for the sake of collecting data. Whether implicit in funding models or otherwise, the idea that the research process could be parsed according to the economies of production seems cynical to the extreme, and methodologically unsound.

After all, one would not want to press the rights of funding organizations to sequester the particularized products of their labor too widely. Scholars regularly give grants of their time to journals to act as peer reviewers – for example – and to contribute to the value of the journal as a legitimate source of knowledge. While one can certainly argue that a scholar reaps some benefits (financial and otherwise) from the appearance of an article in a prestigious journal like the AJA, one gains very less as an individual from peer reviewing for this journal than the journal gains from having access to high quality peer reviews. (I’d be interested in the more complex argument that the journal’s very existence provides value to the profession in which the peer reviewers participate.). As one can see, this would seem to be a dangerous line of argument…


  1. The disassociation of publication with funding is not only disingenuous, it is in direct contradiction with what the federal guidelines say about making the results available. That the AIA is hopelessly out of touch and focused on maintaining a moribund status quo is no surprise. What is a disappointment, however, is that any scholar would bother with an organization that is so focused on maintaining an elitist tradition of archaeology as something rich people do. Other than hosting a conference that lets the non-elite pretend they are wanted, the AIA is largely irrelevant. There are a dozen publication venues equal to AJA, most far more committed to access. A pox on anyone who publishes there, and I suggest also an AJA citation boycott. Encourage your library to cancel their subscription.


  2. I don’t agree with Richard. The AJA, while it’s far behind Hesperia in terms of access, is generally accessible and not prohibitively expensive. If we wanted to boycott journals, there are many worse offenders. I also think that the AJA is still a premier journal and I’m happy to publish there. I just don’t agree with what the president of the AIA is saying.


    1. Fair enough, and some good points. No open access+ exorbitant prices do indeed create worse offenders. No pox on Nakassis.


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