A Few Thoughts on Open Access in Archaeology

The death of Aaron Swartz this past week has pushed scholars have once again to think about the limitations placed on the publication and dissemination of their labors. Eric Kansa has published a nice post on ASOR’s blog that framed the discussion of the dissemination of archaeological data in ethical terms. In this post he offers a link to a pre-print of an article that appeared in December in World Archaeology titled: “Openness and Archaeology’s Information Ecosystem.” This article represents one of the best summaries of issues involving Open Access and Open Data in archaeology and should be a must read for any project director or archaeologist who thinks seriously about how they will make the results of their fieldwork available to the public.

For those of you who don’t know him, Eric Kansa is the PI of Open Context and Open Access/Open Data project for archaeological information. It is probably safe to say that his resource provides the most sophisticated interface for the peer-reviewed publication of digital archaeological data. So he has significant credibility in this conversation. 

I encourage you to go and read the article, but he makes a few points that are so central to understanding the landscape of Open Access archaeological publications.

1. He decouples critiques of Open Access from critiques of peer review. Open Access has nothing to do with peer review; it has to do with how individuals access the content produced by peer review. This is something that many scholars do not quite seem to understand (including the esteemed president of the Archaeological Institute of America), and this is ironic since paying for access to a journal is not necessary to ensure peer review which (as I have discovered sometimes painfully this year) paid for in the sweat of individual peer reviewers. The absence of a highly-ranked peer-reviewed, Open Access journal in Mediterranean archaeology is deeply problematic especially as this discipline is backed by strong institutions who could make this project happen. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that the rankings that Kansa cites in his article are maintained by Thompson-Reuters a for-profit publisher that is almost certainly part of the problem.) 

2. He notes that with the ongoing academic diaspora and the growing number of scholars who work outside of academia or at institutions with limited access to research resources, access to resources has become a vital issue in the continued development of our field. In the past, the infrastructure of book and journal publishing was expensive and this limited the distribution of knowledge. Today, however, the cost of publishing is rapidly declining toward zero and limits on the dissemination of knowledge rest at least in part with the profit motives of large companies. 

3. Preserving the past. Restrictions on access to scholarly materials not only limits the dissemination of knowledge, but often can prevent libraries from archiving scholarly publications which are only available through subscription access. As library resource fluctuate through time, this is a particularly precarious situation in which libraries are forced to depend on the continued good will and health of the for-profit content providers. If knowledge is a commodity, there will be a calculus to how much supply satisfied demand at any given moment.    

In an interview in 2009, Aaron Swartz regarded his success to be, in part, driven by his curiosity: “The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that.” 

The Open Access movement, at least for now, appears committed to ensuring that scholars and the public can continue to satisfy their curiosity through access to scholarly work (which is largely funded by public entities).  


  1. This is tangential, and I understand that it may no longer be the case; but since I do not have access to an academic library, getting online JSTOR articles was impossible for me when doing research for my Byzantine novels. I would not have minded paying per article but feel strongly that academic research at least be accessible to anyone. If I recall correctly, JSTOR only allowed paid individual access to some articles. On the one occasion that I did thus access one it turned out to only be a book review of the subject that told me nothing more than was in the abstract. Other promising articles were entirely blocked to anyone but institutional subscribers. Is my experience now out-of-date?


  2. $20 bucks to read a review really irritates me but I would not mind paying a couple of bucks to read an article in AJA. In fact I would be much less inclined to beg borrow or steal it. The stack ’em high sell ’em cheap may actually be a viable model. Academic journals do have costs to cover and I do not begrudge a small profit if it benefits the quality but at $20 a good chunk of that should go to the author who sweated, applied their critical skills and paid for the research time and pics.


  3. JSTOR recently announced that you can have limited free access to some articles. I think you can get read only access to three articles at a time for two weeks. Here is a link to an article discussing http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/09/jstor-offer-limited-free-access-content-1200-journals new policy:


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