ASAPArcheo? Speed and Publication in Archaeology

Next month, I’m going to give a little paper at the TAG Conference in Boulder, Colorado. I posted a fairly provisional abstract for it here. Basically, I want to argue that speed with which academic ideas are made available is changing the practice of knowledge production even in very traditional fields like archaeology.

It was fortuitous that this week the New York Times published an article on how Carol Greider, a Nobel Prize laureate in biology, published a preprint of an article at site bioRxiv and then followed it up with a tweet using the hashtag #ASAPbio. The dissemination of research by preprint has been more or less common practice in some fields for the last two decades with peer-reviewed publication representing an article’s wide-spread acceptance rather than its debut before the public eye.

The utility of digital preprints is widely understood as a way to ensure that research, particularly publicly funded research, reach as wide an audience as possible. For some, the circulation of preprints represents a convenient way to undercut cost of top tier journals. It leaves the prestige of peer review more or less intact, by allowing traditional journals to publish a “definitive version” of a paper, but also ensures that research circulates more widely without the complications of pay walls. 

The #ASAPbio buzz, however, was not as much about undercutting the cost and barriers associated with traditional, peer-reviewed journals. As the “ASAP” hashtag implies, the preprint system also offers scholars a way to get their research to their colleagues and the public more quickly. The traditional peer review process takes time and tends to feed into an equally time consuming production process. For matters of immediate public health concern like the outbreak of the Zika virus in South and Latin America, the rapid dissemination of research might play a key role in averting a larger catastrophe.

Archaeologists, of course, can almost never make a claim that the publication of their results will avert some kind of catastrophe. At the same time, archaeological publication is slow even in the best of circumstances. Moreover, highly descriptive archaeological publications have tended to be both production intensive with images, technical texts, and intricate formats and benefited only modestly from peer review. In these circumstance, the pace of publication is less a product of the rigorous, synthetic interpretation necessary to create new archaeological knowledge (or at least the raw materials that form the basis for archaeological knowledge), and more a product of expectations assigned to “proper” archaeological publication. 

This opens a whole series of questions concerning the dissemination of archaeological “data” and the nature of archaeological publication. For example, how do we balance the need to disseminate our results efficiently and quickly against the need for comprehensive publication? I often wonder whether releasing data through an outlet like Open Context and not burdening traditional publishing houses with the expensive and time consuming practice of laying out catalogues is the way forward. While datasets available in Open Context can be peer reviewed, they do not necessary have to be to be posted there. The data sets can be refined and even expanded over time even after peer review (from my understanding). This flexibility allows scholars to publish quickly (and refine over time), but it also undermines expectations that published archaeological data represents a stable, authoritative source. 

Of course, any scholar working in the field knows that even catalogues produced through traditional publication practices are only as authoritative as the assumptions (chronologies, typologies, and practices) upon which they are based. Archaeology, as well as all academic disciplines, should probably reflect critically on our dependence on traditional practices and expectations bound up in conventional publishing. Our willingness to wait patiently for the appearance of an article in print, our willingness to put up with the endless routine of editing, formatting, and fussing, and our longstanding fetishization of printed texts on paper, in ink, has roots in the commercial enterprise of print publishing. As someone dabbling in publishing myself, I don’t think this is necessarily bad. After all, print publishing was the way for academic knowledge to circulate. Today, the close link between the technology (paper, typesetting, printing) and the expectations (editing, authority, and stability) associated with print publishing has made the dissemination of knowledge more ponderous, more expensive, and slower. 

Peer review fits into the tradition of print publishing because it reinforces the authority of texts, and it fits into a tradition of knowledge production that favors stability, accuracy, and persistence. If we shift our emphasis to a world where speed is a priority, we enter a world where the often slow process of peer review becomes a negotiable aspect in our desire for greater efficiency.   

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