Open Access, Digital Archaeology, and the Future of Publishing at ASOR 2019

Academic conferences remain one of the trickiest problems in our disciplinary practice. Not only are conferences expensive to attend (and this alone makes them potentially exclusionary for our contingent, alt-ac, and precarious colleagues),  bad for the environment, and physically and mentally exhausting, but they also reinforce the complex web of personal, institutional and professional connections that forms the “deep structure” of academia. In fact, so much of what goes on at an academic conferences happens over the course of casual conversation at the ends of panels, at committee meetings, at things overheard in the crowded hotel bar and lobby, and on various social media feeds. 

The future of archaeological publishing emerged as on of the most interesting conversations that traced its way from the Thursday meeting of the ASOR Committee on Publications, the Friday morning panel on best (or at least pretty good) practices, and in various planned and chance encounters throughout the meeting. Several things emerged from these conversations:

1. Archaeological publishing has a pretty significant “value add” to the knowledge making process. Putting together an archaeological publication, and particularly one that presents new archaeological “data,” is not a simple process. Ensuring that figures, photos, illustrations, tables, and catalogues consistently involves a high degree of editorial attention, a significant amount of design and production work, and almost continual correspondence with authors. This is time consuming, technical, and specialized work and that tends to make it very expensive.

The cost of high quality archaeological publishing even in the digital realm creates a distinct – if not unique – challenge to funding archaeological publications. This, in turn, requires that any open access model for archaeology include provisions for significant and sustained funding.  

2. Publishing and Revenue. Another challenge facing open access publishing in archaeology is that many non profit publishers (to say nothing of for profit publishers) and organizations see publications as a source of significant revenue. The revenue for journal subscriptions and book sales allows organizations – like ASOR – to fulfill their mission in other areas. As a result, there is a very cautious approach to providing any content for free. 

At the same time, the cautious approach may make organizations like ASOR particularly vulnerable to the growing pressure to make publications available via open access. My concern for ASOR is that in the next decade, whether they like it or not, revenue from publishing will change and likely decline as more and more scholars expect to be able to publish their works in open ways. As editor of the ASOR Annual, I’m already hearing that authors and editors want their work to be open access. We need to find ways to accommodate this. Plan S is looming and it’s going to have different impacts on different disciplines and institutions

3. Distributed versus Centralized Distribution. A key component to current models of open access publishing is “green” open access. In practice, green open access often takes the form of archived pre-prints or off prints. The former have the advantage of separating the scholarly work for the final value adds of the publisher (see my first point). The latter can often be negotiated by scholars as part of the publication agreement. 

The downside of this kind of open access practice is that it tends to be highly distributed across various repositories (archival and otherwise) with publications following scholars rather than following the organization brought together by publishers and editors. The downside of this practice is that it tends to link discoverability to some familiarity with an author (or at least their home institution). At present, there is a much greater investment (on any number of levels) in ensuring that limited access works are discoverable than the distributed array of open access works housed in institutional repositories. 

4. Open Access, the State and Colonialism. Archaeologists have long been aware of the colonial aspects of our practice. Open access publishing has positioned itself as one way to make sure that the communities in which we do archaeological work have access to our findings and results. To my mind, this is only good.

At the same time, this line of reasoning as a justification for open access publishing is easily anticipated by those who argue that open access publishing is a radical solution to a relatively simple problem. Many of the large for profit (and non profit) publishers already accommodate this critique by having policies that make content available at deeply discounted prices (or even for free) to “markets” in the so-called global south.     

This argument overlays usefully with the critique that by limiting access to publicly funded scholarship we’re forcing public institutions to pay twice: once for the research and again to have access. Of course, the response to this from traditional publishers is to find ways to ensure that constituencies responsible for funding certain research have access and that other audiences remain available for monetization. Such geoblocking is already fairly standard practices for online content.

In other words, while I don’t disagree with the two lines of critique, the outcomes hardly require open access as a solution. The responses available for non open access publishers are well established and unlikely to make the situation better.   

5. Skepticism, Confusion, and Analytics. One fo the most painful responses that I encountered this weekend to our efforts to develop open access models is a kind of skepticism based on the argument that impact factors and other forms of “advanced analytics” used by universities will continue to favor limited access journals. This, of course, conflates limited access with impact factors in a way that is unhelpful. It parallels a tendency to confuse the issue of open access with that of peer review by needlessly questioning whether open access publications CAN be peer reviewed. It also has similarities to the tiresome assertion that open access somehow is antithetical to print. Somehow open access has come to mean exclusively digital. This is crazy. It is entirely possible to publish an open access publication in print form. It also assumes that you can’t charge for open access publications. This is also not any truer than the idea that all free publications are open access. 

This persistent confusion — and not just among “senior” scholars, I might add — demonstrates how much work we still need to do to make sure that our disciplines embrace open access scholarship in a systematic and thoughtful way. 


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