What Do We Mean By “Digital” and “Publishing” When We Say “Digital Publishing”

This week is the annual meeting of the American Schools of Overseas Research in Chicago and unfortunately for the second year in a row, I won’t be able to attend in person because of the dumb COVID pandemic. If you wonder why I’m not going to Chicago, this article appeared as if on cueYou can check out the full program here.

Fortunately, the workshop  in which I’m scheduled to participate, “Best Practices for Digital Scholarship” has an impressive line up and the organizers of the panel have been particularly accommodating and I have some hope that I will be able to participate in the panel in some way.

That said, my take on the issue of best practices for digital scholarship is probably not really what they had in mind, but I hope it nevertheless contributes in some way to the conversation. In sum, I try to suggest that digital practices in archaeology and the  

This very brief paper offers a two casual observations on digital publishing based on my position as a sometime archaeologist and sometime publisher. For the last six years, I’ve directed a small (perhaps better ”nano”) scholar-led press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, which has published over 20 books on a range of topics from the history of the Northern Plains to Mediterranean and world archaeology. The books are open access and available as digital downloads or as print-on-demand paperbacks.

My experience working as both an archaeologist and a publisher informs my first observation which I developed more fully in my contribution to a volume edited by Kevin Garstki that is currently in page proofs! (Here’s the conference paper on which this contribution is based.) In this chapter, I argue that digital practices in archaeology have increasingly blurred the line between field work, analysis, interpretation, and publishing. We now use databases that can seamlessly publish our data to the web. Most GIS software integrates with web-based interfaces or allows us to produce publication quality maps if not literally in the field, then at our laptop. Illustration software is at home in the lab as it is in the publisher’s office. And it seems to me, at least, that document preparation software such as LaTeX, which is increasingly standard in scientific publishing, is even blurring the distinction between word processing and typesetting in some contexts. The way in which these digital tools have shaped our archaeological workflow anticipates a time when such classic scholarly conceits as the “final report” become indistinguishable points along a continuum of digitally mediated knowledge making.

The second observation is more polemical (and I’m willing to make some of these claims because I’m not attending this panel in person!) and derives from the first. If the line between research, writing, and publishing is becoming more and more blurry, what is the ”value add” that comes from traditional academic publishing? Of course, publishers often ensure that our publications look elegant, professional, and attractive, but surely this is not enough to justify their role in academic life.

We might point out that publishers manage the peer review process, but most scholars would agree that contemporary peer review standards and practices are neither unproblematic nor entirely fair and probably do less to guarantee the quality and “truth” of a publication than we would hope.

We might note that many academic institution require academic publications for tenure, promotion, or merit raises, and this requires academic publishers. But as tenure, promotion, and raises become increasingly less common in academia it seems like this will not justify their existence.

We might point out that academic publishers facilitate the distribution of scholarly knowledge. But as institutional budgets dwindle and library funding declines, it is hard not to see this role as at least partly parasitic as it draws resources away from the very institutions committed to producing new knowledge. As institutional funding does not appear to be trending toward more equality either in the US or globally, it is difficult to imagine how the existing system will pivot so as not to continue to exacerbate the divide between a very small number of ”haves” and a growing number ”have nots.” Moreover, the recent impact of the COVID pandemic has shown that current system used to disseminate academic knowledge could be fairly easily subverted (or even replaced) by peer-to-peer networks of file sharing.

These observations may appear to be peripheral to the issues that this panel wants to discuss, but I would argue they’re not. On the one hand, digital tools, technologies, and methods are changing our ideas of fieldwork, analysis, and publishing in fundamental ways. On the other hand, the structure of archaeology as an academic (and professional) discipline and the role that publishing plays in institutional and professional standards and practices is (or at least should be) changing as well. In other words, when we ask questions such as: “what can individuals, institutions, and professional societies do to better support data publishing?” we might want to attend to the larger question of how individuals, institutions, and professional societies imagine the role of both digital and traditional publishing in our changing institutional and professional world.

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