Living in the Golden Age of Open Access Archaeology

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By: Mitch Allen, Left Coast Press, Inc. & Mills College

Arguments over open access in scholarly publishing have crossed the radar of every scholar, publisher, or librarian not suffering from terminal senility. Open access would represent a global shift of control of scholarly publications from largely (but not exclusively) the private sector’s group of publishing houses to some as-yet-undefined group of scholarly individuals and institutions. Eric Kansa’s recent post on the ASOR blog has elevated it to the level of a social revolution and moral crusade. Eric, who has built his career around developing open access options for archaeology—his Alexandria Archive one of the most innovative initiatives around—can be forgiven his rhetorical excesses for this reason. But it does not get us to a solution for how to move forward on a sustainable publication model in archaeology any more than calls for the disbanding of global capitalism will end economic inequality in the 21st century world.

We already live in an age of open access for archaeological publishing. Anyone looking for information has thousands of free sources to consult. There are people and organizations compiling archaeological news digests each day. ISAW’s Chuck Jones has a blog that daily adds to the listing of open access sites on the web. Each excavation project has its own website which, in addition to photos of happy but dirty students playing in the squares, contains the annual preliminary reports— documents that have previously been difficult for archaeologists to obtain— and a smattering of photos of recent important finds. Anyone wishing to publish their own archaeology book, even ones attempting to show how the pyramids were built by aliens in 10,000 BC, needs only to send a few hundred dollars to Amazon or Lulu or iUniverse to have their dream of being a published author fulfilled. More importantly, increasing amounts of fugitive archaeological data are being curated through the Alexandria Archive, The Digital Archaeological Record, and other similar programs. Professional conferences are now being taped and hosted on YouTube.  Even the commercial book sector has discovered the value of posting their books on Google Book Search or Amazon’s Search Inside the Book for potential buyers to preview a percentage its contents. I recently made the claim that we are in a golden age of archaeological publishing (Allen and Joyce 2010). I still believe that.

So the debate about open access is really a much narrower one, focused on only a few areas of scholarly dissemination—journals and books made available by professional publishers. Much of this comes from large commercial publishers like Elsevier or Springer, some from smaller presses like Left Coast or Eisenbraun’s. A substantial amount of this publishing is done by not-for-profit operations like scholarly societies, university research units, or university presses. A recent study indicated that a full 20% of journal publications came from the latter source. ASOR falls in this category with its three journals and two book series providing a significant amount of the organization’s revenue.  It is this “commercial” side of the academic dissemination system that has become the target of the open access movement, ignoring the myriad of already open access sources. Why?

Because these are the publications that count in the academic world. Refereed journal articles and books from reputable scholarly presses are what make an archaeological career. It is this sense of value that drives libraries to spend vast sums on scholarly journals and to buying most (it used to be all) books from serious publishers in a given field. Ditto the individual scholar. You are expected to have read the important stuff in your field, and these generally come from a limited number of reputable presses.  That reputation comes at a cost—at Left Coast we’ve been working for the past 8 years to build the reputation that our works are serious, scholarly, important. Oxford University Press has a 400-year head start on us and the junior scholar, faced with the problem of finding an academic job and getting tenured at it, will often go to an OUP or some other century-old publishing house like Brill or Routledge in the hopes that it will count more for their career. Ditto the journal article: scholars will strive to get their work into BASOR instead of a journal launched three years ago because the presumed academic rewards will be greater.  If this weren’t true, the entire commercial publications sector would crumble as scholars fled to the simplest, quickest publication outlet to show their latest work. The problem, then, doesn’t lie with the commercial presses but with the academic reward system. Convince the university provost and the physicist and nursing prof on the university tenure committee that the Open Journal of Near Eastern Archaeology is as important a publication venue as Levant or JCS and the entire commercial system will quickly vanish.

The tenure system is slated to reform about the same time that the demise of global capitalism occurs.

Eric correctly notes the other key issues: the cost of publication and the issue of long term sustainability. Each of these would require much more than a blog post to adequately address so I can only offer a few points here.

The current system relies on the publisher to invest its money in production, printing, publicity, distribution, warehousing, and accounting in order to disseminate scholarly publications, with the hope that the purchasers, mostly libraries, scholars, and students, will repay their efforts.  In each case, the publication has to pay for itself through these revenue  sources and hopefully generate a  “surplus” (the term of choice for not-for-profits) or “profit” (in the commercial sector) to enable the publisher to generate more material the following year. Open access doesn’t eliminate any of these costs, including the need for surplus, but shifts them from the purchaser to the producer. Who will that financier be? Grants and subsidies? Advertising? Author-pays? The university library? Not-for-profit organizations like the Alexandria Archive or ASOR? All of these options raise more issues of long-term financial sustainability and stability than the current publication system.  If the solution were simple, someone would have figured it out by now.

Then there is the 20% of scholarly work produced by scholarly organizations like ASOR. How do they replace their lost income when their income-generating publications are available for free to all? ASOR has been grappling with this question for several years now, without a solution.

Given the evils of global capitalism in publishing or elsewhere, it does have the advantage of often being a self-correcting system. Thus, small presses like Left Coast can thrive because we are closer to our audience than a behemoth multinational media corporation and will charge less for our books. Large journal publishers like Springer and Sage have acceded to the demand for open access articles by allowing their journal articles to become so… for a fee.  Organizations like JSTOR are trying to break down the firewall that surround library collections by allowing independent scholars to subscribe to their Register & Read program. College libraries have demonstrated they can band together into consortia to negotiate with publishers for better value for their subscription dollars.  Further changes of this sort will appear as the existing system adapts to the issues raised by the open access movement.

Ultimately, we’ll probably end up with a hybrid system that includes both open access and commercial publication channels. We’ll all wish that some of the commercial material were available for free and try to find ways of accessing it at the lowest cost. We’ll also bemoan the unequal quality and coverage of the archaeological information available through open access channels.

Could it ever end anywhere else?  Well, maybe after the demise of global capitalism.

Mitch Allen is the Publisher of Left Coast Press, Inc. and Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Mills College. Left Coast Press is on Facebook and tweets @LCoastPress.


Allen, Mitchell, and Rosemary Joyce. 2010. Communicating Archaeology in the 21St Century, in VOICES IN AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY: Society for American Archaeology 75th Anniversary Volume, Wendy Ashmore, Barbara Mills, Dorothy Lippert, eds., Washington: Society for American Archaeology.

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