Ethics, Archaeology, and Open Access

Posted in: Archaeology, Archaeology and Media, ASOR, Digital Archaeology, Publications
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By: Eric Kansa

The issue of open access to scholarly works recently gained renewed attention following the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist charged with felony computer and intellectual property crimes involving the mass download of articles from JSTOR. ASOR uses JSTOR as a repository for the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) and Near Eastern Archaeology (NEA)*.

Eric Kansa, a member of ASOR and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) wrote the following opinion piece regarding the implications of Swartz’s death for scholarly communications in archaeology. The following reposts Eric’s discussion and a response from Fred Limp, President of the SAA. Both were originally posted here: and here:

Eric directs Open Context, an open data publication service for archaeology. He originally discussed open access issues in NEA (2007) with his colleagues Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Jason Schultz. He also co-edited (with Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Ethan Watrall) Archaeology 2.0, an open access book about new modes of scholarly communication published with the Cotsen Institute Press (UCLA). His most recent contributions exploring open access in archaeology are published in a special of World Archaeology (2012) edited by Mark Lake, and in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies (in press).

January 13, 2013 I don’t post to this blog as much as I used to, but every once in a while there are some developments in the world of data sharing and scholarly communications that I think worthwhile discussing with respect to archaeology. This blog post is an attempt to gather my thoughts on the issue of Open Access in advance of a forum on the subject that will be held at the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) annual meeting in Honolulu in April.

Yesterday, I learned that Aaron Swartz committed suicide at age 26. Aaron Swartz was active and prominent in many “open knowledge” efforts.  I had no real personal connection with him, and only remember meeting him once at a party thrown by Creative Commons in 2006 or so. I had no idea he was so young. His tragic death is reverberating around a community of activists that value sharing of knowledge and a free and open internet.

What does all this have to do with archaeology?

The story of Swartz’s death involves JSTOR. Most archaeologists have some familiarity with JSTOR, the online journal repository. JSTOR was originally funded by the Mellon Foundation. In some ways it is a resounding success, as it serves many, many scholars worldwide, including many archaeologists. Unlike many digital scholarly communications initiatives, JSTOR is also financially “sustainable.” It is held up as a model for how to do digital scholarship right. It serves a large community and does not have to come back year after year begging for more grant money. JSTOR’s revenues come largely from subscriptions. If you don’t have an affiliation with a subscribing institution to JSTOR, you don’t get access to the vast majority of its resources. In other words, JSTOR sustains itself by setting up a “pay wall.”  That pay wall blocks some 150 million attempts to access JSTOR every year.

Here’s where this ties back to Aaron Swartz. Swartz was caught attempting a mass download of some 4.8 million articles from the JSTOR repository via MIT’s network. To JSTOR’s great credit, it did not pursue charges against Swartz. However, MIT and the US Dept of Justice come out looking far worse. US prosecutors charged Swartz with criminal hacking, and he faced 35(!) years in federal prison. Essentially, US prosecutors charged Swartz with terrorism (see Lessig’s excellent account), all for downloading academic articles in a manner that did not damage MIT’s network or JSTOR (see this expert witness). According to Swartz’s family, this legal hounding directly (and understandably) motivated his suicide.

This is obviously a tragic case, and another sad example of routine abuse of the legal system with regard to intellectual property and computer crime. JSTOR did not want to threaten Swartz with 35 years of prison for downloading articles. But, in the end, that did not matter. He still faced a draconian prison term, roughly equivalent to the punishment for 2nd degree murder, because he violated network rules and barriers JSTOR put into place around research materials.

And that’s the crux of the problem, and why Open Access is  one of the key ethical issues now faced by archaeology. Pay walls and intellectual property barriers carry real, and clearly very oppressive, legal force. I doubt, the SAA, the Archaeological Institute for America (AIA), or the American Anthropological Association (AAA) would want to press for felony charges or long prison terms if someone illegally downloaded a journal article from one of their servers. Nevertheless, Swartz’s case demonstrates that such barriers clearly carry dire legal implications.

There are many excellent reasons to promote Open Access in archaeology, summarized in this recent issue of World Archaeology dedicated to the subject. But the Swartz case helps to highlight another. Professional society reluctance (in the case of the SAA) or outright opposition against Open Access (AIA, AAA) puts many researchers at risk. Many researchers, particularly our colleagues in public, CRM, and contract archaeology or our colleagues struggling as adjunct faculty, either totally lack or regularly lose affiliations with institutions that subscribe to pay-wall resources like JSTOR. Many of these people beg logins from their friends and colleagues lucky enough to have access. Similarly, file-sharing of copyright protected articles is routine. Email lists and other networks regularly see circulation of papers, all under legally dubious circumstances. Essentially, we have a (nearly?) criminalized underclass of researchers who bend and break rules in order to participate in their professional community. It is a perverse travesty that we’ve relegated essential professional communications to an quasi-legal/illegal underground, when we’re supposedly a community dedicated to advancing the public good through the creation of knowledge about the past.

We have to remember, we, as a discipline work in the public interest. Public funding directly (grants) or indirectly (heritage management laws) supports, permits, and regulates our efforts. Doesn’t it make more sense to remove barriers to scholarship and remove harsh legal threats to sharing research?

Of course, many would say this is utopian and not financially sustainable, and that the only way to finance high-quality publication in archaeology is through pay walls and the commoditization of our discipline’s intellectual property. But commoditization has its costs. We have a model for totally privatized and commoditized archaeology that is “financially sustainable” in that it does not require any input of public or philanthropic funding. It’s called the antiquities trade. And it is ugly and destructive.

It’s time we also start seeing the ugliness in the current dissemination status quo, where the information outputs of archaeology become privatized, commoditized, intellectual property. This status quo carries the baggage of a legally oppressive system of copyright control, surveillance, and draconian punishments. Rather than dismissing Open Access off-hand, we have an ethical obligation to at least try to find financially sustainable modes of Open Access publication (see Lake 2012,  Kansa 2012 [pay-wall][open-access pre-print]).

Swartz’s tragic case demonstrates that some models of financial sustainability are not worth the cost.


Thanks for all the retweets, comments, and discussion. Please constantly pressure professional societies, universities, an government to make research dissemination more just. Also, I was wrong about the severity of Swartz’s threatened punishment. It would have been better for him to have been accused of murder, selling slaves, or helping terrorists build a nuclear bomb.  A complete travesty of justice that taints Academia.

January 15, 2013 Again, thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments and discussion on my prior post here and elsewhere. I also want to thank Fred Limp, President of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) for taking the time to share his thoughts on the topic, including posting them on this blog. Below are the comments he emailed to me (with permissions to post):


Thank you for calling to my attention your thoughtful post at

All of us have been terribly saddened by this event. There are many others much more capable than I who have already spoken to the many issues and injustices that this personal tragedy has brought into stark and public focus. I do want, however, to speak to some of the specific points that you raise as the issue of open access relates to archaeology.

I need to clarify three points at the outset. Articles from the SAA journals, American Antiquity and Latin American Antiquity, are available in Jstor two years after their first publication. Members of the SAA who do not have access to Jstor through other sources can access all of these back issues of both journals  for a $25 annual fee –or just  $5 per year for members living in Latin America and a number of other countries. Starting in the early part of 2012 online access to the contents of these two journals became available to all members of the SAA as soon as the articles are published. The contents of the SAA’s Archaeological Record are available electronically at no cost to everyone. The society is initiating a new journal,  Advances in Archaeological Practice, in 2013. It will be available electronically to all members of the society who select it as their journal. Also in 2013 the Society will initiate Current Research Online.  The contents of Current Research Online will be available to everyone at no cost. However, only members of the Society may enter research project information into the system.

I provide this information as background to the following discussion about the relationship of the Society and the open access initiative. The SAA’s Board has given considerable thought to the issue of open access. It is important, I think, to make some distinctions about the nature and variation of open access. The first distinction is the significance of open access discovery. By this I mean that individuals can determine whether relevant information may (or may not) be available using search engines and other methods. All of the SAAs journal publications have this capability. The second element, of course, is whether the content itself is available. All of the last two years of the journal content for both American Antiquity and Latin American Antiquity is available to any member. It is not available, obviously, to the general public. The question then becomes what is the larger good that is served if these journals were open access to the general public – beyond the membership – versus their current situation. As you know many journals have subscription fees of many thousands of dollars. That is not the case for the Society. These journals are available to members as part of their standard membership fee, which is $140 per year. It is $65 per year for members living in Latin America and a number of other countries. If you wish to take both journals the second is $60 (or $38 for members living in the Latin America and other counties).

Clearly $140 (or $200 for two journals) is not free. Can it be justified, is it appropriate? The Society has conducted a number of studies of the membership, their interests and their perception about various Society programs. The complete reports are available on the SAA webpage. In all of these the most significant reasons people give for joining the Society, the overwhelming reason, is to attend the annual meetings and to receive the journal. While there are many other important functions, for most of our members the Society exists to serve these two purposes. The revenues generated by the modest membership fee and the modest meeting registration fee generates all of the revenue necessary to accomplish these goals. So the simple question becomes this – if the journal were available freely would the society’s membership shrink to the degree that there would not be adequate revenue to publish the journal? It might be possible to provide the journals at no cost to the public by increasing substantially the membership fees for those who remain members. Should members subvent the costs for others? Remember the SAA does NOT charge page fees or use other publication subvention costs – as many journals do with funds paid by grants or other sources. There is modest advertising revenue but it is a very minor fraction of the journals’ production costs.

So it’s a difficult question, and one the Society continues to address. What is in the best interests of not just the Society for American Archaeology but for archaeology generally? Do the benefits that would be achieved by making the journals open access overwhelm the negative implications of less resources to produce these same journals? Are the modest membership fees a significant barrier to an individual who is not an archaeologist? And a basic question should be asked – at the end of the day – if you are an archaeologist is it not reasonable to expect that you may want to (or perhaps even should be) a member of the very society that, in many ways, makes your profession viable?

While I respectfully disagree with this position, I want to thank Fred for his comments and for taking the issue of Open Access seriously. His comments reflect some of the discussion of the recent Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) meeting noted in Doug’s Archaeology.

I’m looking forward to further, productive, and collaborative discussion on the topic. Perhaps professional societies can find some productive ways forward on the Open Access issue and do more to seek additional public support to help make Open Access financially (more?) feasible. We’ve long taken it for granted that public support only gets cut. Perhaps it is time to see this issue as a way for our field (and other sciences) to make a stronger case for public support by more directly contributing to the common good of public knowledge.


Now that I’m back from lunch, I can digest this further. Fred’s comments reflect his perspective with regard to SAA publications. However, the SAA is but one publisher. Even if its publication costs are relatively low, archaeological discourse takes place across many, many titles, typically managed by expensive commercial publishers. Legally accessing these requires institutional affiliations to get e-Journals, JSTOR and all the rest. Though you may get a few titles with your SAA membership, researchers lacking academic affiliations are still cut-off from the great majority of scholarly discourse. Most of them are stuck with extra-legal workarounds, putting these researchers in dire legal jeopardy. While I can understand Fred’s concern over financing SAA publications (and motivating membership), accepting the dysfunctions and legal dangers of pay-walls and strong intellectual property does not advance the interests of archaeologists or archaeology.

* JSTOR also acts a repository for the Journal of Cuneiform Studies (JCS) and the Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research.


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