June 2006


I’m off to Rio de Janeiro to participate in the iCommons Summit. If you are a DDIG member or someone else with news or announcements that you wish to communicate to the DDIG membership, please contact Sarah Kansa and she”ll help get your news out!

Data dissemination in archaeology involves several challenges, ranging from technical and theoretical concerns, to the practicalities of incentives and citation, to larger questions about how to best recognize the rights and claims of archaeology ’s numerous stakeholders.

To help navigate some of these issues, archivists and representatives of Native American communities are establishing parameters of “best practice” that can help guide archaeological data-sharing projects on cultural property issues. Their work chiefly concerns the treatment of ethnographic and historical archive materials, but is directly relevant to archaeological data sharing projects since there is a tremendous amount of overlap in content, themes, and concerns.

According to, Karen Underhill (Northern Arizona University), the new Protocols for Native American Archival Materials are now in semi-final draft form. The group developing these protocols will be discussing this draft in several professional meetings. They are also encouraging members of the community to share comments on the draft via their website. DDIG members may wish to review and comment on this draft, and at the very least keep these concerns in mind when shaping data dissemination initiatives.

Here ’s a question recently sent to me about FRPAA:

“Would the enactment of this law give scientists a false sense of serving the public (by virtue of making their work available online), when in fact most scientific, jargon-filled articles can’t or won’t be read by most lay people?”

As the commenter above suggests, most people won’t find the open literature that interesting, or will find it difficult to comprehend. The main beneficiaries of the bill are researchers, and the public benefits secondarily since the bill helps to maximize the performance of public money in the support of research.

That said, we should not discount the range and breadth of public interests or the public capacity to use even arcane technical reports and papers. (Warning long tangent coming!)

The explosive growth of blogging and other participatory tools has transformed journalism. Internet users are able to dig deeply into even arcane subjects, and cite primary studies and technical reports. It ’s a cost-effective way of serving people ’s niche interests. For example, there are very interesting and active lay-communities actively debating / discussing topics like avian flu and global climate change. They debate scientific literature (when available) that is translated and interpreted by discussion participants who have varying levels of technical understanding and backgrounds. Not everyone agrees, people misinterpret the science, and alarmist or extreme views crop up. But even so, these informal lay-community discussions are by-in-large self-moderating and self-policing, and technical expertise and thoughtful reasoned argument all seem genuinely appreciated. Many of these niche communities typically reach a consensus that more openness and access is needed to see scientific results!

One of the keys to Google ’s success is their recognition that most interests are “niche” interests. That means, the sum of all the individual low-frequency search requests (for arcane and obscure information) they receive greatly exceeds the amount of high-frequency requests for information on popular topics. They found a way to make obscure information easy to find (to use the new slang, they optimized for the “long-tail“). Similarly, the Wikipedia has been phenomenally successful at finding cost-effective ways of catering to people ’s long-tail (i.e. numerous obscure) interests.

Anyway, though freely available technical studies in themselves will not be immediately useful to most people, their availability will open new opportunities. Popularizes both inside and outside of the professional community can use the public technical reports as resources for creating content with more of a public or instructional purpose. That kind of effort has genuine value. Links and references the technical literature will give their work valuable depth and rigor. This linking also gives a more genuine experience of participation in the creation of scientific knowledge. Segments of the public become invested as participants in knowledge creation, and they no longer see themselves as simple consumers of knowledge.

So, although this is speculative, developments like FRPAA may encourage new opportunities for people to experiment with new ways of involving the public in scientific and scholarly debates.

The same general ideas apply to archaeological data sharing. Openness is still worthwhile even if the content seems arcane. Yes it is a niche interest, but most interests are niche interests.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has organized a task force, led by Julie King, to explore revision of its 1988 policies regarding the sensitive issue of human remains, burial places, and associated material culture.

The task force is seeking public comments about it the proposed changes. If you are an archaeologist or a member of any other interested community, now is your time to read and comment on these policy revisions. The closing date for public comments is June 28.

DDIG members may want review this draft policy, not only in terms of how the physical remains are treated, but also in terms of how their documentation is treated. Given the ever expanding reach of the Internet and digital technologies, finding ethical, equitable, and practical frameworks for the handling of digital documentation is becoming ever more important.

The American Anthropological Association ’s (AAA) decision to oppose the FRPAA seems to be provoking more controversy for the organization. The ever-indispensable Peter Suber has linked to several critical comments about the AAA rejection of open access. Many of these commentators are in a much better position than me to comment on the specifics of the AAA decision (see: anthropology.net, afarensis, and Savage Minds).

However, from the position of someone who is not directly involved in social or cultural anthropology, I find the AAA position extremely odd. This organization represents a membership that often works with poor and marginalized communities. Many AAA members become passionate activists on behalf of these communities. It may be helpful to let the AAA leadership know that “Access to Knowledge” is more and more becoming regarded as a human rights issue (witness the topics and organizations represented at the recent Yale Access to Knowledge conference). Access, openness and transparency are essential elements of democratic decision-making, activism, and a well functioning civil society. As stated, anthropology and anthropological analyses are often about living people often in very vulnerable situations. Human rights, public health, civil society organizations and others really need the kinds of contributions anthropology can provide to work effectively.

And this gets to an important issue. Many people who could use anthropology don’t because they have no idea what anthropologists do or what they study. Open access frameworks, augmented by powerful search technologies, can help outsiders (other researchers, policy makers, human rights activists, public health advocates, etc.) discover what anthropology has to offer. Without open access, anthropologists are losing an important “marketing” tool for their research. That puts the vitality and relevance of their discipline at risk.

By taking such a defensive and petty stance on open access, it seems like the AAA is working at cross-purposes here, and is making a strategic mistake.

Peter Suber at Open Access News reported that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has decided to lobby against the “Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006″ (FRPAA) introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). The bill would require open access dissemination of all peer-reviewed research findings that result from federally funded projects within 6 months of publication.

The AAA, along with several other scholarly societies, has decided that this bill threatens their publishing business model, and suggest that this bill would threaten quality and the peer-review process. This is a very unfortunate turn of events, given that the AAA represents many archaeologists.

In my opinion, their portrayal of Open Access is both misinformed and widely off the mark in terms of fiscal impacts. Open Access is completely consistent with peer-review, typically improves citation rates, and is often very competitive impact factors (PLoS Biology has an impact factor of 13.9, on the par of Science). Disciplines that already see a great deal of open access dissemination (math and physics through the Archiv.org pre-print service) still have thriving journals. Even publishers in these disciplines with extensive open access self-archiving report no evidence of reduced subscription rates. Peter Suber provides two important links that address most, if not all, objections to FRPAA:

Stevan Harnand: How to Counter All Opposition to the FRPAA Self-Archiving Mandate

Peter Suber: Comments on “Publishers oppose FRPAA

More importantly, these societies, including the AAA are taking the low-ground of putting their printing business models ahead of the public interest. It is also poor politics, given that these communities depend on public financing and yet are refusing to grant public access to their findings! The AAA is now in the awkward position of fighting for continued access to NSF funding while rejecting public access to the outcomes of such funding.

Given the trends in continued scholarly-media consolidation and escalating publication costs, blocking the FRPAA also makes very bad business sense (independent researchers, faculty from small colleges, CRM archaeologists, students, etc. are finding current literature increasingly expensive to access).

The AAA ethical code is a bit less clear (on my reading) about responsibilities for public communication than the SAA ethical code. In contrast, the SAA has a very clear set of ethical principles to help guide the debate about Open Access. Open Access frameworks clearly work toward Principles 4, 5, and 6 of the SAA’s own ethical code. Open Access also has important positive implications for Stewardship, Accountability, Commercialization (the documentary record of the past should not be commoditized any more than physical remains) and Training. Clearly, the SAA can’t ignore these principles in response to this proposed legislation.

SAA members need to talk about these issues seriously.

Ed Yoon, a developer working on PLoS ONE (http://www.plosone.org/), an open source project to support and enhance open access scientific publication, sent me a series of links to Stefano’s Linotype (http://www.betaversion.org/~stefano/linotype/), a blog authored by Stefano Mazzocchi.

Stefano Mazzocchi is involved in several semantic web projects, and has an interesting take on ontologies, metadata, and data integration. His blog has several interesting posts that are important for archaeologists interested in data dissemination and data integration projects. Here are some highlights that Ed Yoon suggested:

(1) Folksonomies: This post responds to Clay Shirky ’s critique of ontologies (“Ontologies are Overrated“). Much of the discussion centers around ways to linking folksonomy systems with semantic web technologies to both move beyond the limitations of folksonomies and enable people to “disagree, to avoid massification, and to avoid feeling locked in a platonic semantic cage“.

(2) Metadata: This is an interesting post about metadata, quality, and costs of implementation. Multiple datasets mapped to a controlled vocabulary or ontology often results in larger, but messier collection of content. Then there are the issues of costs. Standards (controlled vocabularies and the like) are expensive to develop and implement, and even if they exist they are often applied unevenly. The social framework for how semantic web technologies are applied typically recieve too little attention.

(3) Data versus Structure: This post makes a series of interesting points that it ’s important to keep things simple, build incrementally, rapidly, and make sure you”ve got an underlying architecture that can grow. Avoid building data sharing systems that are overly designed (with too much emphasis on structure, not content) and difficult to revise.

The phrase “platonic semantic cage” seems to capture much of why certain data integration approaches make some archaeologists nervous. Archaeology is diverse and ever evolving, and there ’s very little prospect for agreement on ontologies that are too rigid or overly specified (and I think that ’s actually fortunate!).

ArchaeoML is one framework that tries to avoid some of these pitfalls. It describes a simple but flexible and extendible framework for pooling data from widely varying recording and terminological systems. OCHRE is developing an impressive suite of tools around ArchaeoML, and Open Context uses ArchaeoML to support a user tagging (folksonomy) system that enables the user community to incrementally add semantic linkages across datasets. At an SAA forum Keith Kintigh also discussed how the KADIS project seeks to (paraphrased here) avoid “platonic semantic cages”.

These are important issues, and there are important opportunities here for archaeology. We face very severe challenges in data sharing (esp. with regard to costs and the diversity of our content). Workable strategies that help to meet archaeology ’s data-sharing challenges can probably see much broader application. And this is something of an opportunity.

Here ’s something to follow, Xibalba Gate (AltaMira Press). It ’s a new novel/textbook about the ancient Maya, contemporary archaeology, and it ’s all centered around a sophisticated simulation of that society. Here ’s the blurb:

Professor Van Weathers has just revolutionized the teaching of Maya archaeology. His lifelike computer simulation Xibalb” Gate places his students in the world of the Late Classic Maya, where political strife, overpopulation, warfare, and social disorganization are in evidence in the soon-to-collapse civilization. Weathers’ real life is also under strain– his wife is disenchanted, his son a cynic, his students disinterested, his excavation project blocked by a mysterious Latin American holding company. No wonder he loses himself in the world of King Knot Eye of Xultunich for days on end. But the real world problems magnify-a murder, an illness, an explosion– while he tries to negotiate a treaty with a neighboring city, marry the king’s daughter, and engage in a bloodletting ceremony to right a world out of balance. Can he solve the rapidly-merging problems of his virtual world and the modern one while the Nine Lords of Xibalb”, rulers of the Maya underworld, are on the loose? This novel/textbook by noted writer and futurist Rob Swigart offers both an accurate reconstruction of Maya life for introductory archaeology students and an entertaining read for those interested in the Maya world.

Imagine that, a textbook that ’s actually fun and readable!

It would also be interesting to think about this in theoretical terms. More life-like, agent-based, simulations are becoming part of our discipline ’s repertoire (here ’s an interesting example, a simulation of Bronze Age northern Syria). Such virtual worlds, based on theories and observations, can be run to test our reconstructions of the past. Tweak a few parameters on average rainfall and see if your virtual agents build a ceremonial center or collapse and disperse into the hills (if your model happens to emphasize economic causation”). Beyond being an analytic tool, the simulations are sophisticated renderings of how we imagine people in past societies. Agent based simulations are narratives where the characters have their own agenda! Here the simulated agents have whole world-views and ambitions based on how we imagine the ancient Maya. Anyway, the author, Rob Swigart, is a clearly a figure with the background to explore these issues. He ’s an affiliate with a think tank, the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, and he ’s a pioneering figure in interactive media. It’ll be interesting to see how faculty and students will respond to this book.

I just got this notice from Antonella D’Ascoli. It announcemed the “Journal of Intercultural and Interdisciplinary Archaeology“, a peer-review, open access journal for archaeology based in Italy.

The “Journal of Intercultural and Interdisciplinary Archaeology” (Acronym: JIIA) is an online serial publication on archaeology, antiquity sciences and archaeological applied sciences. It is interdisciplinary and concentrates particularly on the problems of interculturality in the ancient world. It uses scientific contributions offered freely by scholars from the university and scientific research world and organises the open-access dissemination of the research results.

It has a goal of helping to build an “open access and collaborative archaeological network”.

This is a welcome addition for our discipline archaeology. JIIA runs on one of the leading software systems for open access dissemination, EPRINTS. Using EPRINTS (http://www.eprints.org) as a tool clearly makes sense. It ’s
OAI compliant, free-of-charge (open source licensed), has tools for managing peer review, and manages over 200 digital archive around the world.

Using EPRINTS is a good way to help “bootstrap” new open access journals for our discipline. This is clearly a development worth following.

(Here ’s a more detailed description of the JIIA: http://www.jiia.it/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=42).

John Wilbanks over at Science Commons picked up an interesting story reported in the Wall Street Journal. A recent poll of US citizens show an amazing 80% in favor of”open access to federally funded research! (link)

Clearly scholarly societies in general, and archaeologists in particular should not ignore this kind of evidence. Archaeology, along with other disciplines, is facing the threat of exile from the NSF.” Senator Kay Bailey (R- Texas) is attacking NSF support of the social sciences (more here and here).

Our field either directly or indirectly depends on public support. It seems archaeologists need to better communicate the value and relevance of their work. Can Open Access help in this regard?

It’s probably part of the answer. Another aspect is encouraging more clear and effective communication with the public (but that will have to be the subject of another posting). There’s mounting evidence that open access increases the impact of research (see a recent study in PLoS Biology). This is the crucial measure of journal success (not to mention personal career advancement). More open access archaeology would probably lead to more use of archaeology in multidisciplinary research programs. In other words, we’ll become more relevant to other disciplines, and that would help us make our case in the political arena.

This should point should be remembered when we look to build repositories for our primary data. These repositories should serve more than the archaeological community. Other researchers and the general public can find value in archaeological data repositories, if allowed (of course with proper protections for sensitive data), and if we think about issues of ease of use.

In the end, we need to make a case for archaeology both to our colleagues in other disciplines and to the general public. Letting the public know what our field is about in a rich and meaningful way makes political and ethical sense.