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Internet Archaeology:

The Future of Archaeological Publication or an Evolutionary Cul-de-Sac?


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By early 1995, it was clear to many observers that the Internet, and in particular the new World Wide Web, had the potential to transform the way in which archaeological materials were disseminated. For our discipline, the timing could not have been better since it was already widely acknowledged that the publication of archaeological reports was in crisis.

First, large excavations and fieldwork projects took an inordinate amount of time to publish. Several of the famous campaigns in the Near East and Mediterranean, for example, were not fully published during their directors' lifetimes.

Second, even when archaeological reports were published, they were notoriously cumbersome to use. It seemed to be impossible to publish a report which would satisfy both the needs of casual users or those interested in a specific find or topic and users who wanted to understand and question the basis upon which conclusions were drawn. To go too far in one direction led to the trivialization of archaeological publication, with the serious student intent on detailed study forced to travel to the museum or institution holding the original records. Going too far in the other direction led to the overwhelming of the profession with undigested data. To cater to both needs, most large excavation reports were arranged hierarchically with periodic summaries scattered through the text. Some projects were fortunate to be able to afford dual publication in both popular and academic formats.

Third, the cost of print publication was rising, especially as the discipline adopted more and more methodology from the physical sciences, including specialist reports, the listing of data, and the publication of long catalogues.

Finally, the discipline itself started to fragment, producing specialists in such areas as ceramics, lithics, or phytoliths who required access to detailed information about small aspects of excavations. This has led to the growth of specialist publications and "gray" literature.

Depending on how it developed, the Internet could potentially solve many of these problems. One reason for the publication delay was related to the process after the manuscript report had been submitted for publication. Dependent on capital outlay, print publication can only raise sufficient funds through grants, sales, or subscriptions. Web publication costs, it was thought, should be much lower. The complexity of archaeological data was likewise not thought as a hindrance to Web publication; rather, it was a challenge. The use of hypertext would make it possible, it was believed, for a piece of information to be published just once and forever, since subsequent publications could hyperlink to this source. Tedious repetition could be eliminated. Web publications could be organized so as to make the theoretical hierarchy of summary, report, and specialist report more user-friendly and at the same time more equable to the specialist, because there would be no cost considerations in deciding whether a specialist report or its supporting data need be published. So, at a stroke, it was reasoned, this new medium could usher in a brave new world in which information flowed freely around the world, to those who needed it rather than those who could afford to buy access to it.

It was in this pioneering spirit that an application was made to the Electronic Libraries Project (eLib), funded by the U.K. Government's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). This application was successful and in August 1995, the Internet Archaeology project began. Internet Archaeology is run by a consortium with representatives from British Universities, the British Academy, and the Council for British Archaeology. The project is hosted by the University of York and has a small permanent editorial staff, its own webserver (currently a Sun Challenge), and Internet access via the University of York.

Three years have now passed since the start of the project and Internet Archaeology has just been awarded a second three-year grant. This seems an appropriate point, therefore, to look back and review progress. What worked and what didn't?

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Do Readers Really Want an Electronic Journal?

All new publications struggle to find a niche and we decided that ours, initially, would be the unique selling point of the versatility of the Web rather than a particular period or particular theme within archaeology. Consequently, we chose papers that met two criteria: (1) They had to have content beyond local interest and (2) they had to utilize some aspect of Web publication that could not be achieved, or not achieved well, in print. Consequently, our first four issues have been a showcase for different approaches to archaeological Web publication covering a wide geographical and chronological range. The disadvantage of this approach, however, is that one issue may contain only a single paper which matches the readers' research interests. We hope to remedy this situation by appointing associate editors who will commission papers on certain themes; for example, Mark Aldenderfer will be looking for papers on visualization and reconstruction.

Our readership is very good in comparison with that of established print journals--over 8,000 registered readers and 8,492 people have browsed our web site in the past three months, with an average of 900 browsers per week (of which approximately a quarter are repeat visitors).

No one collects comparable figures for print journals. However it would not be a fair comparison because all web users can access our journal free while someone, somewhere, pays for each and every book or print journal that gets read. Furthermore, our figures pale when compared with the access statistics published by nonacademic web sites.

Nevertheless, we can claim that in three years we have established a powerful presence on the Web and can now apply ourselves to some of the other pressing issues concerning archaeological publication.

Distributed Publication

One route offered by the Web is to spread the task of publication among a network of computers and institutions. This can be done in several ways. One, mirror sites could be established so that users don't all have to access the same webserver. In print publication, for example, we don't have to go to a single library to read a book. Multiple copies exist, the number and location of which vary depending on the subject matter and demand. Mirror sites also act as an insurance against some calamity befalling the webserver or its connection to the Internet. We are open to offers here but, to be honest, there isn't really the volume of traffic or access difficulties to make such a site necessary (for example, I was very impressed with the speed at which I could browse our journal at the University of California-Santa Barbara campus earlier this year).

Another route is to split the responsibility for publication. In this model, specialists might publish their reports on their own web sites with our journal acting as a central hub and linking these reports together. This system sounds workable in the short term but it is impossible to build a permanent journal using parts that are located on an individual's personal webspace. Individuals move on, but publications should be able to outlast them and--providing the demand still exists--a web publication should be readily available decades after publication. After all, many journal runs include books which are over a century old. So in principle, we are willing to try distributed publication, but with institutional partners rather than individuals.

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Peer Review

Considerable debate exists about the value of peer review. All major scientific journals mandate peer review and there are cogent reasons why this should be so. For example, one would not want a medical treatment or anything which jeopardized an individual's safety to be subject to the whim of an author. However, is this point equally applicable to archaeology? Surely, the argument runs, the truth will out and eventually papers with something valuable to say will survive because people link to them and cite them in bibliographies. Granted, there is a lot of garbage out there but peer review is simply giving the stamp of approval to the author and cannot really guarantee the quality of the contents.

Until now, all our papers have been peer reviewed and, because of the novelty of the medium, often featured two or more referees commenting on different aspects of the paper. We believe that the papers have benefited from peer review and that authors have been forced to justify or rewrite their papers in places where their meaning was unclear or where their assertions were undocumented. However, in the next phase, we intend to include papers that meet our standard but which have not been refereed. Instead, they will be offered for public review. These papers will be more polemical than our earlier publications and we hope to stimulate online debate by their publication.

Updating Papers

Print publication is very final and a mistake lives on forever no matter how soon after printing the author (or someone else) spots it. Internet Archaeology is often asked by authors whether or not they can alter their papers once they're published in the journal. Images of Orwell's Ministry of Truth, constantly rewriting the past, are conjured up. Our reaction has been to avoid rewriting text once an issue has been closed. However, one thing we can do with a Web publication is publish a new edition of a paper. New data or new thoughts can be published and linked to the first paper without discontinuing the availability of the earlier version. Several authors are keen to update and expand their papers and we look forward to the technical challenge of making the new paper seamless with the old, yet allowing its publication history to be retrieved.

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Blurring the Boundaries of Publication and Archive

A constant theme in our first four issues has been the end to the clear-cut distinction of what information should be in the public domain and what should not; and the distinction between archive and publication. Several of our papers allow the user to read a discussion of some dataset and then link to an interface to that dataset. We have experimented with various approaches; to date, the most successful is the interactive distribution map. Future papers will include excavation finds that catalogues held as attached databases, and datasets held by the Archaeology Data Service with commentary by Internet Archaeology.

Conclusion

The past three years have certainly justified some of the claims and expectations for Internet Archaeology we held in 1995. Nevertheless, we are now entering an exciting new phase, expanding our horizons. Future issues will have more discussion, more dialogue, and more connection between one paper and the next. To accomplish this we need a large readership and high-quality papers. In short, we need your support both as readers and authors.

Alan Vince, managing editor of Internet Archaeology, is at the Department of Archaeology of the University of York, Great Britain.

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