The recent launch of two new open access archaeology journals, Open Quaternary and the Journal of Lithic Studies, has seen me uncharacteristically enter into debate on Twiiter, regarding the merits of journal access models. My arguments were particularly inspired by Open Quaternary – although I never mentioned it by name I suspect that anyone who knows me would have guessed that anyway, so it would seem churlish to pretend otherwise. One of the founding editors of Open Quaternary is one of my oldest friends; Matthew Law and I were at school together and we have, over the years, developed a deep mutual respect for each other’s ideas and opinions (or so I hope!). With that in mind, it’s probably fair to explain the genesis of the journal in Matt’s own words:
“I wasn’t attached to any university at all, which made keeping up with research – too often locked away in expensive to access journals – a pain. Things have improved, more and more researchers are self-archiving their work online for example through services like academia.edu, but I made it my mission back [then] to try to help make research more widely available. Late last year, I published a paper on bryozoans in archaeology, and when I was looking for [a] venue to submit it [in], I realised that Quaternary science and environmental archaeology are quite poorly served for so-called open access journals.” – Matt’s full blog post can be found here.
I couldn’t agree with Matt’s feelings more and they echo the sentiments of a number of researchers, indeed, a lengthy debate on this issue was held on the ZOOARCH jisc mailing list last year. Most academic journals charge exorbitant fees for access. Some associations, such as the Association for Environmental Archaeology, include their journal in membership packages which are quite reasonable. Some don’t even do this though and even if they did, researchers certainly couldn’t afford to subscribe to all of the journals which might occasionally publish articles relevant to their research. Individual article access is no better (currently £15 for Antiquity and $35.95 for the Journal of Archaeological Science, for example) and so institutional affiliation, and associated journal subscriptions, are really the only legal option.
In practice, of course, there’s a pretty free ‘illegal’ trade in journal articles. Digital printing has made a mockery of the ‘off-print’ once distributed by an author among his or her peers. These days a pdf is emailed. Once out there, that pdf can be pretty freely circulated among still more people. An author is, of course, entitled to distribute a certain number of copies of their articles and often an email request for such to an author will be favourably received. Now though, other people are often happy to freely distribute articles not their own on email discussion lists and to post their own papers for free download on websites. These technically go against contracts but many researchers are happy to engage in this in the spirit of cooperation and I’m unaware of publishers taking action to stop it. Yet.
It’s big business though. The journals are published and marketed and, for that, there ought to be recompense. Yet they’re often edited on a voluntary basis. Peer-reviews are almost by definition carried out on a voluntary basis. Authors, too, receive no recompense and the research that they describe may have been publicly funded. The internet, clearly, could provide a medium for the free dissemination of research among scholars from less developed countries and less wealthy universities (whose libraries cannot afford to pay many subscription fees) and among researchers unaffiliated with any institution – of which there are many in archaeology. Peer-review, though, despite some criticism, is a model of academic credibility which is still desired by most scholars.
Open Access, then, is a good thing, right? Well, not necessarily. It’s that issue of recompense again. Even a digital platform requires some money to keep it going. The most common form of open access journal (and open access models within traditional journals) has simply shifted the income source. Instead of the reader, the author now pays to have their work published (perhaps we should begin to refer to traditional journals as ‘open access publishing’? Just a thought). I’ll leave aside for now any questions of how this model could be open to abuse and posit my main objection: this model restricts publishing options from those who need them most.
The Journal of Lithic Studies, amazingly, is exempt from this, but Open Quaternary will charge £250 for publication of an article. PLoS ONE, arguably the most prestigious open access journal open to archaeologists, currently charges $500 to researchers from developed nations. Some universities now have a fund set up to help cover some of these costs for their staff. Not all do though and many of those that exist are quite small. For the most part then, the same people that can access journals under the old model can now publish in them under the new model. People that were restricted from reading those older journals though are now blocked from publishing in the newer ones. An independent researcher, or a recently graduated PhD researcher, will very probably not be able to afford these fees.
There’s no easy answer to this debate, which will probably run for many years, but at worst, this model places a value judgement on research before it has even gone through the peer-review system: if you can’t afford to pay these fees, your research is not worthy of publication.
Journals are, of course. not the only form of publication and archaeology, in particular, has a very strong tradition of publishing research in edited volumes. The rise and ubiquity of the internet poses questions for this form of publishing, too. The implausibly named Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Chris Webster have recently self-published a free ebook on blogging archaeology. Clearly, the big publishing houses have to make a return on their investments, which include staff, printing and marketing costs, but I cannot think of a justification for ebooks being priced the same as hard-copy.
The morning before last I received a copy of the latest volume to which I have contributed, Past Mobilities: Archaeological Approaches to Movement and Mobility, through the post – and a very handsome volume it is too. I am, however, disappointed to see that the ebook versions cost the same as the hardback. Jim Leary has done an excellent job editing (as well as writing a brilliant introduction to) a collection of papers which seeks to move archaeological discussion away from a fixation on apparently static sites and reminds us of the dynamic nature of people’s lives and belongings. My own contribution is as a co-author to ‘GIS approaches to past mobility and accessibility: an example from the Bronze Age Khanuy Valley, Mongolia’ with Oula Seitsonen and Jean-Luc Houle. This seeks to build on the work of Torsten Hägerstrand, and his ideas about time geography, in interpreting seasonal movement patterns in one region of prehistoric Mongolia. As such, this places the experience of past people and their mobility in the landscape as the centre of focus rather than any particular archaeological sites. Oula must take most of the credit, both for his theoretical background and his informed use of GIS approaches to our subject. The book can be found now through the usual place on my website.