Publication, Publication, Publication

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, 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.

File:Open Access logo PLoS white.svgIn 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.

lion skeleton


6 Comments on “Publication, Publication, Publication”

  1. matthewlaw says:

    Thanks Lee! I think we do.

    Firstly, congratulations on the paper, it looks interesting, important even.

    I think you’re right about this – ultimately publishers will try to make money, and if they can’t charge subscribers they’ll charge authors. We approached a number of publishers, with the aim of keeping the charge low. Ubiquity Press were the lowest by a (very) long shot (and the APC for data papers is half that of research papers). More importantly, though

    “Waivers: If you do not have funds to pay such fees then we can offer a part or full waiver to authors whose institutions/funders will not cover the fee. We will not allow fees to prevent the publication of worthy work and encourage submissions by all.” –

    We have tried very hard to limit any barriers to access at either end. Of course, in practice this is a costed model, so we don’t have many waivers to offer (cue some tough decisions – assuming we do have submissions), but we are all too aware of the dangers of erecting barriers to publication and privileging well-funded researchers in big institutions. Ubiquity Press are actually incredibly thoughtful – it’s worth taking a look at their ‘About’ page

    • Lee says:

      Thanks for stopping by Matt. As I said, there are no easy answers to this problem. I’m glad Open Quaternary is offering waivers – that’s important even if, as you suggest, it doesn’t fully solve the problem (and I hope I don’t sound cruel in saying that I hope you do get a lot of those ‘tough decisions’ to make – you know what I mean!).

      I wish you and all the other editors all the very best with OQ. I know you, in particular, have put in many hours creating open access and open source archaeology material on the web in the past and, much like any voluntary role, you probably don’t get enough credit for it. I don’t want to diminish any of your efforts on this or the glorious moment that must be its launch.

      I just worry that the downsides of the current Open Access publication model, as practised by publishers, are not fully understood by everyone.

      • matthewlaw says:

        Thank you, that’s kind of you. Submissions are (very!) welcome.

        You are absolutely right though, and it does need to be heard. I felt very uneasy with some of the models we were offered by publishers, for precisely the reasons you’ve articulated. I do strongly believe in open access, but there are so many issues to address, not least how to make it both sustainable and fair.

  2. […] Publication, Publication, Publication → […]

  3. Thanks for mentioning the Journal of Lithic Studies.
    I think that the future of academic publishing lies in not-for-profit OA journals, likely supported by universities or other research institutions. At present, it is not uncommon for large universities in the UK to spend well over a million Pounds on subscriptions to online journals from the major publishers. For a mere fraction of those costs, a university can set up an open access journal platform running software such as Open Journal Systems and theoretically host an unlimited number of journals. In fact, many universities are doing exactly that. This is already a common trend in the humanities and it’s moving into the sciences including even medicine.
    One of the major obstacles to overcome is Impact Factor. Researchers are constantly being evaluated based on where they publish. Journals without an official IF are often left out of the evaluation equation altogether. A lot of times researchers are paying the OA fees to large publishers, not simply to make their article available to the public (there are free OA journals out there), but rather for the IF. Once this situation has been resolved, I think that we will see a flourishing of not-for-profit OA journals.

    Otis Crandell
    Journal of Lithic Studies

    • Lee says:

      Thanks Otis, you may be right. I kept my arguments fairly brief here, simply because I don’t want to read vast tracts of text on the internet and so I assume that many other people don’t wish to either. Clearly, however, the topic is more complex than my overview here, where I was more concerned with presenting my own opinion on a potential downside of the current principal OA model. I don’t think that this gets mentioned often enough in OA debates. It almost goes without saying, however, that this is tied to IF ratings.

      Universities can and do publish online journals (many, it must be admitted, post-graduate publications such as Assemblage, Hortulus or the Exeter triumvirate of Pegasus, Ex-Historia and Postgraduate Journal of Medical Humanities). I’ve published book -reviews in two of these. Would I consider publishing research articles in them at present? Not unless as a last resort, for precisely the reason that you suggest. This is what I was getting at when I said that the debate may run and run for years.

      When I said that though, I was unaware of the new REF conditions. This could change things substantially in the UK, at least. Over the next two years I think there could be a great deal of argument between universities, the big publishers and the government, with researchers caught in the middle of the battleground. After that, something will have to give. Clearly, researchers’ most important concern is usually that their work is visible to other researchers and career assessors. The government thinks that all research should be publicly available. Universities hope to save money and have a high research profile while the publishers hope to make money. With the new REF agreement, all those desires are incompatible under the status quo so it will be interesting to see how this plays out (all the while hoping that it doesn’t adversely effect myself or my friends too much!).

      Well done for setting up the Journal of Lithic Studies on such solid, altruistic grounds though. It’s a good title, which may help it attract attention, and I hope it goes on to establish itself as a viable publication venue for major scholars and leading research.

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