Archaeology and the question of open access

This time last year I was in the middle of a ‘survey of relevant literature’ for my PhD. What that really meant was browsing every journal I could lay my hands on to track down articles which discussed castle slighting. It was a task which spanned months. There’s a lot to be said for hard copies and I find it much easier to read the printed word for extended periods than a screen. But when you are searching article titles to see which ones merit further investigation, digital is so much easier.

It is all about open access.

In short, open access means making content available to as many people as possible. The Archaeology Data Service leads the way in this area, making journals, monographs, and even excavation reports accessible. It can be used by the general public, archaeology professionals, or academics and researchers. A few months ago, English Heritage worked with the ADS to make 80 high-quality monographs available through the service. From their website, you can access back issues of Medieval ArchaeologyThe Archaeological JournalProceedings of The Society of Antiquaries of ScotlandSurrey Archaeological Collections, and many more.

Open access is not uniform. At one point I was keeping track of whose journals were available online and whose weren’t. I contacted a couple of societies, asking if they planned to digitise their catalogue. The answer was that while they hoped the journals could be made available digitally, the process was time consuming and by implication expensive.

Some societies, such as the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, opt to host their content themselves. I’m not sure of the reason for choosing this over using the ADS, but it may be because it is easier to control how the content is delivered that way. While I would like to see a central place where people looking for open access journals can go to find information, the important thing is that the research is available in the first place. A straightforward Google search is often enough to flush out open access journals, but Open Access Archaeology has a search function which makes browsing easy.

This means that we should celebrate the lengths some organisations have gone to to make their contents freely available online.

Sites such as Research Gate and Academia allow authors to self-archive their work. The University of Exeter stipulates that a copy of any research published while you are a student there must be deposited in Open Exeter Research. I’m pleased that my university has adopted the policy. Pragmatically, making your research open access – whether as an individual researcher or an learned organisation that has been around for 150 year – makes it far more likely that it will be picked up by others and influence their work. If you want to make a difference, you need to put your research out there. My experience is that open access helps young researchers, especially those who might have limited time such as myself. The economics behind it are interesting, but not something I’m really familiar with. What I do know, is that without open access I would not only have taken much longer to get to the current stage in my research, but that there are some sources which would have essentially remained out of my reach.


2 thoughts on “Archaeology and the question of open access

  1. There are numerous problems for open access and many example of both good and bad practice. An example of good practice worth mentioning is Welsh Journals Online from the Library of Wales although that is still waiting permission for 70 more journals to be added (including the long promised and eagerly awaited Archaeologia Cambrensis).
    Are a number of local societies under a delusion that somehow charging for old copies of their journals is going to provide them with a source of income? Scanning old journals and putting them online in a searchable way is time consuming but, having done this myself, in a small way, for the Castle Studies Group (see it is not, in practice, as daunting a task as it may at first seem. Certainly there seems little excuse for any local society or interest group to not have a proper easily accessible past contents page and a reasonable index of past journals is also not that difficult a thing to provide and to provide for free. Some local societies have these indexes available to purchase! How do they think that helps their society most of which were specifically set up to spread knowledge?
    My main concern at the moment is that while most 19th century journals are now available in scanned form online via Internet Archive and Google Books etc. and 21st century journals are also available online (certainly for those with access to a reasonable university library) 20th century scholarship is at risk of being overlooked as it is not usually accessible in online form and libraries seem to be getting rid of their old stakes of journals.


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