Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Archaeological Openness

First of all, thanks to Charles Ellwood Jones for the invitation to post on this blog.

I'm an irregular and intermittent blogger that runs Digging Digitally, and most of the time my posts focus on "open archaeology". I thought I'd write a little more about some concerns I have around open access, open copyright, and open data in archaeology on this group blog.

Let me preface with the point that I'm a big supporter and believer in open access scholarship and in freeing our content from the default restrictions of "all rights reserved" copyright. Access and less restrictive licensing are essential tools to better and more easily build on each other's works. I've been active in promoting Creative Commons licenses in archaeology, and the system I helped build "Open Context" tries to make it data sharing and collaboration easier.

However, openness and the debate about open science and open scholarship is not without problems and conficts, especially in our field. Some researchers rightly worry about disclosing site locations because of looting risks. This may be a concern in some circumstances, but in others, sites locations may be general knowledge or already well known to looters.

But there are other issues relating to looting and the commercial uses of the past, and highlight some of the problems in attempting to make a universal definition of "open data" for the sciences. I wrote yesterday about some of these issues with the release of Science Commons' new Open Data Protocol.

This protocol is an important guide for international data sharing efforts in the sciences. Because of legal and practical complexities, the protocol basically advocates allocating scientific datasets into the public domain, so that they can be legally "mashed up", reused, and related with one another, no matter what their source. Widespread implementation of the protocol's ideas will no doubt facilitate great uses and reuses of scientific data, and will very likely encourage innovation and discovery.

However, archaeologists need to debate and examine these definitions of "open science" and "open data". As I wrote yesterday, I think our community has a great deal of skepticism about relying upon social norms to enforce proper attribution and citation (my experience with Near Eastern archaeology suggests a great deal of mutual suspicion). However, beyond our own community dysfunctions, we need to carefully consider the implications of moving our research to the public domain. The public domain is sometimes highly contested, especially in the area of cultural patrimony where elements of the past are used to construct identities. Also, the public domain is totally unregulated. While this lack of regulation can make research uses easier, it opens the door to some possibilities that will make archaeologists uncomfortable. Do we want to see public domain images of excavated archaeological materials used in all commercial contexts? Would their use to assert the authenticity of items sold in the antiquities trade not give "open archaeology" a bad name?

Frankly, I think some of these concerns are overblown. Our licensing choices probably won't have that much of an impact in the big picture of looting or site security. In some ways, what we do online now already buts up against the antiquities trade. Just type "archaeology artifacts" into Google and you'll see adds for antiquities dealers along with legitimate archaeological and museum information resources. Dive into GoogleEarth and you'll probably find some as yet unreported archaeological sites. Are looters using GoogleEarth now?

We're in a brave new world, and open access, open licenses, and open data offer many powerful opportunities. But there are risks work worth discussing. The challenges and complexities we face in communicating our discipline no doubt have analogues in other places. These challenges need to be explored fully if we are to best shape openness in the research world.


prying1 said...

Good posting.

Question I have is if, for example, one person translates a scroll how hard would it be for another to take his work and put it in a book before the translator had a chance to?

Without some type of copyright for the translator's work wouldn't theft and perhaps fraud be likely?

I'm playing devils advocate here. I do like the idea of "open archeology" thinking that the more information out there for others to use would only help those that are sharing to be contacted with 'threads' they might otherwise never learn about. It very well could be a win-win idea whose time has come.

But that is one question I've had for a while now.

Eric Kansa said...

Hi Prying1,

About your question, I suppose the 'Science Commons' response would be that the social norms will protect the translator. If she published a translation online on a public academic site, everyone else would be bound by professional norms to cite her. Public exposure will offer the protection, and not copyright.

If someone were to take the publicly posted translation and attempt to publish it in a book, it would be easy for a book publisher or editor to catch the fraud, just type a few lines of the translation into Google and see if it is available online. I've caught undergraduate plagiarism in just this way.