#SAA2014 Debrief, Part I: Curating and Disseminating Archaeology 2

Hear about what I learned at #SAA2014“I don’t always go to the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) annual meetings, but when I do, I prefer them to be in a cool place with a ton of rad dive bars.” The world’s most moderately interesting archaeologist (Me).

I’m currently on the flight back from #SAA2014 and happened to get my $16 flight from TUS to AUS upgraded to first-class flight on U.S. Airways. It’s all the result of the amazing conference travel hacking coaching I received from Grant Thomas from Travel with Grant. My trip to Austin some of fruits of an upcoming student travel hacking experiment we’ve been working on that has been delayed for the last few months (AKA “Build your own Student Travel Grant”). Keep reading the Succinct Research Blog and Travel with Grant to hear more about how you can get your conference travel for free.

It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan off the SAA. Until this year, I hadn’t been an SAA member since 2005. Not because I don’t like American archaeology or prehistoric archaeology. It’s more about the size and lack of intimacy at the huge SAA conference. Basically, it’s hard to network and connect with all the people you’d like to connect with because the conference is so huge. Plus, I’m more interested in historical archaeology which is always in short supply at the SAA.

However, this year’s conference was different.


Turning digital friendships into analog ones

Connecting with people that I’d been working with via the internet for the last year is the main reason enjoyed this year’s SAA so much. I’ve been a frequent contributor to Chris Webster’s (@archeowebby) CRM Archaeology Podcast since January of 2013, but I’d never met him in real life until this year’s SAA conference. I also got the chance to meet with fellow bloggers and CRMarch podcasters Russell Aileen-Willems (@DiachronicD; Diachronic Design) and Stephen Wagner (@processarch; Process: Opinions on Doing Archaeology) who are excellent people and scholars. Chris, Russell, Stephen and I all participated in the well-attended session Blogging Archaeology, Again. I feel so fortunate to have make our digital friendships more personal.

I was also able to meet a host of other archaeology bloggers and tweeters face-to-face including luminaries like Colleen Morgan (Middle Savagery), John Rowe (Where in the Hell Am I?), Kate (@precatlady), and a host of other folks (Please accept my apologies if I forgot your name). Archaeology blogging is beginning to mature and some serious issues were raised by presenters in this session and many of the attendees. Many of us feel like our blogs are another form of publishing, but we’re having trouble defining what kind of publishing it is.

Given the fact that blogging counts for very little with regard to tenure and is treated like a communicable disease by CRM companies, archaeology bloggers are in a tenuous niche. We command a very powerful force that can be used for good (RE: the role archaeology bloggers played in forcing the “indefinite delay” delay of #naziwardiggers), but a lot of archaeologists are afraid of this power. CRM companies, who are spreading their consulting services razor thin like too little butter on too much bread, are afraid of offending the invaluable clients that help keep their companies afloat. Getting fired from a CRM company for blogging about archaeology is a very real threat. Associate and adjunct faculty (and those that aspire to be professors) are afraid of blogging about something that will hurt their chances of getting tenure or landing a teaching job. All of us are afraid of losing our websites and the data we’ve spent so many hours creating. The demise of the blogs that used Geocities is a parable that any serious blogger should fear (FYI: Back up your sh*t regularly. A simple Bluehost update mucked up my websites in a major way. It took days to fix it).

Blogging and archaeology have merged. Archaeology blogging is in a maturation phase that will take a while to sort out. The archaeology blogosphere has exploded in the last five years to the point that long-time archaeology bloggers can barely keep up with all the new content. Blog posts are increasingly cited in books and archaeology articles, another indicator of their increasing legitimacy and presence. We all need to “chive on” while we wait for academia and CRM to slowly recognize the power of blogging and the value it adds to archaeological practice.

What I learned about curation and publishing at SAA 2014?

SAA2014 may have changed the way I feel about the SAA conference. It was in Austin, which never hurts (unless you count hangovers as “pain”), but I really feel like I connected with the other SAA members. It’s not just an imaginarium for Mayanists and Hohokam experts. There’s more than just groveling college students and boisterous CRM PIs. No, my friend. There is actually much, much more.

Many of the presentations, symposia, and forums I attended focused on the future of archaeology writing and collections curation. We are in a transitional period in archaeology and the future generation will have to deal with some very real things. Fortunately, archaeology’s next generation is more than up to the challenge.

Here’s my recap of publishing and curation at #SAA2014:

1) The future of archaeological publishing remains unclear–That’s primarily because archaeologists, our professional organizations, and academic publishers aren’t really thinking outside of the box. I attended the opening session on Wednesday (4/23/2014), which focused on the future of archaeology publishing. While the core mantra remains “It’s all about the money. Who’s going to pay for it?”, I do feel like archaeology publishers are starting to realize that they will have to change the way archaeology publishing is done. Stuff will have to change really fast.

Archaeology publishing will have to recognize the enormous change in worldview that already has flummoxed the entire publishing industry. The publishing landscape has changed. Archaeology and academic presses will have to change too. Here’s what needs to happen:

— Paper needs to go away- I love paper books, but they’re dragging down the whole publishing industry. EBooks are outselling paper copies hand over fist and eBook bring in more money for authors and publishers than a paper book ever will. The people that read don’t buy paper books anymore, but the amount of literature being created, purchased, and consumed outweighs the production of paper books by an order of magnitude. Additionally, as a student and CRMer that does a lot of archaeology research, I prefer archaeology PDFs and searchable digital files WAAAAAAAAAAY more than a paper book. They’re more efficient, portable, and functional. I can read and write more, faster using digital files than I ever could using paper books. We all need to embrace this fact.

If you want a paper book, print it yourself. My Amazon eBooks can all be printed on-demand as paper books. It costs money to print and ship a paper book, but if you seriously can’t stand eReading print the book yourself.

— The costs that used to go towards printing paper will have to go towards digital archiving- We need to curate all of this digital data. All CRM companies and graduate students will have to figure out how to do this. I plan on curating all my digital data on tDAR (Note: Students get three credits on tDAR, which is more than enough to curate any MA or PhD project’s digital data. Check it out here.) I know this will be daunting, but it needs to begin and it needs to begin ASAP.

We also need to figure out how to get all the existing data into tDAR. I don’t know how to help out universities and government agencies, but CRM companies could put aside 0.5—0.1% of their budgets towards migrating all the existing data into places like tDAR. Right now, CRM companies are nursing huge, expensive servers and boxes full of digital “data” that nobody else can really use. Eliminating the energy and real estate servers take up should more than make up for the costs of using tDAR. TDAR isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s better than the dusty floppy disks, rusty hard drives, and scalding servers that are the current digital repositories that CRM companies are currently using.

I know this will cost money. Plan for it. Budget for digital curation in CRM and grant proposals. Artifact curation is already part of our budgets. Digital curation should be too.

–Academic presses are hindering archaeology- It’s a shame that publishing in other field costs so much. Twenty-four thousand dollars for publishing a medical journal article! Really?

Academic presses and online libraries like JSTOR are not just simple “denizens of the current publishing landscape.” They are the academic publishing landscape. Archaeologists aren’t going to pay $24k to publish. We just aren’t and we shouldn’t have to. Archaeology journals and their facilitators that hide behind paywalls are preventing science from moving forward. Until this stops, archaeologists are going to keep being “creative” to get access to the publication we need. Unless academic presses want to start trying to send archaeologists to prison, they need to figure out a way for CRMers and avocationalists to have access to archaeology articles.

Actually, journals are losing money because of the paywall costs. Bring it down to $2.99/ year for each journal and you’ll probably make more money than trying to extort university libraries and CRM companies for memberships.

–You can go from blogging to getting a book published by an academic press- Chris Webster’s blog posts were turned into a “real” book by Left Coast Press called “The Field Archaeologist’s Survival Guide.” Chris, you’re my hero. I also know an academician that will be signing two book deals based on concepts he first published on his blog. This prof told the publisher about the posts, they took the bait, and he’s going to be getting some book contracts in the mail.

Blogging isn’t just a hobby. It can be the route toward an academic publication. Books have a higher impact factor than journal articles, so, grad students, blogging can be your route to a teaching job.

–You can do an end run around publishers and get your books published yourself- Just like blog posts can be turned into a “real” book, posts and CRM reports can be self-published in digital format without the need of a real publisher. If you don’t care about impact factor, this is probably the best way to get information out to a larger audience. It’s also the best way for CRM companies to get their reports out there.

Conversely, self-publishing a book can also turn into a “real” book. Publishers are looking for a sure thing. Self-publishing your book and getting sales on Amazon and other ePublishing platforms is an easy way to pique the interest of an academic press.

2) Blogging needs to become the forefront of academic working papers- One of the criticisms of archaeology is the fact that we don’t do working papers. We tend to keep our data and ideas private until they’re ready for publication. Each article is, essentially, a bubble of ideas that only a few of us have had a chance to comment on until the data has been published.

The solution: write blog posts about your research. Let the thousands of archaeology blog readers contribute. Or, publish on a peer-reviewed blog like “Dig Then”. Our work will grow exponentially if we harness the minds of archaeologists around the globe and ditch our fear of not being accepted by our peers.

3) Artifact curation is the second biggest problem facing archaeology—We all need to figure out creative ways to keep our curation facilities open. Michael Trimble gave an excellent presentation on his crusade to address curation for the Department of Defense and highlighted the way the Wounded Warrior Project has helped address the curation crisis in a huge way.

Trimble suggests we start pooling curation monies across government agencies and facilities. He didn’t really explain, but I can totally see the value of creating regional, multi-state curation facilities. Fewer, larger facilities would save quite a bit of money. We could keep the existing smaller facilities in some sort of temporary, auxiliary capacity for the day when we outgrow these super-facilities. For example, in Arizona, the government could pour all the Forest Service, BLM, state, and tribal curation cash into one facility and make it the ultimate repository for all antiquities. This main repository would benefit and we would all save money because the über repository could reach a scale of efficiency.

I’m not a lab or curation person. Readers, please tell me if there’s a problem with this idea.

4) Archaeology job competition is ridiculous- I learned about several disturbing trends that suggest universities are not acting sustainably. Universities appear to have turned into pseudo-businesses. Archaeology professors are telling their students that tenure is never going to happen. CRMers are saying a job in academia is pretty much impossible.

In the workshop “Get Hired!: Twelve Tips for Getting a Job in Archaeology” at SAA2014, I learned that in the last few years or so U.S. universities have regularly cranked out around 8,300 anthro BAs, 1,100 MAs, and 440 PhDs. In another jobs forum I attended, panelists and R. Joe Brandon of Shovelbums.org said top-tier universities receive about 40–50 applications for each archaeologist job opening and other state universities get between 200 and 400 applications for each opening. I don’t know how many CRM jobs are posted each year, but I don’t think they absorb the nearly 10,000 anthro majors that graduate each year (BTW: the American Cultural Resources Association estimates there’s only about 10,000 archaeologists in the entire country).

This means universities are creating too many graduates for the jobs available. I don’t know what the solution is given the rate of degree inflation that pervades the archaeology industry and the fact that universities are hell bent on creating more “product”. CRMers and universities can ask for the very best because they know they can get it. They also know we’ll work for peanuts because competition is breeding desperation.

I have a strong feeling that this proliferation of degrees is related to the corporatization of a college degree. When universities are irresponsibly adding to this inflation, they are acting more like businesses that are using the American belief in the “sanctity of the college degree” to create too much product.

There’s more but my plane is landing and I’ve got to transfer. Check out the rest of my #SHA2014 summary in Part II: Jobs information and the future of the cultural resource management archaeology industry.

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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2 thoughts on “#SAA2014 Debrief, Part I: Curating and Disseminating Archaeology

  • Russell Alleen-Willems

    A $16 airfare? That’s nuts. I’m looking forward to reading more about your method.

    Great write up. I agree with you about publishing. I enjoyed the opening session, but agree that they seemed more concerned with the cost of digital publishing rather than what digital publishing can offer that print cannot. (hint – digital costs a hell of a lot less than publishing in dead tree format -at least, it should be if publishers would get with the program).

    I’m going to have to investigate peer-reviewed blogs and online journals more. Many reviewers and editors are already working for free, so the cost for online-only journals should be less than hard copy. Get the data and interpretations out to more people, more quickly! As a quick example of what digital publishing and blogs can do that paper doesn’t, I used a Chrome plugin to copy your post into Evernote, highlight and annotate it, and then reshared it with a publicly accessible link. It took 2 seconds longer than if I had read and highlighted in on paper, but now I can search it, and others can easily access it and build on it. You can see it here

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      It does seem like the academic presses are obsessed with costs. That’s mainly because their potential market (universities, libraries, and archaeologists) is so small that they need to grift us for every dollar they can. You are right about digital publishing costs.
      The main thing publishers and presses provide is marketing, but they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to create markets for their products. This is old school and pretty much means they’re trying to sell something that the markets don’t really want. Why not focus on publishing stuff archaeologists want to learn about rather than printing yet another book that has almost no customers?

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