The difference between archaeology journal articles and blog posts

Find out how archaeology articles and blogs are like bumper stickersSome people drive cars festooned with bumper stickers. It seems like, in the West, more than half of the cars and trucks traveling our roads have at least one. A few of us have covered our cars in them. Regardless of how many you have, bumper stickers seek to express a certain point of view. Our political views. Sports affiliations. University alumnus status. A specific combination of bumper stickers provide insight into the driver’s mind.

Both blog posts and archaeology journal articles are just like bumper stickers. Just like bumper stickers, archaeology writing is:

  • Meant to be informative
  • Considered an extension of the author’s/driver’s beliefs, and
  • An attempt to spread our thoughts to a wider audience.

The main difference between these two important forms of archaeological data dissemination is academic journal articles are primarily meant to be read by nobody archaeologists and blog posts are meant to be read by everybody archaeologists.

When the bumper stickers are more important than the car

Universities care a lot about academic productivity. The tenure system says it values teaching and service but writing articles, books, and edited volumes are really what they expect out of their faculty.

(FYI: I’m not a professor but I watch my advisers very, very closely. They do community archaeology projects, teach classes, and advise students, but it is the article writing that actually catches the eye of the department. If you’re a professor and reading this post, please correct me in the comments below or email me.)

Most anthropology departments crank out a pretty standard product at the PhD level. Successful PhD students can research and conduct self-guided projects. We can land grants and write journal articles. Almost every one of us has a 4.0 graduate school GPA.

Back to the bumper sticker analogy: With most PhD graduate students, the car is basically the same—a functional vehicle that can fulfil the anthro department’s principal objective of teaching different facets of archaeology and doing projects that get published. PhD students are the epitome of the American educational system. We are masters of absorbing and regurgitating course material while also conducting our own research. We all learn the same basic things in college with the same results­ a dissertation or some articles. Since our education and end products are so similar, it’s the publications and accolades that set us apart.

(FYI: I am a two-time graduate student that has published two eBooks, articles, and edited a thematic volume for an academic publication [currently under review]. I also have other articles currently under peer review for other academic journals. Anthro departments want us to publish and universities want to hire published PhDs with pending book deals or publications in the pipeline because it furthers their “brand”. I actually know what I’m talking about on this issue, but feel free to comment or email me about it.)

When the car is essentially the same, bumper stickers are a way of differentiating one’s self. We can write articles in an attempt to articulate our views and prove we have the capacity to produce at the highest level. Some of us will graduate festooned with academic publications, which are our attempt to forge a professional identity in a homogenous world.

The question is: What do these articles do for the communities of practice in which we operate? How many archaeologists will we reach? How much of this productivity actually influences the field?

Just like bumper stickers, most of us simply skim academic articles and move on unaffected. Although they are taken very seriously, journal articles simply demonstrate the author’s dedication to the craft, professional interpretation of data, and personal predilections but most articles fall on deaf ears and have little effect among the demographic we are attempting to reach.

When the car is more important than the bumper stickers

Archaeology blog articles attempt to reach a wider audience, usually other archaeologists but may also reach students and archaeology enthusiasts. Some archaeo blogs are archaeology news aggregators but most are written in the same spirit as journal articles. We archaeo bloggers want to express our perspectives on archaeology to other like-minded publics even though the medium in a much more vernacular format.

The best blogs depend on expertise of their authors in order to convey in-depth interpretations that truly resonate with the readers. We archaeo bloggers want to express ourselves and, hopefully, instigate wider discussions of certain topics in the field. We also want to write about archaeology because this is our passion. The synergy between social media and blogs helps archaeo bloggers reach huge audiences that greatly surpass the number of archaeologists that read any given journal article.

The vernacular tone of blog posts is both a blessing and a curse. Oftentimes, important issues are discussed on blogs, in the comment boxes, and related social media accounts. These conversations have the potential to influence the way other archaeologists think, which effects the way they practice archaeology.

Despite this reach and influence, archaeo blogs are not usually valued by university departments which are what most graduate students and professors seek to appease. Blogs have reach and hit audiences much quicker than any journal article. They can also form the foundation of productive dialogues within the profession which is something that is only clumsily accomplished in archaeology journals. Blogs are today’s white papers.

The problem is: The importance of blog discussions are not acknowledged by academia, even though many academicians manage awesome, high-quality blogs (Paul Mullins’ Archaeology and Material Culture is a perfect example of an awesome blog that touches upon important issues in archaeological analogy). Archaeologists are using blogs and social media to talk about archaeology, but almost none of this discussion is captured in the academic press. Even worse, relevant, progressive archaeology conversations are not valued by academia because of the emphasis on publishing journal articles and academic books that very few people will ever read.

Since blogging is a major way of differentiating oneself as an archaeologist (basically, a great way to cover your car with bumper stickers) and an excellent way to reach a wider audience, it is also an influential method of disseminating information about archaeology. The same questions apply for journal articles that I posited above, but I have two more to add: How can archaeo bloggers prove we are serious? And, do we need to care about validation from the academic presses and journals?

Separate but equal? Does it even matter?

Journal articles and blog posts are different even though they accomplish many of the same goals. Both are vehicles for inquiry and spreading the word about archaeology projects. Both differentiate archaeology authors from each other in a field that is increasingly becoming a commodity. The proliferation of blogging is taking place against a backdrop of outrageous academic book prices, ridiculous journal subscription prices, proliferation of academic journals, and frantic university movements to bring online activities to the classroom.

Blogs have enormous reach and provide an end run around the paywalls that surround most academic journals, which saves students money. The best blog posts are written to be skimmable making them easier to digest and more readable to a wider audience. The informality of blogs is a real strength. Finally, the built-in interactivity that happens in the comment sections and personal emails behind-the-scenes allows readers to contribute to archaeology writing in a manner that is impossible for an academic journal article. Because they are quick to the mark, a blog post series is like a series of white papers that can lead to more substantial academic journal articles that make more of a contribution to the field.

What about peer review? That’s the question everybody asks whenever I talk about the benefits of archaeology blogging. I truly do value the peer review process and believe it really improves our writing. But, the level of comments I’ve received in the process of writing journal articles is way less rigorous when compared to the comments I’ve received for some of my blog posts. One example is when I asked “Why are field techs forced to train PhDs” after they graduate and get hired for CRM archaeology positions. A lot was said in the comments section of this post and even more was said behind the scenes in conversations that other archaeologists had about this post. It reached thousands of people. I hope this post actually influenced the way universities approach their curriculum.

Rather than having 3 independent reviewers, I had hundreds for that post. The response was truly remarkable. I am certain it would never have happened had I tried to get that published in an archaeology journal.

Archaeology blog posts and academic writings appear to be two different animals but their main difference lies in the way they are treated by archaeologists. Journal articles are good and prestigious. Having a well-trafficked blog is a novelty and more work for little benefit (forget about the fact that blog posts have more influence than most journal articles). PhDs and professors are encouraged to write articles that very few people will ever read, which diminishes the time they could be devoting to blogs that actually get the word out.

There are many reasons for this and many parties that could be blamed: profiteering publishers, timid anthro departments, overworked professors, and the general status quo of our industry. Nevertheless, archaeology blogging is growing in influence while, despite their proliferation, academic presses are having less and less sway. The status quo is pretty much the only way most archaeology journals stay alive. If we all started blogging, they wouldn’t have very much to publish.

The archaeology publishing system is changing. Overachieving PhD students have a huge incentive to blog AND publish. I have a feeling that many of our ideas and perspectives will be honed through blog posts and the response to those posts in the comments section and social media. There will probably not be a decrease in journal articles in the near future because of the glut of PhD students in most universities, but, in the long run, journals will suffer as blogs become a more influential place to publish our ideas.

Blog posts and journal articles will continue to differentiate archaeologists’ ideas. They will still be the bumper stickers for our careers, but it is unclear if blogging will rise to the level of prominence as academic press articles.

What do you think? Will blogs ever be as respected as journal articles and books?

Write a comment below or send me an email.

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