From The Ground Up

The Publication of Archaeological Projects

a user needs survey


1 Introduction and background

1.1 Introduction

Since the late nineteenth century, publication has been seen as an integral part of the process of archaeological excavation. Because it is destructive, excavation has been considered to place an inescapable duty on those who do it to restore what has been destroyed through a published record which is accessible to others, now and tomorrow. Underlying this notion of `publication as preservation' is the ideal that it should be possible to reconstruct an excavated site from its records, and consequently reinterpret it.

Alongside its traditionally fundamental role as a proxy for the excavated site, fieldwork publication has also been expected to nourish the discipline by providing primary information; be a medium through which archaeologists can develop their scholarly standing; and a vehicle for the popularisation of what archaeology finds. Fieldwork publication is seen as a pivot between excavation and other forms of fieldwork, and the writing of new history.

Despite the reverent regard in which such publication is held, the reality is that practical determinants have visited considerable change upon what and how we publish (see Section 2). Yet in all the burgeoning literature, surveys and reports that have addressed the subject since c 1970, emphasis has been almost entirely on the production of publications. Discussion of production depends upon assumptions about use, yet there has been no general or systematic (as opposed to anecdotal) indication of users' expectations.

In 1998 the Council for British Archaeology was commissioned to address this lacuna: to ascertain how people actually use archaeological project publications and what they expect from them. The survey was entitled The Publication of Archaeological Projects: a user needs survey (PUNS hereafter). It embraces the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The work was funded by Cadw; DĂșchas; English Heritage; Historic Scotland; and the Northern Ireland Environment and Heritage Service.

PUNS was initiated partly in reaction to a perceived under-use of archaeological project publications and archives, and partly because of uncertainty about what archaeologists and lay readers wish to derive from them. Previous surveys have provided important information on the use of archaeological bibliographies and abstracts (Heyworth 1992; Lavell 1981); use of and access to microfiche (Dixon 1986); access to the Internet and use of on-line archaeological services (Heyworth 1992; Will 1995); use of magazine and journal publications (Heyworth 1996); and artefact and paper archiving practices (Swain 1998). Other reports derived from selective consultation within the profession (eg Carver et al 1992; Olivier 1996) have provided some information about the perception of problems relating to the dissemination of information. However, the lack of relevant, systematically-gathered information about usage, needs and expectations meant that the perception of under-use was largely based on sales figures, and made assumptions about the relationship between purchase and use which were not evidentially sustained. More fundamentally, it was not clear to what extent fieldwork publications were indeed providing for the reconstruction and re-interpretation of sites, or nourishing research.

1.2 Aims

The project set out to ascertain, analyse, and report on the archaeological community's use and expectations of fieldwork publications. `Fieldwork publication' was defined as any work that serves to record and disseminate information derived from a fieldwork project (including watching briefs, evaluations, excavations, surveys of all kinds, and related artefact and ecofact analysis). Such publications range from monographs, through papers in national, regional and local society journals, to summary reports in annual gazetteers. By definition, they are publicly available; reports that are not issued for public sale or widespread distribution, so-called 'grey literature', are also considered.

Since fieldwork publications are held to be fundamental to the furtherance of research and synthesis, the survey focused on this area with the intention of obtaining information both on the actual use of different parts of publications, and on needs and expectations. This information would then be used to assess the effectiveness of conventional fieldwork publication in meeting the diverse needs of the discipline, taking due account of any regional or national variation.

1.3 Objectives

The objectives of the project were to:

1. identify the different sources used in acquiring information about archaeological projects (eg personal communication, gazetteers, summary accounts, general regional and period syntheses; project monographs; articles in local society journals; etc), noting the degree of penetration of information from one region/country to another;
2. discover the frequency and purpose of use of project publications in contrast to other types of publication;
3. assess the use of, and need for, the various elements which typically make up project publications (eg the general interpretation/synthesis; the structural report; artefactual and environmental reports);
4. assess user needs and expectations with regard to the overall content and form of project publications (including the relation between broader interpretation/synthesis and the basic description of evidence, and the level of publication);
5. assess user expectations with regard to style and presentation (eg the use of specialised terms and professional standardisation versus narrative and personalisation of the account);
6. assess user expectations in relation to the production of archaeological knowledge (specifically, the value and status accorded to archaeological data, such as the extent to which they are regarded as objective, and the relationship between project and synthetic publications);
7. assess user expectations with regard to the media of publication, as well as access to, and use of, microfiche and electronic (on-line and CD-ROM) forms;
8. compare user needs and expectations with current practice and rationale; and
9. identify any variation in the above areas between different sections of the archaeological community (and related audiences), and between different regions and countries.

1.4 The survey and report

The survey's design and methodology (Section 3) were informed by a review of the history of publication rationale and practice (Section 2). The survey consisted of a self-administered mail questionnaire in conjunction with semi-structured face-to-face interviews. These were supplemented by the consultation of independent sources (such as citation records and frequency of access to project publications in libraries) for information about actual use, as well as information from other groups involved in project publication, notably editors and publishers. Care was taken to ensure that regional/national variations were appropriately addressed in both the questionnaire and the interview design.

The sampling strategy was designed to ensure that responses were obtained from a cross-section of the discipline which was representative of constituencies and regions. The methodology and survey design are described in Section 3. Out of 2668 forms dispatched, 878 were returned (a respectable response rate for a mail questionnaire) and 795 (29.8% of the total) were usable. Analysis of the results and interviews revealed patterns (see Section 4 & Section 5) with major implications for publication rationale and practice. These are discussed, together with recommendations for future action, in Section 6.

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