From The Ground Up

The Publication of Archaeological Projects

a user needs survey


6 Discussion and recommendations

6.1 General

The survey highlights:

i) Widespread dissatisfaction with the structure of reports, and diversity of opinion about the purposes of writing them.

ii) Burgeoning grey literature, inadequate synthesis, delay in the appearance of summaries of new work, and imbalances in reporting, are all held to be militating against the current use of much of what is being produced.

iii) Inadequacies in provision for editorial support and training, standards of preparation, consistency in procedures, and capacity for prompt production.

iv) The absence of any single template for archaeological publication which might be suited to all branches of the discipline in all parts of the Britain and Ireland.

The survey also catches a discipline in transition. Change, of course, is a context for any enquiry into anything, but the last two years have seen it on an exceptional scale. Most obviously, the scene is now dominated by electronic communication in ways which have multiplied even since the survey began. When the survey started, the discipline's familiarity with electronic media was partial, whereas today it can be anticipated as near universal. The accelerating range, scale and convenience of electronic opportunities is reflected in the extent to which many of the survey's recommendations are already being put into effect. The electronic revolution also requires us to recognise that `publication' (in the sense of a printed report) and `dissemination', once regarded as virtually synonymous, are no longer necessarily the same thing. The subject calls for a new vocabulary.

Other changes which bear on what, and how, we publish have included devolution in Wales and Scotland; the possibility of devolution in England; a continuing expansion of what fieldwork is considered to embrace (buildings, industrial structures, brownfield landscapes and the submerged past are now fully inside its intellectual boundary); a continued rise of popular interest in archaeology; and, most recently, the Government's decision to review policies towards the historic environment – in England.

Two further points deserve comment. First, whereas earlier reviews reflected the agendas of national agencies, the recommendations that follow here derive from the perceptions and practices of users, whose views naturally highlight the multiple, sometimes contradictory, expectations of different constituencies, and discrepancies between attitude and practice. Such findings allow no universal solution to `the problem' of publication. This is why our recommendations are generic rather than prescriptive, intended to facilitate progress under evolving and varying circumstances.

And second, publication has often been approached as if it were a disembodied subject. In reality, of course, it is only one aspect of the processes which are involved in the generation and consumption of archaeological knowledge. Publication is less an output of fieldwork than something which is interwoven with it. It follows that changes in publication policy and practice may impact upon, and indeed require changes to, practice in the field. Publication is also interwoven into the process of broader synthesis and interpretive research and changes in publication policy may also lead to changes in research practice in this respect.

A similar point applies to the contexts in which fieldwork takes place. Over much of the UK, for instance, recommendations touching the publication of development-driven archaeology cannot realistically be considered aside from the commercial and local authority environments within which such work is undertaken. It is one thing for a pan-disciplinary survey to arrive at recommendations; the translation of such recommendations into practice in an operating environment where many of the strongest influences lie outside archaeologists' control, or where decision-making is split, will be quite another.

6.2 Discussion

6.2.1 The functions of publication

The survey exposes a muddle, and a paradox. Historically, one of the principal reasons for full print publication was the tenet of preservation by record. It was subscribers to that doctrine who nevertheless took the first explicit steps to conceding the inevitability that publication must in practice be something less than full (see Section 2). The concept then shifted to the idea of the archival record, and a full archival report. However, it is now widely understood, if not yet universally accepted, that excavation does not `preserve' by substituting written observations for deposits that have been destroyed. For one thing, the complexity and potential of a given deposit will nearly always exceed scientific capacity for its exhaustive interrogation. For another, the idea that archaeological recording can be value-free is a delusion. And for yet another, serendipity aside, it is difficult to collect data in response to questions which have not yet been asked. More radical stances are discussed in Section 2.5.

We now meet contradictions. Notwithstanding widespread agreement that `preservation by record' is fallacious, the concomitant idea that it should be possible to reconstruct and reinterpret a site from the published record nevertheless exerts considerable inertial influence. The survey also found a majority who look for enough information to make an informed judgement about the author's interpretation. On the other hand, in practice only a quarter of respondents always, or even usually, reinterrogate an author's data and arguments in detail, and most concede that to do so comprehensively would be unrealistic on the basis of the publication alone. It is generally accepted that full analysis will require consultation of the archive. Hence, even for those who maintain faith in preservation by record, the link between record and publication is already broken. Posing new questions of older results – a process which experience shows is often fruitful, and sometimes revelatory – calls rather for the development of aids to the more effective navigation of accessible archives.

The survey was reasonably conclusive in its finding that a majority consider the primary purpose of publication to be the provision of information to facilitate research, and the dissemination of knowledge for public benefit. The present pattern of publication is arguably falling short on both counts.

Half of all respondents feel that the relationship between fieldwork projects and publications concerned with the synthesis of archaeological knowledge is inadequate. A breakdown by constituency highlights dissatisfaction among consultants, contractors, specialists, scientists, university staff and those working in local government. Over a third favour more exploratory writing, and see publications which combine and discuss results from a number of fieldwork projects as a means of achieving it. About a third would like to see fieldwork publications themselves carrying more synthetic, narrative histories. However, only a fifth considered fieldwork publication as an effective vehicle for public explanation. Interviewees emphasised that other media – such as popular publications, television and radio – do this better.

Most respondents are concerned that fieldwork publications should provide information they need for their own work. This often leads to tension between their stated ideals and theoretical stance on `preservation by record'. Two thirds of all respondents generally find the information they seek. However, many of those constituencies traditionally regarded as being central to the broader synthesis and dissemination of archaeological knowledge, such as scientists, specialists, museum archaeologists and university staff and teachers, express much greater dissatisfaction.

As far as decision-making is concerned, rightly or wrongly there is widespread suspicion that decisions on what should or should not go into print are being shaped less by scholarly principle than by financial expediency – that selectivity is being put forward as a pretext for pragmatism. Many of those interviewed also identified a discrepancy between the amount of information which is published about site structures, deposits and features, and the space allowed for detail in specialist reports. Many specialists now take it for granted that much of their material will not be published, whereas site-structural evidence is, in general, still being published to a much finer degree of particularity. This is anomalous.

6.2.2 Summary reports, grey literature and archiving

Information about fieldwork is being disseminated in a number of ways. Publications which carry summary reports on recent or continuing fieldwork in advance (sometimes even instead) of fuller publication exist in all the areas included in the survey. Nevertheless, there is a strong desire for a better, more regular, and possibly more coherent system for such reporting. A majority consider that information of relevance to their work is being produced of which they are unaware. Grey literature which results from developer-funded work is an aspect of this issue, since it may not always be a condition of planning consent that the work should reported in any gazetteer. Moreover, since most of the gazetteers appear annually, a year or more may elapse before even preliminary information becomes available. Specialist work often goes unreported in gazetteers.

Grey literature is neither being read by many of those who might find some of it germane, nor liked by those who produce or do use it. A fifth of respondents never consult such material, and half consider its ballooning quantity to be a problem. While grey literature is to some extent used across all the major constituencies, consultants, contractors and those working for local government form its principal audience. However, these are also the people who are producing and managing it, and it is clear that those others who might wish to use it are often not doing so, chiefly because of their unawareness of its existence or difficulties of access. Grey literature problems appear to be most acute in England.

Around half of those interviewed had used an archive paper record and/or archived artefacts or ecofacts in the previous year. Survey reports, photographs and drawings and the artefact/ecofact summaries were most often used, and most who consulted them managed to obtain all the information they sought. The impression that access to archives is generally obstructed by insurmountable problems is thus unsupported, although it should equally be recognised that a quarter of all those who wished to consult an archive had at some time or other been prevented from doing so, most often by commercial confidentiality, or ignorance of the archive's whereabouts.

6.2.3 The structure of fieldwork publications

Section 2 of this report outlines a layout for fieldwork publication that has existed since the early twentieth century: abstract, introduction, description of stratification, interpretation/discussion, and catalogues. The model is learned, one might almost say imprinted, early in most archaeologists' careers. In large part it originated from the belief that it was an archaeologist's duty to segregate `fact' from interpretation (cf Sections 2.2.1, 6.2.1). However, the intention behind this structure notwithstanding, over a third of those surveyed said that they do not obtain the information they need from fieldwork publications. When asked what form publications should take, just over half favoured the traditional model involving a concise but full description of the primary data with in-depth analysis and interpretation. Nevertheless, about a third felt that fieldwork publications should provide a synthetic narrative history based on the evidence. Given that one would expect to see a degree of conservatism towards new models, this is a significant proportion.

As to actual use of `orthodox model' publications, the survey reveals that the introduction and conclusion, followed by the maps, plans, sections and photographs are the most frequently consulted sections. The entire publication was always or usually read by around only a fifth of respondents. Introductions and conclusions are regularly used throughout the constituencies. Other components such as structures and artefacts reports are always or usually consulted by about half the respondents, most of whom belong to constituencies with specialist interests. Artefact/ecofact catalogues and their accompanying illustrations are most often used by specialists, museum employees and conservators.

In reply to the survey's question about how reports might be improved, more and better cross referencing, fuller integration of specialist reports, information on archive location, and improvements in narrative style and readability were the things most strongly desired. However, just over 40% of respondents also favoured greater integration of description and interpretation and more synthesis. This last is significant, for along with the appetite for greater integration between specialist reports and the main account, it indicates a desire for departure from tradition.

While the survey indicates that there are many who are broadly content with a format which has changed little for a century, it also discloses widespread dissatisfaction with many of its aspects, and misgivings about how far the formula serves the needs of the discipline, let alone any wider audience. Put positively, the survey finds enthusiasm for experiment and creative change in report format, and a lust for new work which is stimulating.

6.2.4 Sources of information about fieldwork projects

Traditional sources, such as journals, syntheses, and word of mouth, remain the principal means whereby colleagues obtain information. Monographs and journal articles, together with period, regional and/or subject syntheses, are consulted more frequently than works on theory, heritage, policy and museum catalogues, which a third of respondents said they had not used in the six months prior to the survey. Notably, a fifth of respondents had not consulted fieldwork published as grey literature. The most usual method of obtaining a publication is through the library of a society, university or other institution library, followed by subscription to journals, followed by purchase at publication price.

6.2.5 Media of publication

The survey reveals a firm, though not exclusive, preference for print as the primary medium for archaeological publication. Even by those who use them most, electronic media are at present considered to offer no panacea, perhaps not least because most of the fundamental issues concern how and to what extent archaeological material is actually worked upon, as opposed to the medium used for conveyance of the results. For the foreseeable future, therefore, print is unlikely to be supplanted.

With this said, and even given many respondents' limited experience of electronic publication, a substantial interest was expressed in the Internet. Among those who had consulted electronic publications, half felt that their search facilities were better than conventional print indexes, and that non-linear narrative was preferable to conventional narrative. A quarter felt that the incorporation of 3D modelling, video and sound would be useful.

The survey found that by 1998 archaeological under-use of electronic publication for mainstream work had become self-fulfilling. Put another way, hesitation in (for instance) the establishment of electronic monograph series was one reason why this had yet to establish itself as an academically respectable or otherwise practicable genre. Circumstances have since changed, Historic Scotland is actively exploring the potential for an electronic monograph series for the publication of Scottish archaeological fieldwork (the Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports), and there have been declarations from others of intentions to do likewise. There is nevertheless a lingering supposition that electronic publication is simply print in another format, as distinct from a medium with its own strengths and opportunities (in which the survey detects clear interest) as well as weaknesses. Alongside the general commitment to print, therefore, we would encourage an extension of electronic publication, in circumstances where authors are keen to employ it or – more especially – where the work itself would benefit from this kind of handling.

While print remains favoured, it is clearly no longer the only or even main medium for dissemination. The point has been reached, indeed, at which `publication' and `dissemination' must be seen as different things. As a means of giving access to archives or disseminating material that would otherwise be relegated to grey literature, the advantages of the Internet are immense, and increasingly accepted. The survey took place against a background of more limited Internet access than exists today, but this notwithstanding, half of all respondents considered that project archives should be available electronically.

More fundamentally, the options on offer no longer consist (if they ever did) of a straight choice between either print or digital media. It is now possible to envisage `layered' reports in which the strengths of different media are exploited to provide fuller accounts than could currently be entertained for print alone: whereby – for instance – a monograph is designed to be read in conjunction with downloadable on-demand files which contain specialist reports or site structure detail, further offering queryable databases as part of an accessible archive. This in turn offers the prospect of a new kind of fieldwork report (that is, not simply traditional print in another guise) which plays to a widening array of strengths and opportunities. Far from reinforcing the trend towards pragmatism which has been in progress since the days of Frere, the electronic revolution offers archaeology the opportunity to reverse it: to produce the kind of fieldwork reports that members of the discipline actually want to write and read. Thus liberated, the main issue becomes one of origination.

6.2.6 The shape of reports: current and future practice

There is geographical variation in the level of what is currently being published. In England and Wales a detailed summary publication is often accepted. In Scotland fairly full publication is the norm. In the Republic of Ireland anyone who wants to excavate has to acquire a licence, the requirements for which will include the production of a full stratigraphic report for archiving along with a summary report to be published in the annual Excavations Bulletin. Northern Ireland operates a similar system, although there is no requirement to produce a full archival report.

In considering what formats would be acceptable, most favour either a brief report of the circumstances of the project, the main results and the contents and location of the archive, and/or a concise but full description of the primary data with in-depth analysis and interpretation. Less popular are full description with minimal analysis; in-depth analysis with selective reference to the primary data; and provision of a synthetic, narrative history. Nevertheless, the fact that about a third of respondents selected the latter is significant, given that it marks a radical departure from the traditional model. In reporting recent/continuing work, over half favour brief reports which summarise the circumstances and objectives, the main results and the contents and location of the archive.

6.3 Recommendations

Recommendation 1: clarify vocabulary

`Publication' is often used to mean `printed report', while `dissemination' has become a synonym for `publication' – a sense which in relation to print is obsolescent in the digital age. Clarity of usage will assist debate. We recommend that as far as possible publication be used to mean the completion and issue of a substantive report, regardless of medium.

Recommendation 2: the form and scale of publication should be governed by the significance and scale of results

The report highlights the fallacy of `preservation by record', whereby a printed report was expected to contain all information necessary to reconstruct the deposits or fabric which had been disaggregated. The survey also indicates that published reports are never going to provide enough detail to satisfy all needs (cf Recommendation 3 below). Indeed, it emerges that many fieldwork publications provide too much detail for the general reader, and too little for the specialist. In the abstract, it is difficult to disagree with a conclusion of the 1991 SoA report that print publication must be selective, and that selectivity should be based on the principle that `the form and scale of [a] publication should be commensurate with what the results have to offer rather than a mechanistic process which is applied regardless of the quality and potential of the data concerned.' We recommend that this be accepted. In practice this will require a more clear-cut, knowledgeable, and hence respected, peer-review system than always obtains at present.

Recommendation 3: multiple forms and media of dissemination should be used, as appropriate for a given project

The survey reveals that fieldwork publications are used for many different reasons, and that each constituency has its own spectrum of needs. While this may seem self-evident, the practical implication of the truth that a single print publication for one project cannot usually satisfy even a majority of expectations has not hitherto been acknowledged. For the future, we recommend that a suite of means be employed, each tailored to particular purposes or audiences, which in the aggregate could be regarded as `publication'. The balance of means would vary from project to project, but could include:

Taken together, such means offer the opportunity to reverse the threat of attenuated publication which has resulted from the pressures of print costs, while providing wider and easier access to material, catalogues and specialist discussion. The main foreseeable risk lies in the diffuseness which could result if each element were to be pursued on its own. Layered or multi-media publication will accordingly require special attention to overall structure, to ensure coherence, not only in content but also in referencing and recognised means of citation. We recommend that experimental projects be set in hand forthwith, to inform the extension of this approach into general practice.

Recommendation 4: new and better means be found for tracking work in progress and providing summary notice of recent work

The survey finds a near universal suspicion that more is being done, published or archived than any individual can reasonably ascertain from existing sources, and that there is geographical limitation in what is regularly scanned. In 1991 the lukewarm reception accorded to the SoA's idea of an annual compendium was in part the result of a feeling that such a publication would be expensive (demanding either a high subscription or subsidy), cumbersome, incomplete, difficult to sustain, and to some extent duplicatory. An electronic compendium could be a different story. Among other things, such a system, if adequately resourced, could:

The realisation of these and other strengths would obviously require the co-operation of the discipline, and be proportional to the extent to which comprehensive coverage could be achieved. However, the advantages would be so large (and the survey reveals an immense sense of need in this area) that we believe such support could be relied upon. This is a proposal which would help everyone, including specialist sectors, universities, and independents as well as professionals.

It remains a question whether such a tracking system would best be established by the upgrading of an existing service, through a new universal consortium, or through the partial amalgamation or patching together of a number of current initiatives such as OASIS (Online Access to the Index of Archaeological Investigations), DAPPER (Digital Archive Pilot Project for Excavation Records) and Archaeological Investigations Project.

Recommendation 5: funding and editorial policy be refocused to encourage the production of more synthetic fieldwork publications, with integration of description and interpretation, greater integration of structural and artefactual evidence and greater attention to narrative style

This recommendation will be controversial in that it requires a departure from the orthodox model. Nevertheless, the survey indicates that the present situation is itself far from satisfactory. A concerted policy shift is required to bring about change. This should only take place alongside the use of the additional means of making detailed information about specific categories of data available to researchers (as outlined in Recommendation 3 above and 7 below).

Such changes may well require corresponding changes in fieldwork practice (eg recording strategy or working relationships between fieldworkers and specialists), and a full consideration of such issues should accordingly take place in advance of policy implementation. For example the survey disclosed a widespread perception that not all excavators display the same degree of pithiness that they expect from specialists. Better balance, to be achieved through stronger academic focus, is called for, and must begin with the assimilation of specialist considerations at the stage of research design.

Such changes would also impact on opportunities for career development and the acquisition of scholarly esteem through publication. We therefore emphasise the needs to encourage multiple authorship by specialists and directors (which the steps proposed in Recommendation 3 would assist), and/or to promote new prestigious formats for dissemination. Funding agencies, larger units, universities and independents all have a part to play in encouraging the integrated reports which many would like to read but few actually write.

Recommendation 6: funding and editorial policy should facilitate and encourage authors to consider electronic publication either instead of or in conjunction with print publication (cf Recommendation 3 above)

Recommendation 7: detailed structural and specialist reports be published on the Internet

One of the survey's significant findings is that while archaeology relies heavily on specialists, the specialists themselves feel their work to be increasingly squeezed. Moreover, while the discipline as a whole is calling for greater integration in the writing of reports, and the study of assemblages as distinct from nineteenth century classifications based on material alone, this is not widely reflected in what is actually being written. New means of making detailed structural and specialists reports available are required – a need which is well answered by electronic media. It is important that this should not take place ad hoc. Rather, we propose the establishment of a specific forum, where work can be indexed and accessed with ease, and where peer review ensures that such publications provide improved means of attracting academic recognition.

Recommendation 8: archives be made available on the Internet

The survey found strong support for the mounting of all archives on the Internet, supported by well-indexed and queryable databases. Funding agencies and local authorities should consider making this mandatory for projects within their remits. These should be integrated with electronic publication of reports (cf Recommendation 6 above).

Recommendation 9: systematic attention be paid to editorial training, with consideration given to more extensive funding of editorial posts

Aitchison's Profiling the Profession survey reveals archaeology's editorial community to be startlingly small, and (in professional terms) for the most part either relatively low paid and junior, or honorary and hard-pressed. Aside from the fact that this amounts to an inbuilt production bottleneck, reports will only improve in content, structure and articulation (all things which colleagues say they would like to see) if the editorial aspects of their production are considered much earlier in the report-producing process, and if experienced editors are on hand to ensure that such consultation translates into better-written, better-focused publications. The central funding – if only for a limited time – of a modest number of additional editorial posts at strategic points in the discipline would help to strengthen and bring prestige to an area of archaeology which is at present dangerously fragile, and improve the mentoring of up-coming colleagues. More systematic attention to editorial training would also be desirable, and some university teaching about the writing of excavation reports – especially issues of structure, balance and the basics of clear style – would pay dividends for the discipline as a whole.

Recommendation 10: financial support for local, regional and national society journals be increased

The survey highlights the immense value of local, county, national and thematic journals. Such periodicals are vehicles for publication with associated peer review systems, editorial provision and audiences. It is easy to take them for granted, yet without them the discipline would struggle. It would be just as easy to assist them, for example to ascertain what kinds of help honorary editors most need (in some cases, indeed, whether it will for much longer be realistic to expect that they should remain honorary). While this lies towards the margins of what the survey investigated, we detect signs of strain in this area. It would be in the mutual interests of societies and funding agencies to review their relationships.

Recommendation 11: there should be a fundamental review of commercial assumptions

The survey demonstrates little correlation between publication sales and publication use. Admittedly, the citation study was disappointing, but enough has been gleaned to explode the fallacy that small sales figures automatically equate with low usage. Although it did not emerge from the survey, we also draw attention to the fact that the costs of producing and distributing a technical publication may be trivial in comparison with the preceding costs of fieldwork and analysis – so much so, indeed, that if dissemination of knowledge is the underlying aim, it would arguably be as reasonable to give the publication away as to sell it. A root-and-branch review of commercial assumptions is called for.

Recommendation 12: national agencies should review their responsibilities for addressing the consequences of commercially driven archaeology

Much of the fieldwork currently being reported upon is development-driven. The principle of `commensurate publication' (cf Recommendation 2 above) is not always easy to realise in the commercial context, where some developers have their own views about the extent of their responsibilities, and local planning authorities may feel inhibited in what they can insist upon. We recommend that national agencies, particularly English Heritage (as the adviser of DCMS) should shoulder more responsibility for addressing these issues, which ultimately stem from PPGs 15 and 16, and their derivatives. In part this means seeking to establish a climate in which both contracting and curatorial archaeologists are in a position to urge publication which is intellectually appropriate and publicly satisfying.

Recommendation 13: funding bodies and peer-review panels should acknowledge the interdependency between publication and the scholarly development of individuals in their careers.

This is an issue which lies at the base of the well-being and productivity of the discipline. Change can appear to be threatening, and it is important that the changes recommended above should be perceived by fieldworkers and specialists alike as supportive and progressive rather than cautious or undermining. It is for those who commission or influence the commissioning of fieldwork to ensure that this is the case.

Recommendation 14: national agencies should develop management frameworks and funding structures to facilitate the production of regional, period and thematic works of narrative synthesis.

The survey highlights concern about the relationship between fieldwork publications and the production of broader works of synthesis. Given that there are increasing pressures on archaeologists' time, increasing volumes of new material being produced through commercial funding, and growing difficulties in finding out about or accessing this material, this is not surprising. We argue that the discipline can no longer rely on those sectors traditionally concerned with synthesis – notably university archaeologists – to answer this need. Alongside personal research, therefore, we point to the necessity for national agencies to support initiatives for the systematic production of regional, thematic and period syntheses.

Recommendation 15: the conclusions and recommendations contained within this report should be widely disseminated throughout the archaeological discipline

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