Pitfalls for new professional archaeology bloggers

This is the last of three posts for students in my Introduction to Professional Archaeology topic, as well as other people who are new to blogging about archaeology. You can read previous posts here and here.

So you are considering starting a blog yourself—or have started one already. Great! In this post, I look at some of the potential professional pitfalls that can come from sharing your thoughts with the world, some of which can  undo all of the benefits of blogging I have outlined up until this point. The broad problem is quite simple: anyone can read your material, and a bad piece of work can be in front of hundreds or even thousands of readers just as quickly as a very good piece. That is something to be concerned about, but not terrified of, because it should be seen for what it is: a subtle form of pressure to produce high quality work on the web. So, that said, here are some tips for novice archaeological bloggers from the perspective of a professional archaeologist who has been reading and writing about archaeology on the web for about a decade.

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The benefits of blogging for professional archaeologists

In a post earlier this week I provided a brief account of why blogging is of interest to archaeologists and also touched on aspects of the history of ‘archaeo. blogging’. I’ve taken the time to do this to provide students in my Introduction to Professional Archaeology class with a background to blogging and social media in archaeology, which I argue is an important part of professional communication in the discipline today. Here, I focus on the benefits of blogging and also collate some ideas as to how archaeology students should start out with blogging and social media. For those on twitter, see also #profarch.

Publish or perish? Research blogging helps to develop a wide range of important academic skills that will help you to advance your career (more…)

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Social media and professional archaeology in retrospect

This is the first of two posts directed at students enrolled in an online topic that I teach at Flinders University on Professional Archaeology.  The focus of this week’s module is to encourage students to critically evaluate the role of social media in professional archaeology. It is naturally the case then that this is an issue best explored publicly in the hope of encouraging some of my students to connect with each other and broader networks. As this is an introductory topic, it is written for an audience who is relatively new to archaeology.

I’ve maintained a long-standing interest in social media in archaeology, and have run and developed various blogs since ~2004-05. In this series of posts I want to consider the role of social media in professional archaeology  for aspiring professional archaeologists. In this post I offer a brief retrospective on where blogging in archaeology emerged from and why it is of such interest to us.

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The value of a track record in blogging

At the moment I am writing a rather large grant application for a postdoctoral position to step into next year when my current teaching contract at Flinders University runs out. I’ve written a few successful funding applications but this is by far the most challenging application I’ve yet attempted, which is no surprise given this scheme is the major funding program for Australian researchers. For years I have moaned about blogs not being seriously ‘counted’ when it comes to getting jobs or promoted, however at about 2:14pm  on Tuesday in a chocolate inspired burst of writing, it struck me that blogs do serve two important purposes that are critical in the competitive world of academia. Let me elaborate.

This particular grant application is difficult not only because of its scale, but because it requires me to do two things that are each quite difficult in themselves. The proposal must be innovative on a national and international level and firmly locate the idea in relation to a gap that needs attention now. That means it should be academically rigorous, demonstrate a degree of mastery of the relevant literature and meet all the requirements of any major grant proposal, i.e. clear aims, sound methodology and sensible budgets. It also should be carefully crafted for a general academic audience, not of archaeologists but of readers whose specialisations are different to your own. So writing 10 pages of archaeology jibber-jabber won’t necessarily help you get money. You need to convince people outside of your narrow field what your project involves and why it must be funded now.

Meeting both requirements in one document is by no means easy, at least  not for me. But for those who lay awake at night wondering what the point of blogging is, particularly when everyone around you is saying ‘publish or perish’ (and I have made that very point myself), heed my words: having a track record with blogging has been very useful in developing this application, despite my modest and patchy approach to posting.  There are two reasons.

Blogging potentially demonstrates a track record in community engagement and can be utilised as part of a communication strategy to maximise the social benefits of academic research.  If you’re a student or an early career person looking to demonstrate that they have a track record of community engagement, then blogging helps. It shows you’ve been trying to bust open the academic silo, in your own small way, and it also shows that if given the chance (i.e. via a job or large grant), you could easily apply these skills as part of a communication strategy for an organisation or on a large project. That’s important, particularly when it comes to people giving you money. They want to see their investment promoted, plain English blogging helps that and sits nicely alongside formal communication in journals and at conferences and the like.

Blogs also help you to develop your ‘plain English’ writing skills. They allow a great deal more freedom and unlike the real world you can write plain English posts that are accessible to a wider, non-academic audience. I’m an academic and even I find high brow, specialised posts very dull and I’m rarely interested in reading them unless they’re near to my specific field.  A good blog is a readable one and developing that skill is very useful when it comes to convincing others outside of your field about why they should employ you or give you money. So write for people outside of your field.

Publications are of course critical, and without those you are dead in the water so I still maintain that blogs are secondary to this. But they serve a purpose, and if now or in the future you need to demonstrate plain English writing skills or  a track record in community engagement, start  now. If you write about one thing, write about your specific field and the work that you are doing (if I want to read about some new research, I’ll usually read the publications themselves not your blog post ‘covering’ it). Don’t cover the big stories in archaeology if they’re outside your field, for that is the way of two paragraph quotes and blog spam and we don’t need more of that rubbish if we want to make a genuine case about the value of blogging in archaeology.

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Archaeology, publishing and profit

There’s been a bit of talk on the Australian Anthropology Society email list (AASNet) about open and commercial publishing, and the future of academic publishing in anthropology in Australia. This was prompted by a post about the obscene profits of commercial publishers, the content of which irked many, and I think the issues raised in both contexts have a lot of relevance to the future of publishing in Australian archaeology. The latter post makes the very strong point that commercial publishers make a lot of money as the data below on Elsevier’s profits suggests:

  • 2002: £429m profit on £1295m revenue – 33.18%
  • 2003: £467m profit on £1381m revenue – 33.82%
  • 2004: £460m profit on £1363m revenue – 33.75%
  • 2005: £449m profit on £1436m revenue – 31.25%
  • 2006: £465m profit on £1521m revenue – 30.57%
  • 2007: £477m profit on £1507m revenue – 31.65%
  • 2008: £568m profit on £1700m revenue – 33.41%
  • 2009: £693m profit on £1985m revenue – 34.91%
  • 2010: £724m profit on £2026m revenue – 35.74%

Those of us connected to the research sector know well enough that the ‘system’ rewards those who publish and that publishing means career advancement. Academics don’t typically receive any financial gain from publishing, and few would seek such gains; as Gillian Cowlishaw noted on AASNet (17 Jan 2012), the kudos for publishing doesn’t lie in formal rewards, but in the eyes of  peers. We want to influence opinion on particular issues or questions. It’s not necessarily about money.

Authoritative sources?

Coincidentally, I’ve just been writing up a guide for my students on how to evaluate the quality of sources to help them decide what is and is not an appropriate source to include in formal writing (evidently some students struggle with the idea that a blog post or National Geographic article does not necessarily have the same scholarly status as a peer reviewed book or journal). This has meant pointing out to them what constitutes a good source and just why published, peer reviewed items are preferable. I’m sure I’ve oversimplified it and no doubt readers will point out flaws in my logic: but the only thing that makes a scholarly source more authoritative than, say, a blog post or PDF manuscript posted online is:

  1. the fact that they are peer reviewed by people with appropriate expertise and track record in the field, typically by an editor and two anonymous reviewers,
  2. authors use some system of acknowledging their own sources of ideas and information.

Somehow though, the status of the publisher has come to be interpreted as a third indicator of scholarly merit.  There is a deeply held perception in archaeology at least that manuscripts or books published by high profile publishers are inherently better than those published in localised journals with low readership, or monographs with low print runs. Why? I expect because they have larger print runs, higher rejection rates and on the whole are potentially more influential. Ostensibly, higher rejection rates means that the quality of materials published are on the whole better quality – according to the (potentially personal) criteria of the editor and reviewers. This is often true, but equally we’ve all read fantastic books or papers published by relatively small or obscure publishers. Good work is good work, regardless of where it is published.

Furthermore, not all academic publishers make huge profits, and as Mike Taylor at Sauropod Vertebrae notes, publishers do have a right to make a living and as a few posts on AASNet also note, large scale publishing is expensive. Regardless, the larger publishing houses are evidently profit driven and this must influence (or determine) what is published. So, in a sense, the market economy exerts a considerable influence on what constitutes scholarly material.  It also potentially places brakes on the intellectual output of particular disciplines, and I expect that it is possible to quantify the number of  papers able to be published within a field in any year.  That  makes me feel a tad uneasy.

More OA is good

I won’t go on beating this drum, I’m sure many others within the science blogging and open source publishing scene have made these and many other points previously. To my mind there is clearly a significant opportunity (and need) for an online, peer reviewed and open access journal publishing a broader array of material, particularly original data and monographs (grey literature!), rapid (near to real-time) discussion and debate, items not suited (or acceptable) to print journals (due to length, topic, or that are too ‘data rich’ for example) and incorporating non-printable media. PLoS One is a good model, but its science focus constrains those of use who work across the social sciences and humanities and the scale and volume of papers is much larger than what I’m thinking. Queensland Archaeological Research is another good model – it’s very small scale and the costs of managing this would be negligible. There are plenty of open access journals in archaeology already, just not necessarily in Australia, so it’s not a fundamentally new concept.

We need to open publishing in Australian archaeology to the wider opportunities afforded by the web in order to encourage more rapid dissemination of ideas and information, and to help make the outcomes of archaeological research more widely accessible while maintaining a focus on accuracy and rigour. Organisations such as the Australian Archaeological Association should at least explore the opportunities and implications of such a strategy and consider the public benefit that may stem from some form of online only, open access publishing platform.

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Asking questions about heritage management in Australia

I sometimes wonder whether archaeology as a discipline in Australia has been bought.

When I began working towards a degree in archaeology in the mid 1990s it was a common view that there were  no jobs and that most of my fellow students and I were unlikely to find any form of employment as archaeologists.  Ten years later, the Australian economy expanded in part through mining and there was a boom in demand for archaeology graduates and experienced archaeologists to work in heritage management. Most employment for archaeologists now comes from the heritage sector and this growth manifests in other areas such as increased enrolments at Universities and new positions in (some) Government regulatory bodies. Development has been very good to archaeology in Australia, but has it been good for heritage management and our knowledge of the past? Maybe? I wonder.

CC Image by Ben Hoskings, http://www.hoskingindustries.com.au/

It’s not a question I can answer here, but what concerns me is that there are not many people asking questions. Consultant archaeologist Gary Vines, who works in Victoria, has a recent post  that I’ve just noticed. He bemoans the lack of strategic planning in cultural heritage management:

There are more Aboriginal archaeological sites being recorded than ever before.Nearly all are identified as part of predevelopment environmental approvals. Management entails salvaging some, leaving a few in reserves (very occasionally with some form of interpretation or on-going management but more often than not – not), of doing nothing – or next to nothing as the ‘contingency arrangements’ that rely on contractors and developers keeping an eye out.

The discipline needs more of this. Critical reflection and open debate – outside of academic journals – about the difficulties, challenges and long-term problems that such a tremendous amount of development will pose for conserving and enhancing the heritage values of particular regions. One Aboriginal group I work with – the Alngith People at Weipa – have had approximately >70% of their country irreversibly damaged through mining. It’s been dug up, reshaped and left to the weeds by thirty years of mining. The situation is worse in cities as landscapes are cut up, and we ‘manage’ points on maps with the least amount of effort possible rather than – as Gary suggests – thinking about the wider landscapes within which they occur.

Government regulators and consultant archaeologists need to be more actively promoting heritage planning at a regional level, cutting across policy and tenure boundaries. Professional archaeology associations need to be leading the way by reviewing and enhancing our codes of ethics. Governments won’t lead, they’re only capable of following and are far too interested in royalites and re-election, consequently promoting an extractive, violent and naive approach to managing a country. It’s just one knee-jerk reaction after another, all terribly short-term thinking that is ultimately about maximising profits. History has lessons for us on such matters, but we’re not much interested in history.

Archaeologist of all persuasions have a  moral obligation to be talking about these issues in openly accessible forums. I know many who do, who submit opinion pieces to newspapers, who get involved in local council issues or heritage organisations. But we need more. Academic publications are fine, but they emerge from the review/publication process too slowly to make any significant influence on public debate in a 6 hour news cycle.

Anyway, I digress. I actually just wanted to suggest you should go and read Gary’s post:

Australian Archaeology: Where is CRM archaeology going?.

 

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Weipa fieldwork wrap, part 1

I’ve just returned from a month long research trip at Weipa where we were working to complete a plan of an early 20th Century Presbyterian mission site that I’ve been working on for the past few years. It was one of the most enjoyable research trips I’ve run in quite some time in no small part due to a great team of students who participated in the work and who suffered the relatively basic living arrangements with good humour and enthusiasm throughout. The work was undertaken in collaboration with Anhatangaith people, who I’ve been working with for a few years now and whose country includes the site of the former mission at an area known as Waypandan.

We began our trip by flying from Adelaide to Townsville and from here two of my students (Amy Della-Sale and  Claire Keating) and I drove the ~1200 km or so north to Weipa. We visited the Quinkan Cultural Centre in Laura, which I’ve not previously visited, and we were impressed by the quality of the displays illustrating aspects of the history of the region. The displays focus on contemporary Aboriginal cultural practices, land tenure and management, the history of the cattle industry and on the unique environments in the region, characterised by broad dissected sandstone plateaus and an abundance of distinctive rock art. My only concern with the centre was that although Aboriginal people feature prominently in the display, I found it a little disconcerting that the historical themes surrounding the violence associated with colonisation of this region were entirely absent. Furthermore, the centre lacked any significant detail on the pre-colonial Aboriginal history of the region which is a real shame because it is one of the few locations in Australia where there has been enough research across the region to be able to develop wide ranging and detailed interpretive materials that actually say something substantive about long-term Aboriginal histories. Despite that, it’s well worth a visit and one of these years I’ll make sure to stop long enough to enjoy one of the many rock art tours that you can join here in Laura. We did visit one well known gallery at Split Rock which is an easy 1 hr self guided walk through some quite spectacular country and that gave me a brief chance to test out my new Canon T3I.

Escarpment edge at Split Rock Art site, near Laura

That night we camped further north on the Archer River which is about 200 kms south of Weipa. Archer River is, in my view, the beginning of western Cape York as not far from here the rather broken and rocky ranges that run along eastern and central Cape York Peninsula give way to low open rolling hills and plains, low plateaus and wide expanses of mostly undisturbed tall open woodland.

Archer River Crossing, ~200km south of Weipa

Eventually we arrived in Weipa.  The whole basis of the research trip was to camp near the original mission site in order to minimise the number of times we needed to drive the fairly slow and rough track back into Weipa itself. Establishing a field camp for a trip of this length does require a little planning and so we spent a few nights staying with the tourists in a public camping ground in Weipa so that we could catch up with Aboriginal community members and carry out some preliminary trips out to the mission site at Waypandan. During these trips we cleaned up the living area for the the kids and elderly people who would be coming out to stay with us, started planning our survey work and dug our pit toilet.

Cleaning up with fire in preparation for field surveys
Cleaning up with fire in preparation for field surveys

We were happy to see that the area around our camp site had been recently burned and the creeks that we would need to rely on for water were clean and flowing strongly after a long wet season.  Over the course of a day towards the end of our first week away we moved the equipment, available community members and ourselves out to the camp site and were fairly well set up and ready to begin work.

For the first weekend we had about 13 community members staying with us including five young children which was unexpected and a great deal of fun. Kids have an amazing ability to lift the overall atmosphere in a camp and to impart a good deal of energy to those around them. One of the highlights of the trip for me was our first foray from the camp site down to the mission site (about 1 km) with several of the younger community members and a trail of kids behind us pointing out wallabies, animal tracks and other things that grabbed their attention.  It was also a good chance for me to think through a field survey strategy and to familiarise myself with parts of the mission site that I hadn’t visited for six or more years.

Grass tree on the mission site
Grass tree on the mission site (photo by Amy Della-Sale)

Over the course of the next two weeks we systematically surveyed the mission site and extended my site plan from 2008 to encompass the majority of the original mission landscape. Towards the end of our third week away I decided to shift our camp back into town at rather short notice due to a death in the community, but we were fine to continue our work at Waypandan via day trips from town. I’ll write more about the archaeology in a separate post later in the week.

We had our fair share of problems but fortunately no one was seriously hurt. We had serious mechanical issues with one vehicle – a Jeep Wrangler – which was off the road for two weeks and a this was a great loss to us as it limited the number of people we could transport out to the site. There were also a few close encounters wildlife ranging from the obligatory wasps,  ants, rats and snakes through to the  more concerning encounters with wild pigs and crocodiles. On the whole though it was a very positive trip: bracing swims in the chilly creek in the early evenings; johnny cakes and teatree smoked fish for dinner; the early morning chorus of birds; sharing the camp site with dozens of wallabies as well as the fresh air and glorious weather.

Mangroves at sunset, Embley River
Mangroves at sunset, Embley River at Waypandan

I’m planning a shorter trip back in September or October this year. The weather will not be as nice as in July, however any day spent in the tropics is far better than one spent in more southerly climes. We have quite a lot more work to do and the Traditional Owners are building an outstation near the mission site which will provide us with a good base from which to work and hopefully the access tracks will be improved as well. Frankly, I’m looking forward to getting back up there already.

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A burnin’ ring of fire: Four Stone Hearth 115

Ring of Fire / Johnny Ainsworth

Welcome everyone to the 115th Four Stone Hearth Blogging carnival! (my apologies for the Johnny Cash reference).

For the uninitiated, the Four Stone Hearth is:

a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology in the widest (American) sense of that word. Here, anthropology is the study of humankind, throughout all times and places, focussing primarily on four lines of research:

  • archaeology
  • socio-cultural anthropology
  • bio-physical anthropology
  • linguistic anthropology

The Hearth is an important institution among anthropology bloggers, and dates back to somewhere around the early Holocene (2006) when anthro blogging began to get serious.

It’s an interesting exercise to browse through some of the earlier editions of the Hearth, which were run by many bloggers who are still around today: Anthropology.net, Afarensis, Aardvarchaeology, Hot Cup of Joe, Greg Laden, John Hawks and many others. If you’re not familiar with the Hearth, I would urge you to browse through some of the earlier editions to get a taste of what it’s all about.

Some say the Hearth is diminishing in its appeal, and if so I’m not exactly sure why. I suspect part of it is due to a more diverse social media that has reduced the need for anthro bloggers to congregate and chat around a central Hearth, so to speak. This edition is relatively strong and I hope it continues this way into the foreseeable future. It’s too great an institution to let it languish .

We have a range of topics today with contributors reflecting on themes as varied as space archaeology, Christian religious rituals, stone artefact caches, gambling, and much more. Please take the time to read through what our contributors have to offer; I’ve tried to keep my overviews of their posts  short in the hope that you visit their blogs and read what it is that they have to say.

So please enjoy!

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The shell mounds of Albatross Bay, Cape York Peninsula

It has been some time since I last blogged about archaeology so in this post – which is a contribution to the Four Stone Hearth blogging carnival – I am taking up a question that has driven my work for the best part of the last decade – shellfish and its role as a food for Aboriginal people over the past ~2300 years on north western Cape York Peninsula (Australia’s north eastern ‘pointy bit’), which was the topic of my recent (2010) PhD Thesis.

[Note: This post is an attempt at writing about my research in plain English that is free from academic jargon which is something that I’ve wanted to do  for quite some time. There’s something dissatisfying about writing a 100,000 word academic thesis that won’t be read, and I think all academics have a responsibility to interpret their work for a wider audience. So my apologies – if you’re looking for something more academic,  then perhaps read some of the papers I’ve included in my reference list.

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Archaeological grey literature in New South Wales

Yesterday, Agata Mrva-Montoya (@agatamontoya) at the University of Sydney forwarded me a wonderful resource for those who have an interest in accessing ‘grey literature’ resulting from archaeological work in New South Wales: the New South Wales Archaeology On-Line website that has been set up by the USyD library and the Archaeology of Sydney Research Group.

New South Wales Archaeology On-Line
New South Wales Archaeology On-LIne

“Grey Literature” are the unpublished material – typically reports – that are produced during research or heritage management work. These reports commonly include the original data or results of archaeological work and are an invaluable resource for research and management alike.

Unfortunately though, it is often not possible to publish this material in its original form. It may be too detailed, of only local relevance or authors simply may not have had the time to convert it into a publishable form. As such, grey literature is usually only found in the personal archives of archaeologists, in the report libraries of Government Departments and so on. This is a problem because it means that not only is it difficult to access, but people may not even be aware of the existence of potentially important and useful work.

This relatively new website that the good people at USyD have created is therefore a fantastic resource and quite frankly I think we need a lot more like it. It contains around 570 sources and seems that many of these have full text PDFs online. The Archaeology Data Service in the UK is a similar service and currently hosts about 8500 such reports, which I think illustrates the long term value associated with starting such an initiative.

Pushing this material onto the web is more important now than ever before. The Australian Research Council’s ERA scheme has recently devalued the publication of data rich grey literature by creating a ranking system that primarily recognises high-impact outlets that are international in scope. What this means is that it is potentially damaging to put any effort into publishing data-rich papers in low-ranked journals or edited books that have traditionally been the outlets where grey literature are published. I suspect that we will see a decline in interest in publishing in such locations, which will not do anything to help liberate grey literature from obscurity and irrelevance.

While not all grey literature can be made freely available due to confidentiality requirements, particularly where Aboriginal heritage is concerned, a national reports repository would be of great value to the discipline. As such, this resource is definitely worth making a note of, particularly if you work in New South Wales. My only concern is that the database does not seem to be in any web standard for bibliographic data (e.g COinS), but that’s a minor issue.

New South Wales Archaeology On-Line

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