Why the Publication of Archaeology 2.0 has Important Implications for the Future of Academic Publishing

A New Publishing Model?

For those of you interested in how information has been transmitted from place to place throughout history (and I imagine that’s pretty much everyone who is reading this post), the publication of Archaeology 2.0 is potentially worth marking as a turning point.

This statement refers not only to the contents of the book, but also to the licencing conditions under which the book has been released. The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology (the original publishers of the work) have released the book under a Creative Commons licence.

Many of you are probably familiar with Creative Commons licences – the most common of which allows the re-use of a piece of work as long as you credit the creator and don’t use it for commercial gain. They were established in 2001 as an alternative to the established copyright system as a method by which you could distribute your work, but also maintain a level of control over how it was used by other parties. This approach is frequently referred to as ‘copyleft’ and has found a wide uptake, not just amongst small content providers, but also from large corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Nike, Mozilla and E-bay. One of the most important aspects of a CC licence – at least for the purposes of this post – is accreditation. Few independent content providers are naive enough to believe that their work+the internet = money, so what the CC licence provides is recognition – and the opportunity of a subsidiary reward, possibly in the form of work or funding.

The Cotsen Institutes decision to release Archaeology 2.0 as a traditional print book and, simultaneously, release the work as a PDF under a CC licence is a ground-breaking move. To wholly understand why it is ground-breaking, we’ll re-wind to another exciting event that changed everything, forever (again). We’ll view the event through the eyes of a highly creative and curious species which likes nothing more than exploring new ways of using the new technologies it occasionally invents, and not from the perspective of, say, a copyright lawyer, who may have a very different take on the matter. So place legal matters aside for a moment, and don those historical goggles.

Sometimes revolutionary technologies are the result of new ways of knocking bits of flint together, and sometimes they are the result of what happens when certain ores reach a temperature at which they go runny. The technology under discussion here is a result of what happens when millions of people with perfectly ordinary phone lines suddenly decide to attach computers to end of them – an event which occurred via dialup from the mid 1990s, and then really took off in the first couple of years of the 21st century when broadband became ubiquitous.

One of the things that happened when the bandwidth hurdle was jumped will be looked back on as the greatest archiving event in the history of humanity; people started digitising their collections and uploading them to the Net. As the digital rights activist and novelist Cory Doctorow has mentioned on more than one occasion, the scale of the archiving event was so vast that no organisation, governmental or otherwise, could possibly have achieved it. Records, books, films and anything else that could be turned into a string of ones and zeroes and sent along a copper wire became part of the largest repository of human creativity and knowledge there ever was. Cultural works which had nearly disappeared for ever were all of a sudden brought back to life and available to anyone with an internet connection.

Not only had humanity collectively and impulsively created a repository of data that made the custodians of the Library of Alexander look like mere tinkerers, but in the same stroke it had also utterly resolved the challenge of distribution. Never mind fooling around with time, vehicles, people and front doors – the Net could instantly deliver electronic documents to your desktop.

And?

Fair enough. I’ll get to the point. Before the great copper wire/computer event occurred, the academic publishing business model was stable. There were no disruptive technologies to upset it, and so the only competition that occurred was between academic publishers, who were all using the same business model anyway.

Sometimes, very peculiar things can happen to a business model when there is very little change. As has been pointed out, the market for academic publications is small, so the publisher cannot rely on returns in the same way they can from a commercial success. No matter how important a 1,000 page fully illustrated work on, say, British Neolithic depositional practices is to our understanding of the period, it is never going to induce the same kind of public enthusiasm that leads to night-time queues of costumed fans patiently awaiting the release of the next edition. It is, after all, a book about Neolithic pottery. Not Harry Pottery.

So. That 1,000 page illustrated book is going to be eye-wateringly expensive to produce, and the hardest of sells from the most talented of marketing departments is never going to make the money back – not this century anyway. In an effort to mitigate the cost of production the publisher will sell each copy at a hefty price. Part of the reason it does this is because its market consists of publicly funded institutions (municipal and college libraries) who are given money to spend on precisely this sort of thing.

So we end up with a situation whereby the original work was produced by a publicly funded organisation (a college/university) and the purchased by a publicly funded institution (a library).

The taxpayer is effectively paying twice. And here’s the peculiar thing – unless that tax payer has a local library flush enough to get a copy in, or unless that tax payer belongs to a college which has purchased a copy, they are never going to get to see it. At best, unless they have deep and well furnished enough pockets to pay a third time and buy a copy, they will only ever be able to briefly borrow it.

So the system is badly neglecting the two most vital elements of publishing – the writers, who are only being exposed to a tiny readership, and without whom there would be no publication (and therefore no publisher) and the readers, without whom there would be no-one to write or publish for.

The first part of the process – the public funding to produce the initial body of work – is a good thing, and doesn’t really need addressing. Without that system arcane works of great value would never come into being. But the second part – the publicly subsidised publishing process which results in a very small amount of hard to find books – can now be done away with entirely using a combination of services.

Are We There Yet?

Yes. Sorry. The setup is done, and now we can proceed with the main point.

The Cotsen Institutes decision to release Archaeology 2.0 is of great significance because by releasing the PDF into the wild, and allowing people to freely share their work (as long as the terms of the CC licence are regarded), they are ensuring the kind of longevity and distribution for their publication that no single corporation could possibly afford – at no extra cost to themselves.

They are taking this bold step in the hope that it is a success – and if that proves to be the case, then they will be more inclined to try it again. And if that pays off, other publishers will sit up and take note. They may even follow the example. This would be an excellent turn of events for the writers of their books, who will have the kind of distribution network hitherto only dreamed of for academic work, and also an excellent turn of events for their readers, who will be able to access the work without the hindrance of a paywall/hollow bank balance.

So buy their print version. Or read the HTML version. Or, if you prefer, download the PDF. But whatever you do, feed your actions back to the The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology so they can gauge the impact of their decision.

They’ve given us the opportunity to help change the current publishing model and increase the amount of freely available human knowledge – as responsible individuals the least we can do is take the opportunity and ensure that everybody benefits.

Thanks for reading.

Henry Rothwell.

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