Open access also means open for challenges

A recent report—thanks to Clifford Lynch via Melinda Burns—by Kathy English, The Longtail of News: To Unpublish or Not to Unpublish, draws attention to an old issue that is gaining new prominence: published content can be challenged but open-access and Google-indexed content brings even passages of material that was “obscure in practice” out into the open. Newspapers and news websites are of course foremost confronted with this (I remember lawyers contacting me a couple of times when I was editing IW&A). People don’t like something published about them (or a pet cause), erroneously or not, and ask for it to be removed from an online archive, sometimes years after the fact. Before, one would easily move on and forget but, now that one can google oneself, old wounds are easily ripped open again, listed prominently in Google search results. In archaeology, we haven’t been subject to this kind of problem much yet—correct me if I’m wrong—but it may very well be only a matter of time. We all know how politically sensitive certain research can be, e.g., Native American repatriation, Biblical archaeology, national heritage vs. colonialism, etc. Personal issues (accusations, challenges, …) do interfere often in the study of the ancients too. A long-forgotten diatribe against an esteemed colleague, “buried” in a Festschrift or some other obscure volume, may suddenly pop up on the Google radar. Excavation notes could list certain artifacts as having been excavated by Ms. X while her arch rival, Mr. Y, remembers differently.

But what does all this have to do with the user experience of archaeological field-data databases? Paradoxically or as a matter of purpose, the endeavored better user experience leads to easier access to information: open-access and Google-indexing means open to legal and other potentially unpleasant challenges. Our academic gentlemen’s agreement on such issues may become antiquated. The general cultural context under which we operate influences our research and the way we communicate our research. The open-access movement is making great strides but there are counterforces. We are not insulated from them. Only time will tell how the balance will evolve, I suppose. One more thing: this also draws attention to archiving and retention policies of online collections. In the future, will outdated, controversial or neglected publications  be included in the migration of a collection to the umpteenth new data standard? Who will decide and on what grounds?

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