Oppurtunities and obstacles to community knowledge-sharing in the digital universe: Experiments with Mesolithic Miscellany

The lovely folk at post-graduate Archaeology Journal Assemblage invited me to contribute on my work with Mesolithic Miscellany which had been part of my MA research. You can also read the whole thesis on my academia.edu profile here: Mesolithic Europe, a historiographic basis. Or read the original post over at Assemblage.

Introduction: Clare Burke

Here in State of the Arch, we would like to introduce a new series of pieces all centred around a similar theme: the role of the internet in modern academic discourse, and the place of internet journals and resources such as assemblage in the archaeological community. We hope that these State of the Arch pieces will open up the floor for debate, and we are very interested to hear the views of assemblage’s readers on this topic. Please feel free to use the comment facilities below to voice your opinions, or if you are interested in writing an opinion or research piece on the topic, email us at our usual address.
We start with Pat Hadley, who has explored these issues through his work on Mesolithic Miscellany. His piece explores the opportunities and potential provided by dissemination of knowledge through the web, as well as the potential obstacles to this dissemination, not least, the perceived subversive nature of new methods of social sharing.


Opportunities and obstacles to community knowledge-sharing in the digital universe: experiments with Mesolithic Miscellany

Patrick Hadley (University of York) reflects on the initial stages of using web tools for Mesolithic Miscellany.

Setting the scene

Every academic journal began as a group of people who got together to share and record ideas about their subject of interest. This is as true of the Proceedings of the Royal Society as it is of Assemblage.
One such group were Mesolithic scholars who, in 1980, decided that they needed something cheap, speedy and informal to share news and information about their subject. In the days of print and post, organising such a group and co-ordinating a journal involved a substantial investment of effort. Mesolithic Miscellany(MM) was edited, type-set and mailed by one person. This is clearly a big task and eventually, in 1996, it proved too big and MM went out of production.
The internet facilitated the resurrection of MM in 2006, and now distribution is free, copying is infinite and submission and copy editing doesn’t involve the postman, glue or Tippex! The whole process now also takes place at almost instant speed.
However, the production process and end appearance of the new version has hardly changed. In the 1980s having one editor/co-ordinator and minimal infrastructure was the only alternative to publishing through a major publishing house, and was certainly speedier and cheaper.
Now MM is produced by the same process, but uses digital tools; roughly 700 subscribers receive a .pdf every 6 months. This was the pattern followed by the first internet news sites – initially digital facsimiles of print, produced by professionals and issued each day as a new edition: old patterns were imitated in new technology – like the first bronze axes imitating stone forms.
The gap between web-based and print news-media has now become a chasm, no longer do ‘newspaper’ websites stick to text and still images or ‘television’ sites use exclusively video. The more significant social change is that there are now built-in mechanisms for users to customise the content they want, receive content as soon as it is updated (often live) and most significantly contribute comments or other content to the site itself. Most radically, sites such as the Huffington Post ‘crowd-source’ a pool of non-professionals distributed across the globe to produce and edit their content.
My explorations

Beginning with a basic understanding of MM’s role and what was going on in other online communities I decided to explore what technological and social changes would be necessary to make MM the hub of an active, online Mesolithic community. This was done as part of an MA project at the University of York and the full thesis can be downloaded from my academia.edu page.
I identified web technologies that might have something to offer to the MM user-community – either by enhancing an existing part of what MM explicitly provided or by providing an alternative route to MM’s implicit goals.
I broke the services into four categories and tested MM user’s responses through an online survey:

Research resources These might include shared databases for raw data (from fieldwork or labwork) or a collaborative bibliographic resource.
Social and discussion services Discussion forums are the most obvious form for this. But the ability to add comments to other content and integrate social media has greater potential.
Multimedia services A collaborative photo-bank or map of Mesolithic sites would enrich MM’s services.
Improving the journal Breaking up issues and making the back-catalogue searchable would improve usability.


Importantly none of these methods were about attempting to improve or even influence the ways in which archaeologists use the web to do their work (a topic much better explored in the new e-book Archaeology 2.0) but just help them to share it more quickly and effectively – reflecting the original mission of MM. For example a collaborative mapping service or bibliographies had a direct precedent in maps and book lists that used to appear in each issue of MM.
To me the cheap (often free) web technologies, that required only a little technical skill to use (compared to GIS or 3D scanning) were a perfect fit for the problems faced by MM.
What I did not see at first is how subversive such technologies can be. Though I have not had the chance to develop the sorts of technologies listed above into proper services to offer the MM user-community and I remain hopeful that there might still be uptake for them, I now recognise that social issues may be larger obstacles to the success of implementing such services than technological ones.
New tools for sharing information among academics are subversive to the traditional infrastructure for doing so (journals, books, conferences, teaching and so on). They come with a real or perceived loss of control and lack of reward or recognition: these are much larger problems than simply learning to use them.
While 3D scanning or GIS may be perceived as technically complex wizardry they do not subvert the fundamental methodology of recording the spatial characteristics of an artefact, structure, site or landscape: they comfortably replace old methodologies for data generation.
The ways we share information are simultaneously a superficial part of our work and fundamental to it as they are entangled with the far more complex social systems of how we assess the quality of one another’s work and (more controversially) how we assess the quality of one another.
Though I was aware of these issues and they have been well documented in terms of major commercial academic publishers defending their territory (see for example George Monbiot for the Guardian or The Royal Society’s position) I did not expect to detect as much resistance to these liberating technologies among the MM user community.

Where to go from here?

Unfortunately, there haven’t yet been opportunities or resources to develop the major tools needed for MM to adopt more advanced tools but a few basics have gone ahead such as a Facebook and Twitter presence.
I remain optimistic that MM is one of the best places to test these new approaches – it is free, global and unencumbered by institutional obligations. It has a user-community large enough for web-advantages to be significant but small enough to enable tests to be micro managed. Also significant is that, unlike other innovative journals such as Internet Archaeology or even Assemblage, MM can exploit a well-developed Mesolithic studies community who are not sufficiently served by other publication outlets and regularly communicate through international conferences.
In various ways, each of these outlets has the potential to experiment with new forms of academic information sharing. In addition to the social aspects this also plays into broader debates about academic output that has precipitated from the web revolution such as open access, non-text-based data sets (such as spatial, visual, statistical and chronological data) and massively collaborative production.
Combined, these changes have the potential to change the balance of power between academics and the hegemonic publishing houses which own the formal journals but so far have not done so for various complex reasons.
Although these big publishers have successfully adopted certain aspects of web technology (secure, monetised digital hosting and access) their production and business models have remained unchanged.
The most fundamental change brought about by the world wide web is that anyone can disseminate any idea – globally, for free. This has the potential to cause chaos and upset established infrastructure (as it has for music and journalism) but has even more room for innovation. I am certain that academic dissemination will look radically different in 20 years but if we – as the producers of academic work – want to maximise control of what the future will be like we must use this new tool kit with care.

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