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Sharing data on the web

January 12, 2011

As I was doing some reading for a project I’m working on, I happened to come across a decade-and-a-half old Antiquity review of a few survey volumes, mostly dealing with the Mediterranean world (Alcock and Cherry 1996). One of the last points Alcock and Cherry tackle is the dissemination of data – specifically, rather large sets of artifact data – from surveys. A lot of ELRAP team members have recently been involved in discussions of how to do just that, and it’s instructive to look back and see what’s changed in the past 15 years. They present these options: publish the artifact data as a separate hardcover volume; include the artifact data with the survey volume on microfiche (I’m so glad this never really caught on); publish the artifact data in a separate, but inexpensive, paperback volume; publish the data on a CD-ROM included with the survey volume; or publish the data on the web (Alcock and Cherry 1996:211).

Again, it’s worth keeping in mind that this review is rather old. Perhaps my perspective is skewed by my age of scarcely more than a quarter of a century and, worse, my academic focus in the first half of the second millennium AD (practically yesterday by archaeological standards), but I think it’s important to consider just how long ago this really was in terms of technology. This Wikipedia illustration demonstrates what I’m getting at rather nicely. At the time the review was written, web browsers had only been available to the public for five years, and it had only been three years since the release of a web browser anyone actually used (I’m thinking of Mosaic). Internet Explorer was less than a year old. Surely, in the fifteen years since, web publication has become the obvious choice, even if it wasn’t then.

Yet, this isn’t really the case. To single out one example, only three years ago the Wadi Faynan Landscape Survey publication was released, which included a CD-ROM with supplementary data (Barker et al. 2007). I’m not saying this approach is necessarily bad (though one might object to their decision to include the site gazetteer as a 530 MB PDF), but it still seems strange that web publishing isn’t the obvious choice for this sort of data. I can understand the appeal of media – like CD-ROM or, heaven forbid, microfiche – that are directly associated with the survey publication, and I appreciate when artifact data are made available in any form, but I still think web publishing is preferable, not least because it opens up our results to people who are neither associated with large institutional libraries nor able to justify the cost of a large survey volume or subscriptions to all the journals in which preliminary reports may have appeared.  (Of course, that’s another argument in favor of so-called “Green Open Access”, or self-archiving and sharing of publications in non-open journals and books.  ELRAP actually does a fairly good job of this; you can download many, though not all, of the recent publications from our lab here.)

Alcock and Cherry (1996) mention the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project as an example of a project that was already moving in this direction in 1996. It’s still, despite a few flaws, a good example of what data sharing on the web should look like.  In part, though, this may be because there don’t seem to be that many other examples, or at least examples that I’m aware of, of other projects that share this much data online.  ELRAP is, of course, just as guilty of this as any other project, although we’re at least currently discussing ways to make our data available to others.  Still, it’s a bit more complicated than just saying, “OK, I agree to share.  Put it all up on the web.”  I can understand why there would be projects whose members just don’t want to deal with it.  All things considered, I wonder how close we are to this type of data sharing becoming the norm.  It’s only been 15 years. . .

1996     Alcock, Susan, and John Cherry
	     Survey at any price? Antiquity 70(267):207-211.
2007     Barker, Graeme, David Gilberston, and David Mattingly
             Archaeology and Desertification: The Wadi Faynan Landscape Survey, Southern Jordan. Oxford: Oxbow.
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