Open Access – A Race Half Run (Keir Strickland)

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash
Next week (October 23rd-29th) is the 10th annual International Open Access Week, a global event which aims to promote the benefits of Open Access to researchers and academics through events and activities both on- and offline. A week to extol the virtues of Open Access, to celebrate how far we’ve come in the last decade and, arguably, a week to recognise how much further we still have to go!

Open Access has come a long way in the last decade, even further since the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) declaration calling for “free and unrestricted online availability” of academic literature.

There are now Open Access journals in disciplines from A-Z – from archaeology (my own discipline) to zoology, and most subjects in between. Perhaps most importantly, for effecting change, major funding agencies such as our peak research councils (NMHRC and ARC here in Australia, or RCUK and HEFCE in the UK) have recognised the importance of Open Access to publicly funded research.

In the next UK ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (similar to our own Excellence in Research for Australia), all research outputs will be required to have been deposited in Open Access repositories within three months of their online-publication. Here in Australia, both ARC and NMHRC have well established Open Access Policies, requiring research outputs from publicly funded projects to be made “Openly Accessible”.

However, the standard requirement from such Open Access Policies is for output, or publications, not for data. Indeed, that original 2002 BOAI declaration was quite clear that: “Open Access to peer-reviewed journal literature is the goal” – and that’s a goal that we are well on the way to reaching, while we still have a long way to go in tackling the paywalls of the major academic publishers. However, as an industry, we’re still stood at the start-line arguing about the pros and cons of Open Data.

Open Data is “data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone”, and the vast majority of Open Access publications are not Open Data, nor indeed are all Open Access proponents supporters of Open Data. Within the highly competitive world of academic research, individuals, labs, and projects all frequently feel ownership of their data, even after they have published the headline outputs from that data in the form of peer-reviewed literature.

This is a particular issue within my field, archaeology, where it remains (sadly) not uncommon for researchers to sit on top of metaphorical (or maybe literal, I’ve not checked their offices) hordes of unpublished data. At their worst, they pop up at conferences, arguing against someone’s paper on the grounds of their own unpublished (let alone Open) data. But more often it is simply an issue of time and incentive. Doing new fieldwork is more enjoyable than slogging away at that “full data” publication. The problem is that that “full data” publication, that exhaustive monograph, is absolutely essential.

In archaeology, there’s an oft-repeated aphorism that “excavation is destruction”.  As we study the archaeological record, we destroy the contextual linkages between the artefacts, samples, and features of those sites. Consequently, if you don’t disseminate that data in its entirety, you might as well have taken the old antiquarian approach of hacking everything out with picks and shovels in order to find some lovely baubles to place in museum cabinets.

We call this “preservation through publication”. The physical site has been destroyed, but it has been preserved through painstaking excavation, recording, analysis, and publication. Traditionally, this was done in great big monographs, often in multiple volumes. These would typically have print-runs in the hundreds, cost several hundred dollars a copy, and within a decade are typically only to be found in a handful of university libraries or offices of fellow specialists.

Thirty years ago, constrained by publishing practice and media, this was justifiably deemed “best practice”, but today we can preserve sites through Open Data – sharing all of the data in formats that are readily usable by colleagues, students, or indeed anyone with an interest in the subject matter.  Don’t we have a duty to update what we consider “best” practice?

That’s not to say that the way ahead is straightforward. There are many discussions to be had about best practice, the ethics of Open Data, the use of embargoes, avoiding hardware and software obsolescence, and (of course) about funding and management of such data. But it is difficult to see how we can continue to justify forms of “publication” that are archaic, elitist, and have such limited impact. Instead, the upcoming International Open Access Week offers an ideal opportunity to engage with the discussions listed above. Not about whether or not we engage with Open Data, but how best to do so.


After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Bradford, Keir Strickland spent several years working in the British commercial archaeological sector, working on sites of every possible period across the UK and Ireland. After bailing out yet another near frozen trench, he decided to return to academia, where it was warmer and there were chairs.

Following an enjoyable fellowship at the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.), several field seasons spent crawling through dense jungle, and one unfortunate incident with a dugout canoe in a crocodile-infested lake, he received his PhD from Durham University for an examination of the collapse of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, Sri Lanka. 

He subsequently worked as Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands for several years, before joining La Trobe University in 2016. In addition to his work in Sri Lanka, and his commercial sector work, he has also excavated on sites across Nepal, Iran, Belize, and the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

Keir tweets from @halcyonalbion.