Discussing the disincentives to and constraints on sharing data in archaeology, Lorna Richardson asks “Do you think there’s an issue w not knowing who to aim open data at? Planning for niche, specialist use or other?”. In short, yes, I believe there is.
Perhaps when faced with the prospect of preparing and organizing our data, we face a sort of paralyzing confusion over who the end-user is and what their needs are. I’ve experienced it, and it is not to be underestimated when thinking of the factors that result in such low levels of sharing in archaeology. We all spend a great deal of time preparing data for analysis, transmogrifying raw observations into something usable by various research tools in order to answer specific questions. How transmogrified should the stuff be that we post online for all to use?
Our goal should be to allow others to test hypotheses with our data. In that sense, any shared data is better than no shared data. Whatever the “level” of data we share, it should allow anyone to ask at least some questions and get some answers. John Muccigrosso points to the example of papyrology, in which sharing of images, even of limited quality, allowed an increase in the pace and diversity of research. I see similar potential right now in paleoanthropology with the 3D printing of fossils, for example.
Dimitri Nakassis sensibly points out that access to data does not replace acquired skill. Even if he had access to all of his colleague’s data, he wouldn’t “have seen what she has seen”. Of course, having access to the data, he might have the opportunity to start seeing what she has seen. He might also, Shawn Graham notes, start seeing things that she hasn’t seen. Deep knowledge is a double edged sword. It confers expertise but also constrains the imagination. Diversity of perspectives is as essential to the scientific process as expertise.
We run into problems as a discipline when publically and ritually acknowledged expertise is a necessary condition for access to data of any kind. It creates an unnecessary bottleneck in the research process. When only initiates can access information, they can ask a limited number of questions and carry out a limited number of analyses. If the only impact was to create a slow archaeology, as Bill Caraher calls it, it would be bad enough, but it actually creates a blinkered archaeology that goes deeply down particular roads and tends to ignore the wide open landscapes they traverse.
Access to some data allows the testing of some hypotheses. Access to more data allows the testing of more. Our goal in sharing should be to create opportunities to test hypotheses. As Muccigrosso shows, this doesn’t make the experts obsolete, or even affect their status in any significant way. It may actually improve it by making them experts in a world that cares more deeply about, and is more engaged with their area of study.
I maintain that the prestige economy of archaeology, which generates data protectionist practices is harmful to the discipline and therefore to the wider society. We must find a way to transcend it.