Vigorous conversations on scholars and data continues:
Sebastian Heath: Drilling Down (and Up)
Tom Elliot: Which archaeo-data-animal are you?
Eric Kansa: Archaeological Data Critters
One issue that caught my attention Charles Watkinson's suggestion that Only Panthers Share Archaeological Data. He argues that senior scholars have the resources and the professional security to share data. This is further supported by Eric Kansa who, while noting exceptions, suggests that junior scholars tend to be more risk adverse and therefore less willing to share data.
Several other thoughts occurred to me as I slipped into idle speculation on why the squirrels, baby armadillos and raccoons (i.e. junior scholars like myself) have not en masse embraced digital data sharing. On a very simple and obvious level, junior scholars tend not to have unfettered access to archaeological data. We tend to collaborate with Panther-types who have varied attitudes toward sharing data. The more people who have a vested interest in a particular set of data, the more difficult it tends to be to get them all to agree on anything regarding publication in electronic or even print form.
That being said, I am not sure that we squirrels see data sharing per se as a risky proposition. I seems that most junior scholar have come of age in an era where proprietary attitudes toward archaeological material are being challenged openly and widely. In fact, from my perspective here in Greece, the dominant attitude among juniors scholars is frustration that archaeological data is not available. One can only hope that this frustration will be a powerful impetus toward making archaeological material accessible to the scholarly community quickly and openly.
More significantly, I am not sure what the perceived risk about making one data available, say, online would be. I suppose a publisher could reject a manuscript if the material was readily available online, but, then again, publishers are hardly banging down the door to publish raw archaeological data these days. I suppose a scholar could use someone's data to challenge his or her conclusions. In some ways, however, this is why you make data available in the first place and it hardly seems a likely occurrence at present. From what I have seen scholars have barely started to use the available data that is now freely available and have not necessarily done it without the collaboration of the individuals who produced the data. Even the most data-centric archaeologist recognizes that only certain kinds of archaeological knowledge can be made available, and it is generally that kind of material that can be tabulated, organized, and reproduced. The valuable cognitive and phenomenological patterns, for example, that comprise an archaeological "sense of place" would form a kind of metadata that does not translate easily into print or digital media.
From my perspective, it remains the technical matters that prevents data being made regularly available. These matters range from such issues as stable long-term electronic storage, to questions of format (which must be kept up to date), to creating a interface that would satisfy a potential end user. The emergence of projects like Open Context and the work of the team at the American School will likely ameliorate some of the technical challenges related to sharing data electronically, but even then, the first wave of archaeological data going online must be an exercise in informed speculation in an effort to anticipate exactly what the scholarly community will find useful. Making data available in a format that requires either a high degree of technical knowledge to study or in a way that does not reflect how a potential user thinks about the material is only a theoretical improvement on the current situation of data parochialism, not a practical one.
Perhaps the greatest risk confronting the current generation of data-squirrels is the investment of time and energy into preparing data for digital publication without a complete understanding of our audience, the technological complexities, and the long-term implications. The work of the Grey Panthers and their collaborators will certainly resolve many of these issues in the near future, but for now with all the other pressures of data collection (i.e. archaeological fieldwork), writing, and teaching, we can only do so much toward making our data publicly available electronically. As someone committed to the concept, however, it is my hope that in the near future greater technical and financial resources will make it easier to do the right thing.