Archive | March, 2016

The Face of Academic Copyright & Sci-Hub: A Quick Look with Reference to the Open Access Button, and ResearchGate Sites

21 Mar

Over at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SVPotW) there have been a number of posts recently discussing scholarly copyright with reference to recent media and general academic attention paid to the pirate site Sci-Hub, where any number of academic articles (47 million and counting) can be searched for, and read, for free.  The site is of great boon to people such as myself, who currently hold no ‘proper’ researcher status and lack academic affiliation (alongside the access to journals that goes along with that), and to pretty much everyone you can think of who isn’t involved firsthand with research itself or affiliated to an academic or scientific institution.  From politicians who implement international and national regulations and guidelines to families who want to learn more about a specific disease and health treatments, those individuals who want to make informed choices but find that knowledge and research is locked away behind paywalls each and every day unless you can afford to pay a substantial sum for access, or are a current university student or researcher and have validated affiliation.  Those higher education institutions themselves are, of course, paying heavily to maintain access to the journals for their students, researchers and staff members.

Lets not twist words though, Sci-Hub infringes copyright on a huge scale by illegally granting access to the articles it has access to.  This goes markedly against the grain of academic publishing, where normal publishing procedures include authors, the creators of the content and research, handing over scholarly copyright (and sometimes even money!) to the publisher as part and parcel of publicizing their work to the wider academic community.  It is also a world where paywalls are de rigueur across access to many articles published online in academic journals.  (This is, as SVPotW points out, the opposite of creative copyright where the author of the work generally retains copyright).  Access to both full journals and individual articles can be costly, as are annual subscriptions to such material.  Academic book publications, both single authored and edited volumes, are also noticeably expensive, prohibitively so to individuals who are merely interested in reading about a subject in greater depth and to students who receive little public or private funding.

But since this is a blog primarily interested in archaeology and human skeletal remains from the past, let us first take a look at a few bioarchaeological examples to see how much it can cost to access knowledge within the discipline. Afterwards I’ll discuss some options available for both the reader and researcher of such material with regards to accessing and producing the material.

To Buy or Not to Buy: A Bioarchaeology Example

A book I have recommended on this site for budding bioarchaeologists, The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict (ed. by Knusel, C. & Smith, M. 2013, published by Routledge), costs £150.00 in hardback or £142.50 for a Kindle e-book (who needs good quality images!).  Another book I have mentioned on this site, and which I do heartily recommend, is Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains (by Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P. & Pérez, V. R. 2014, published by Springer) which, in hardback, retails for £84.53, paperback for £36.99, and in Kindle e-book form for £35.14.  All of these prices are taken from a popular online source of cheap books.  They are not cheap.  They are even more expensive on the publishers’ homepage (again, for example, the Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach publication retails for £117.00 on Springer’s own site for both hardcover and paperback volumes, or you can purchase individual chapters for £23.94).

Life at the Trowels Edge: Archaeology as Employment

It is a notorious joke that archaeology, as a commercial sector and as a profession, can be poorly paid compared to similar skilled sectors even though the staff are often highly educated and indeed highly skilled.  It is worth checking out Doug’s Archaeology entry on British Archaeology Jobs 2014-15 for a glimpse of the bounties that await those who dig, analyse or plan for a living, but remember this is before any consideration is made on the physical and mental toll that life as an archaeologist can take on a person over time.  (On a related side, currently archaeology isn’t very diverse either).

Although the archaeology commercial and academic sector is the target audience for such specialized publications, academic books (minus popular archaeology books) and journal articles can be, and are often are, prohibitively expensive to a large proportion of its core audience, as exampled above.  There are of course exceptions to this, but they are rare for seriously detailed archaeology publications.  The below (Figure 1 & 2) is something which I find frankly ridiculous and leads me to wonder if anyone buys an academic article from the publisher themselves, or whether the paywall is just there to part the fool from their money?

book review 31 50 dollars

Figure 1. To access this book review of Barrett & Armelagos’s  (2013) An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections on the International Journal of Palaeopathology’s (IJPP) journal site costs $31.50 (£22.26) for a one time download of the article. (Click to enlarge the image).

book book

Figure 2. To buy a firsthand copy of the An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections book online (with free international postage) it costs $27.15 (£19.99), a saving of $4.25 (£3.06) on accessing and reading the book review if you were not subscribed to the International Journal of Palaeopathology (or a member of the Palaeopathology Association for $65.00/£45.94 for a years subscription, which includes access to the IJPP). (Click to enlarge the image).

So, what are some of the options available for the reader and for the researcher who want to use, access and contribute to making knowledge open access? And what is open access any-how?

Open Access: Bits and Pieces

A relatively new movement, generally titled under the Open Access (OA) term, has been slowly building across the globe since the coalescence of its origins across a number of public statements and conferences from various academic and institution organisations that were made in 2002-2003 (see OA history here).  Generally speaking, the open access movement sees the paywalling of research as a major international problem as many researchers and non-researchers believe intellectual knowledge, and the information generated from scientific research (which can often be funded by taxpayer money via distributive research councils) more generally, should not be copyrighted and should be openly disseminated as a matter of course.  This involves both unrestricted access and unrestricted reuse.  I’ve stated that the movement, as academics would largely recognize the ‘Open Access’ movement, started in the early years of the 21st century yet it is also well-known that there have been various discipline, or research specific, open access track routes open for a good number of decades now.

What we have seen within the past few decades is a growth in the general international understanding of what open access is and what its general aims are.  With a number of major research journals (see a few paragraphs below) opening up their archives and making some of their current journal content open access, we are seeing a movement that has had influence on major publishers of research and influence on the researchers who both write and choose where to publish their research and how to publish it.  Not all research is capable of being openly published due to a number of reasons (again, some outlined below), but a general move towards the ability to freely access that information has taken hold within the digital age.  This is not without precedent or without congruence within digital media and the issues of access to that material – one only has to look at the damage that illegally downloading music and films has done, and continues to do, to those areas. (There is a handy metaphor here with the online music content providers of Tidal, Deezer or Youtube providing varying models of access – pick your poison!).  However innovation and invigoration can drive change within seemingly disparate media formats.

Open Access Button

From its launch in November 2013 the Open Access Button is an application aimed at enabling the public, students and researchers access to scholarly research and to report it when the research is blocked by a paywall.  The brainchild of Joseph McArthur and David Carroll, the Open Access Button aims to highlight to users were paywalled research may be legally available elsewhere on the web and also lets users report which articles are not free and for what purpose the individual wanted to access the paper (Figure 3).

Open access Button

Figure 3. The three stages of the Open Access Button and how it works. The button aims to promote the use of access to academic research across the globe. Image screenshot taken from website here. (Click to enlarge the image).

It really is that simple but this little button has been a fantastic addition to my own internet browser for when I cannot access research and I really do recommend its use.  The makers of the button, and the largely voluntary team that help keep it running, state that it is not a long-term solution and support advocacy to help promote the issues that open access faces within the academic and business worlds.

Academia & ResearchGate

There are also the social media sites available for scientists and researchers to join, in which the general public can also join or view research articles on.  Two of the most prominent and widely used are the United States based and the German based ResearchGate sites, both of which launched online in 2008 and which offer free access to researchers profiles where book chapters, articles, theses and dissertations can be uploaded, viewed and downloaded by the sites users.  Both sites are free to join and are geared towards similar audiences, including academic and corporate researchers and the larger medical world.  Academia boasts a total of 34 million plus academics using its website (as of March 2016) whilst ResearchGate has a user base of around 9 million plus (again March 2016).  Academia hosts more than 10 million plus scientific papers whilst according to the business fact sheet ResearchGate host 81 million plus publications.

It should be noted here that these sites operate as great content providers of published and non-published academic research, however not each title is necessarily uploaded as anyone who has had the frustrating feeling of finding a dream paper only to find the author hasn’t uploaded it will recall.  (Papers can be handily requested from the author themselves however).  The sites are also fairly great at leveling the playing field of being able to distribute unpublished research from relatively junior researchers, especially of theses and undergraduate/postgraduate dissertations, or the work of independent researchers.

As a pair the sites seek to distribute knowledge of scientific research and aim to help users of the sites to create research networks across the globe, which increase the spread and depth of knowledge.  Interestingly, although the Academia site ends in the .edu suffix it is not affiliated with any academic institution per se and instead receives a portion of its funding instead from venture capitalists or angel investors, just like ResearchGate, who invest in or provide financial backing for the company.

Returning to Sci-Hub & Digital Rights

Sci-Hub isn’t particularly a new site as such, nor has it moved into novel territory.  Rather it is both a symptom of the problem of academic publishing itself and it is a symptom of the greater role that digital media is playing in modern business practices, and the way that individuals and groups can circumvent both pre-digital and current business practices.  The issue of digital rights is an important issue to raise at this point, both in the specialized world that I am interested in (the discipline of bioarchaeology) and the wider world of how digital content and media is challenging traditional copyright law and the philosophical inquiry of intellectual ownership (not to mention testing the boundaries between the state and the individual).  Intellectual ownership is perhaps one of the most important points so far mentioned – lives across the globe are ruined due to the implementation of strict copyright laws in various countries, where individuals, such as Aaron Swartz and Diego Gomez, have been pursued by national agencies on account of sharing academic research in the public domain.

A part of this is the non-universal application of Digital rights management (DRM, sometimes labelled as copy protection) schemes which refer to access control technologies that are used to prevent the copyright infringement, modification and distribution of digital material and media formats (DVD’s, CD’s, e-books, etc.).  DRM controls are often used with academic publications or e-books where the reader is allowed a number of options to access paywalled research articles.  For example, the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (Figure 4) offer a number of approaches to read research articles that it publishes on the journal homepage for those readers who do not have access to the journal via an educational institution.  The instant access options (see below) include the ability to rent the article for a set period of time, to being able to read it on a cloud system, or to download it as a PDF file and then being able to print and save it.

IjOA access

Figure 4. The instant access article options available to reader with no institution access, courtesy of the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. The source of the screenshot can be found here. (Click to enlarge the image).

It is worth mentioning here that the majority of articles and e-books are widely available in the EPUB or PDF formats, including the bioarchaeology e-books mentioned at the beginning of this post, from journal websites directly and from more commercially-minded book sellers.  Shockingly it is well-known that e-books in particular can be stripped of their protective DRM status using Calibre and shared illegally (or at least against the licence of the copyright).  However, you may also just want to save a copy of the e-book that you have brought with your hard-earned money on more than one device.  Perhaps even more damningly e-books can be purchased on sites, such as Amazon, stripped of their DRM status, and returned to the seller for a refund of the original price whilst retaining a copy of the digital publication, essentially ripping off the merchant and publisher (and arguably the author(s) themselves).

A growing number of academic journals are including Gold or Green open access models as a standard means of accessing the research that they publish.  Most journals archive their articles as a matter of course and some are now offering free access to those archives after a set period of time has elapsed (often a number of years in order to make their business model work).  This should rightly be seen as a positive move towards more open research and data.

Brief Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, I cannot in all seriousness offer any conclusion.  Academic publishing seems to me to be partly mad (for the researcher) and partly genius (for the actual publisher) (Figure 5).  Are sites such as Sci-Hub, Academia, ResearchGate, etc. a part of the solution?  Possibly, but I don’t think they are long-term solutions as such but they are vitally important cogs of the publishing machine, cogs that allow dissemination and access to the scientific and humanities research that is so often funded by public money.  It is also clear that there is a bafflingly broad range of payment methods for the honest purchaser of a research article – you really do have to shop around to find the best deal, if you are willing to pay an exorbitant price for a single article.

academic publishing 101

Figure 5. It can be hard to explain to family and friends the nature of academic publishing. When I announced that I was researching and writing a book chapter for a forthcoming bioarchaeology volume I was often asked how much I would be paid for this, either in an advance or as a percentage of the sales of the volume. I could only reply with a half grin at the thought of countless hours of my free time being spent on writing, and re-writing, the chapter for no monetary gain (the contract stipulates that, as an author of one of the chapters in the volume, I can purchase a copy of it with a 1/3 off – hooray! The book will be sold for around £80 or so in hardback form. Still, one of my dreams achieved. Image copyright courtesy of Kirsty Sedgman, source. (Click to enlarge the image).

But, what if you are an archaeological researcher and you want people to read what you have to say?  What if you want to reach a larger audience with your work because you think it is important, and you do not want it to sit behind a paywall in which only a relatively small number of people have access to it?

We, as researchers, can take a stand against the locking away of the research that we generate by targeting the method of delivery of the research itself.  We could pick journals that support open access (journals such as the peer-reviewed International Journal of Palaeopathology which supports open access in part, or peer-reviewed Internet Archaeology, which is fully open access, others such as PLoS advocate open access via the use of the Creative Commons by Attribution licence with the authors agreement).  We can directly sell or market our research to the public and to interested researchers (see a previous post on Stuart Rathbone’s new volume, where you get to decide how much you want to pay to the researcher and publisher directly).  We can take advantage of new digital media, such as blogs or producing videos, opening up grand new avenues of academic and public interaction.  We could do these things, and we could do more to make our research accessible for the benefit of (almost) everyone.

But there is a sting in the tail of this approach.  No one researcher, if they are seeking a long-term career in academia, can do this approach alone.  Researchers need publications in journals where impact factors can be measured, where influence can be scored, where importance can be ranked.  Certain strands of research may be covered by legally binding non-disclosure agreements within public spheres, or may be curtailed by the ethical demands of the nature of the research itself.  The very existence of intellectual and image copyright in the digital realm faces huge challenges with unaccredited digital reproductions and illegal downloads littering the net.  (For osteo enthusiasts I heavily recommend you check out and join the pertinent Digital Ethics in Osteology JISCMail group for the establishment of a working group for best practice guidelines).  On top of this academia, as many know, can itself be relentlessly competitive which, together with the normal stresses and strains of a job which inhabits many roles under its terminology, can lead to rapid burnout through sheer exhaustion and financial worries.  What we publish and where we publish is but one factor facing the life of a researcher and sometimes we cannot control who has access to what, where, when, or why.

Further Information

  • The Open Access Button site can be found here.  Simply follow the instructions and add the plugin to your browser page.  Each time you come across a blocked, or pay walled, research article click the button to let the Open Access Button community know about it and have the site information indexed.  The button will suggest other possible accessible routes for the article, as well as alerting the community to your need to access the research. The data that you enter into the plugin, such as the reason for accessing the article and the location you are based in when doing so, will go towards helping build a global interactive map documenting the problems accessing research.
  • The Sci-Hub site can be found here.  Sci-Hub aims to eliminate all boundaries that stand in the way of accessing scientific research.  According to the website Sci-Hub has 47 million papers in its library and that number is set to grow.  Please be aware however that the site address may change or be mirrored elsewhere around the web, so it is recommended that a search engine is used to locate the current iteration of Sci-Hub.
  • The venerable social media sites for academics and researchers, and ResearchGate, are sites where individual researcher profiles can be created and where articles, book chapters and conference presentations can be uploaded for public view.  This is, in research consent to publish lingo, an example of fair use of sharing scientific work between an academic community.  The sites let you set up a profile of your academic affiliations and research interests, which help to find other individuals interested in these areas and forge research relationships across the world.  (Or leads to you intently refreshing your own profile page in the hope of enticing more readers to view your much-maligned undergraduate dissertation).

A Personal Anthropology of Driving

12 Mar

As I shift the gear stick I can feel the muscles tensing and releasing in my left arm; I can also imagine the tendons moving smoothly under the flesh, like steel lift cables, as the contracting muscles react to the electric jolts shooting down the nervous pathways spread across the body.  Both of my legs work in tandem with my left arm to leverage the accelerator and clutch pedals in a fluid series of movements to change the engines gear, whilst the right arm keeps the steering wheel stable.  My eyes keep a steady lookout at the road ahead, alert to the changes around me and the weather before me as the grey clouds break and heavy raindrops start to splatter the windscreen.  A quick flick of my index finger switches the front wipers on.  My ears are primed to the sounds of passing engines or the screaming sirens of emergency vehicles.  Perceptibly, but just, I can feel my heart beat that much faster as my right foot presses down on the accelerator.  At a stretch I’d say it was beating in time to the song playing, but that may be poetic licence and an exaggeration…


Broken Bones: Convoluted as a Medical History

It has been just over  a year since I first started driving in a daily capacity after passing my driving test a few years ago.  It has been a long and somewhat patient journey to get to this stage.  I had passed the theory and practical tests almost two years beforehand, but a well-timed pathological fracture to the right tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg (as, when a tibia breaks, the fibula, acting as a supporting lateral strut to the larger and more robust tibia bone and connected to it by a tough fibrous tissue, also often fractures) kept me off the road for a good while after having just ordered a car for the first time.  After healing from this fracture, the third such transverse fracture for these two bones, I was again ready to hop in the car and onto the road but this time as a fully legit legal driver no longer in his training vehicle.  My body, however, had different ideas as I went on instead to fracture the right humerus bone of the upper arm in an accident shortly before receiving the said car, delaying once again my time to drive and the time on the tarmac.

As a direct result of these two separate fracture incidents I gained two new titanium plates as permanent (and palpable) bodily additions and welcomed, though somewhat initially delayed, doses of entinox and morphine to subdue the immediate pain from the fractures themselves.  After the initial throbbing pain of a fractured bone, which is enhanced by the muscle spasms and contractions that often accompany a break of a major limb bone, the pain starts to wear off to a gentle ache once the limb has been stabilized, protected and padded from any further movement or injury.  Where necessary the bone is reduced to the correct alignment.  The reduction of the bone can, without anesthetic, be as painful as initially fracturing the bone itself.  As indicated above my fractures were treated surgically to correct long-standing problems using metallic alloys fashioned into a sturdy plate screwed onto the bone, which help prevent stress shielding and allow the natural responsive dynamics of bone modelling to continue.  It should be stated here that fractures can also be treated conservatively with limb immobilization and pain relief given whilst the bone heals itself, if a good enough reduction and union can be carried out without the need for surgical intervention.

right humerus fracture 2014 july

Humerous triptych. Pre-surgical and post-surgical fixation with the use of a permanent titanium plate on the right humerus (upper arm) following the pathological fracture I sustained in an accident in July 2014. As a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome, and the associated Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia (PFD) disorder where bone tissue is replaced with a fibrous tissues, my skeletal system is weaker than normal with a higher bone cell turnover rate. Pathological lesions in the bone, which can already be naturally deformed in size and shape, can lead to fractures (so-called ‘ground glass’ visual which can be found on x-rays of PFD bone). If reproduced elsewhere please credit as appropriate and inform the author of this blog.

I said it was a long and patient journey because the majority of the time spent waiting to drive was spent silently healing, my head often buried in an article or a book whilst devouring coffee.  It took a long time for the two pieces of the bone shafts to become one again as the callus formed and bridged the fracture site, the woven bone that is initially laid down changing over time to lamellar, or mature, bone.  So much so that in some cases bone fracture sites can be completely remodeled with little noticeable sign of a historic break ever having taken place.  During this time I was shuttled from appointment to appointment as a passenger in my assigned vehicle, wondering what it was like to dictate the journey and the destination, what it was like to take control.

On Starting

You may think that I would be wary of driving due to the above described frailties that my body imposed on my life, but I was ready to go and ready to face the roads of my country.  I was, and remain, eager to explore the freedom of the road alongside the exploration of the idea that that freedom represents in itself .  Many of my friends had started driving at 17 or 18 years old, had passed their tests and then drove aimlessly to gain experience on the roads around the regional towns, only to abandon their cars as they themselves started undergraduate courses at universities in other towns and other cities across the country.  Running a car, and having the money to fund the fuel bill, insurance, road tax and other associated costs, was an expense that many didn’t have and didn’t need at that time in their lives.

I too had started to learn to drive at that age but I soon gave it up, frustrated at the confusing methods used by the teacher and wary of the upcoming femoral fixation surgeries that I faced at that time to limit what appeared to be regular interruptions of forced stillness in my life.  I was happy to ignore the need to drive for another decade or so, not needing to do it for my undergraduate and postgraduate university courses and happy to use the trains and other methods of public transport for work and pleasure.  Indeed I came to love the numerous hours spent commuting to volunteer placements, work, and journeys to see friends and old companions.  It was time to relax, to speak to other passengers, to sit and to read or simply to sit and to stare at the countyside unfolding before me.

As every driver informs every non-driver, the convenience of the car is the epitome of freedom over the strict timetable of public transport.  As an ardent user and lover of the train (the misery of the delay is trumped by the friends made in the carriage and by the regulars who recognize you in turn), I remained somewhat skeptical of this claim.  What I had not counted on, however, was how it actually felt to have that freedom when I drove myself, both for my own pleasure and as a matter of commuting to and from my workplace.  There have been times when I am driving down an empty flyover at 1am with the twinkle of the industrial north to my right and the disappearance of the work office behind me and, as the song I’m listening to reaches its crescendo, I feel somewhat at peace with the world around me.  This is of course the thrill of riding an empty road listening to your favorite music and soaking in every last note sounded and vocal moaned.  But driving with a crowd is different, but it is different for me in particular.

To Drive, To Think

The car, for me, and the act of driving the car, means that I can merge in with the public body at large in a seemingly innocuous manner.  When I walk I use crutches for short distances and, for longer distances, I need and use a manual wheelchair.  As such it is an obvious difference that is noticed immediately on sight, one which signifies that I am different in some significant way from the majority.  I have had, and continue to have, people treat me differently in ways that they would not my friends or family, say by speaking to someone other than to me even when it is I who have raised the question or query, or by treating me in such a way which invokes past experiences of relatives or loved ones in states of profound impairment, despite the fact that my experiences and needs are different; that is in such cases my personal agency as an actor, or individual, with my own views, worries and questions, is abated.  I am viewed as a representative, therefore I am not an individual.  There is no such differentiation between specialized, or adapted, vehicles for the physically impaired, or disabled, individuals on the road compared with ‘normal’ cars – we all flow into the same lane or road.  (The caveat here is, of course, parking bays where disabled bays, alongside mother and child bays, are given proximity priority but I am strictly talking of when the car is in motion).

As such I am intrigued by the possibility of me in the car being treated in a similar manner as to everyone else who is present on the road.  That our actions speak for themselves, rather than the prejudices present on seeing the physical self as a first judgement.

I’ve briefly touched on my own experiences here and a few ideas above, but I want to move forward to acknowledge a few thoughts that have swirled around my mind over the past year or so on the open road.  I have become somewhat intrigued by the notion of driving, and the path of the road, as a cultural symbol and as a personal experience.  As such the following are thoughts, somewhat vague in nature, of driving.

A Marker By The Side

During the first six months of my experience as a driver I passed a personal marker on the road to work, a curve in the dual carriageway where a silent, single fluttering jersey indicated a geographical spot where a young life had been cut short, the car skidding from the road late at night killing one of its two occupants.  The jersey by the side of the road aptly demonstrated both the family’s singular pain and the danger of driving without due regard for the road conditions, a memento of the often tumult path of life.  It acted as a constant reminder for me then, when I saw it throughout the different seasons of the year, and I remember it clearly now in my mind’s eye.  It is easy to be self-contained in a car if you are driving alone, thinking only of yourself and not of the actions that you yourself have on others and those around you.  That the road is open and easy to see.  Yet drivers, especially of cars, can be subdued too easily by the sheltering in the cage of metal and glass.  Too easy it is to shut out both the weather and the sound of the road, too easy to become disconnected from what is in front, to the side, and behind.  Death is the ultimate outcome of driving dangerously or incorrectly, each person who drives should understand that they are both responsible for themselves, any passengers, and for the safety of those of who the car comes near, be it other vehicle drivers or pedestrians.

A friend who rides a motorcycle near year-round has spoken of their wish that each person who learns to drive does so first on a motorbike, where every second must be concerned, and concentrated with, the movement of your bike and your body, where the dangers in the driving blind spot become that much more pronounced as there is no clear boundary or distinction between the body and the tarmac.  It is an interesting idea, I think, and it shows that although the majority of the road users in most countries are car and truck drivers there are different experiences of using the road out there.  That even though we may be all drivers, we do not each experience the same sense of driving or the same sense of security from the vehicles we choose to use to get from A to B.  It is my suggestion that this is the experience of the other in this environment, the one that car and truck drivers must take extra special care for motorcyclists (as well as cyclists) due to the physical differences in the size of the vehicle and the position of the body on top of the vehicle, rather than the notion of what it feels like to be on the inside of it.

Thoughts on Interior vs Exterior

However, within the confines of my personal anthropology of driving, there is also a need to define the personal space within the interior of the car and the exterior public face of the vehicle, i.e. the personalization of the interior as a representation of the identity versus the need to drive responsibly and react accordingly to the changes in weather, traffic density and normal, or exceptional, road hazards.

We have all, for instance, seen the personalized number plates or stickers attached to the exterior surface of cars, or the use of rosary beads dangling from the rear view mirror, possibly signifying a religious connection to Catholicism or perhaps simply a physical item in which to grab and to hold, to reassure and to connect.  These are markers of expressed individual and group identity through the modified material culture of the car, which could be symbolic of the beliefs of the individual and, possibly, an indicator of the nature of their personality, although there must also be a distinction between these leaps and not infer beyond the unreasonable.  These do of course differ dependent on the circumstances.  The cliché of a boy impressing a girl by driving fast is indicative of the use of the vehicle to express dominance or perceived masculinity and not the expression of the material culture of the individual within the car.  There are, as such, different signifiers at work when we consider the expression of identity with regards to vehicle ownership and use (see photograph below).


‘Warning: if you value your life as much as I value this truck don’t mess with it!’. Seen in San Francisco in April 2015. Photograph, taken with a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

So what is in my car?  You can expect to find the odd physio stretching band, placed in the car from before I started to drive so I could exercise the muscles of the right arm on the way to and from work, to regain the majority of the extension of the antebrachium back.  (I have permanently lost the ability to fully extend my arm due to the somewhat intimidating and unnerving bend of the right humerus – it isn’t immediately noticeable, the bend, but when I point it out in person you may be surprised and somewhat horrified at what once was and now what is).  Look into the main storage box and you’ll find a whole heap of CD’s covering a fairly wide range of genres and musical styles, from the cut and thrust of Fugazi‘s 13 Songs to the emotional tape loops of Steve Reich‘s Different Trains and Guitar Counterpoint.  You could probably tell that the CD medium is the one in which I invest the most in for music listening just via the car haul of discs themselves.  I’m forever rotating my classic selection of favoured CD’s with new albums I’ve purchased more recently, such as Joanna Newsom‘s Divers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, or Sufjan Steven‘s hauntingly beautiful Carrie and Lowell album.  The car, now, has become one of my prime personal music venues, enhanced by the visuals on the road and the acuity of speaker-to-body distance.  The drive to and from work allows for the almost total immersion of sound to radiate around me, to envelope the body and invigorate the mind as I drive.

The expression of music is carried on in the material contents of the car by three or four worn drumsticks perched precariously in the front chair’s backseat pocket.  The drum sticks head and necks are pretty worn away, indicative of their active life beating the various tom toms, snares, and high hats of drum kits across the rehearsal and practice rooms of my home town.  If you dig a bit deeper it is quite possible you may find a roll of film (now I’m really harking back to pre-digital technology!), indicative of the ownership of my beloved cheap Pentax camera, which sometimes finds a temporary home in the car for when I am out and about; it is sometimes paired with my cheaper-still digital camera.  Nestled in the front passenger seat is a battered copy of Will Self’s experimental novel Shark, a copy of which I convince myself I will finish one day.  (Regardless of the growing stack of novels and non-fiction books that mount beside my bed.  Karl Ove Knausgård’s Min Kamp circle of books has taken my recent fancy as well as Janine Di Giovanni‘s more somber documentation of Syria’s ongoing destruction in her book The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria).  It is, I think, also an expression of the need to read in down times, where I find myself waiting for one reason or another.

So these are the two big things you may notice in my car – music and books, but what does the car and the road say about us from a non-individual status?  What laws do we follow and why, what are the roads laid out before us and why do we subscribe to a set of nationally, and internationally, prescribed laws?

State Expression

As such it could be highlighted here that the need to observe the rules of the road are, essentially, laid in law by whichever, or whoever, is in control of the land itself.  That is, the road, and the population who drive on that road, are obeying the rules in a manner prescribed by the ruling power and as such act in that way.  This could be a potentially reductionist approach to understanding how countries or cultures approach driving and the road network, however it is also an intriguing area of interest.  Allow me to expound briefly on the above point.  The expression of the state is manifested by the obligation of the driver to obey the rule of the law on the road, whilst the interior environment of the car allows for a personal reflection of the identity via its material culture.  Aligned to this are group identities expressed in this way – they can be cultural, religious, personal, or idiosyncratic in nature.  We’ll take a very quick global tour to explore some of this expressions of individuality within group expression.  I’ll also highlight some of the cultural restrictions placed on car drivers in different countries as it can be easy to think that each country’s laws are similar to one another, but cultural restrictions play an important part in this as a projection of the country’s laws and beliefs.

Road Changes & Cultural Restrictions

Road space rationing is the term used to describe the strategy to limit road users using particular methods of restriction.  These can include methods such as no-drive days, alternate day travel, and general restrictions on road access.  The strategies are used globally as temporary or permanent measures to decrease vehicle use and environmental impact, largely in major cities but also with increasing use in major industrial countries such as China and India.  A similar method to this is the use of car-sharing lanes where privileged road, or lane, access is given to cars containing more than one person as an incentive to cut single person travelling.

In London, England, the permanent Congestion Charge Zone was introduced in 2003 to combat the growing number of vehicles entering the center of the capital city, as a means of cutting down environmental damage and of limiting the sheer volume of traffic.  Bikes, and notorious Boris Bikes, have been particularly targeted as the green and safe way to travel within the city center alongside the extensive public transportation routes.  Transport for London (TfL) have stated that there has been a 10% reduction in vehicle traffic in the decade since the introduction of the congestion charge, which has found favor with a number of residents of the city.  In the capital of France, Paris, a temporary scheme whereby owners of cars with odd or even number plates were not allowed into the city on that particular day or days was in place during a particularly polluted period in 2014.  Temporary measures such as this are largely aimed at immediately cutting smog that threatens, or has, blanketed the city in question.

Other methods include closing down particular routes or roads during particular days.  In São Paulo, Brasil’s biggest city, a normally packed 3.5 km section of the Minhocão highway (nicknamed ‘the Big Worm’) is returned for the use of pedestrians and cyclists only each weekday evening, Saturday afternoons and full Sundays during the summer period.  Whilst Minhocão has been partially closed to vehicles for 26 years, there has been a new movement to close down Avenida Paulista in the city on Sundays as well.  The schemes in São Paulo is used as an urban reclamation of roads, or transportation routes, as a matter to regain urban walkways and increase the use of public transportation and finds similarities with a number of schemes across the globe.  For instance in New York City, USA, the reclamation of the 1.45 km long High Line, an old railroad renovated as an elevated walkway festooned with shrubbery, has seen it become a major attraction within the city itself in its own right.


The car can become symbolic as in this case where it is the icon of a city forever on the move. The New York taxi is one such symbol and if encountered on its home turf is often accompanied by an incessant honking of the horn and the permanent background noise of a thousand ticking engines running over, forever stopping and starting. Photograph, on a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit the author as appropriate.

New York City is both famous and infamous for its classic yellow cabs that litter the city.  To any driver from Europe, the roads of American cities can present a challenge as American cities are often built on the grid pattern, much like the ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom.  In such a busy and compacted city as New York this invariably means that the traffic never truly gets a chance to flow due to the traffic lights at each and every corner dictating who goes where when.  On a visit to the city that I was lucky enough to have last year I couldn’t help but notice the truly gigantic sounding board that the multi-storied buildings of Manhattan presented as the taxi drivers and drivers throughout the city incessantly honked their horn.  It surprised me, but also moved me in a way I had not expected – I was in the city of the movies, arguably the heart of the country itself in all of its architectural splendor and Freudian intimidation alongside the metaphorical American Dream representations.

As I come to the conclusion of this post I have presented a quick introduction to some of my thoughts, rounding down to international approaches to do with the increase in the number of the drivers and the damage wrought by diesel and petrol hungry engines in city centers, not to mention the natural environment.  Yet there is much more that I feel I ought to write, I haven’t touched on the interesting subculture of young male drivers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in which steam is let off by drifting (or Tafheet) and other associated vehicular activities, not the mention the incredibly strict restrictions placed on females in the country (females are forbidden from driving, although this is not illegal per se, it is heavily policed with punishments handed out for females caught driving).  Nor have I mentioned the fascinating subculture of bōsōzoku in Japan, which centers around the customization of cars and motorcycles.

The post describing these subcultures can perhaps wait for another day as this post has reached a fairly substantial length already.

Disengaging the Engine

So those are my brief thoughts on a personal anthropology of driving with a few nods to international views and explorations.  Nothing substantial, just a brief overlay of ideas that percolate through my brain as I slip on my seat belt, engage the engine and accelerate away onto the tarmac before me and into the night ahead of me.

Influences & Further Reading

BBC & British Library Sound Archive. 2015. Noise: A Human History. An Ever Noisier World. Episode 29 of 30. BBC Radio 4.

Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P. & Pérez, V. R. 2014. Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains. New York: Springer.

Robb, P. 2005. A Death In Brazil: A Book of Omissions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.