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The Face of Academic Copyright & Sci-Hub: A Quick Look with Reference to the Open Access Button, Academia.edu 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 Academia.edu 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, Academia.edu 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).

Introducing Show Us Your Research! An Open Access Anthropological Project

17 Jun

One of the aims of this blog, especially more so since it has grown in the past few years, is to highlight the opportunities available to both bioarchaeology researchers and the public alike.  As a previous post highlighted, never has there been a better time to be involved with bioarchaeological research and never has it been so open before to members of the public to engage with it (for instance, try your hand here or check out some resources here!).  The communication of the aims, and the importance of the discipline, in the aid of understanding past populations and their lifestyles is of vital interest if we are to remain a dynamic and responsive field.  As such it gives me great pleasure to announce that, starting from now, I’ll be helping to disseminate the results of the Show Us Your Research! (SUYR!) project spearheaded by researchers at the University of Coimbra and the University of Algarve in Portugal.

suyr!

The SUYR! logo. Image credit courtesy of GEEvH  at the Universidade de Coimbra.

The SUYR! project aims to promote the projects that archaeologists and anthropologists have been involved in by diminishing the gap between the researchers and the public by regular concise publications aimed at the public (Campanacho et al. 2015).  The project is aimed at researchers from the anthropological and archaeological fields from around the globe and accepts entries on methodologies, artefacts, theories, site studies and pathological studies, amongst other topics.  To me this is a really exciting opportunity for early career archaeologists and anthropologists and one that I am thrilled to disseminate the results of.  It is hoped that the project expands into interviews with researchers as well!

SUYR! 2015 Entry No. 4: Carina Marques and a Palaeopathological Approach to Neoplasms

The latest entry in the series focuses on malignant tumours (or neoplasms) in the palaeopathology record.  The entry, submitted by researcher Carina Marques who is based at the Research Centre for Anthropology and Heath (CIAS) at the University of Coimbra, focuses on the skeletal evidence for malignant tumours in archaeological populations by investigating prevalence and typology of their presence.  Cancer, as the World Health Organisation figures testify, is a major cause of human mortality internationally; however their neoplastic natural history, physical manifestation and evolution remains something of a ‘challenging endeavor’ (Marques 2015).

As such Marques has studied and analysed Portuguese reference collections of numerous skeletal remains dating from the 19th to 20th centuries to try to identity and catalog neoplasms in the aim to ask how precise the pathological diagnosis of malignant tumours are in fairly modern skeletal remains.  The research highlighted that the skeletal manifestations of tumours can vary and that they can present similarly to other pathological processes which can be hard to identify down to a single process.  However, the research also documented that malignant tumours often left their mark on bone, particularly metastases (after the cancer had spread from one area of the body to another).  The research has helped produce a body of data that characterizes neoplastic prevalence in these populations, providing an important historical context for the evolution of neoplasms.  Furthermore Marques (2015) has also helped clinicians identify and characterize the early lesions that can often be missed on radiological examination.

How to Submit Your Research

There are a number of formats in which submissions to SUYR! can be made – these include either a 500 word abstract of your research project, a picture or photograph with a note of no more than 200 words, or via a video lasting 3 to 5 minutes detailing the research undertaken and its importance (the specifics of the video format and style can be found here).  Remember that you are writing for interested members of the public who want to hear and read about the interesting research topics that archaeologists and anthropologists are pursuing and why.  These necessarily precludes that the use of isolating jargon is limited and that the writing is clear to understand.  More importantly, this fantastic opportunity levers the researcher with a communication channel to both the academic and public spheres alike.  SUYR! has three major themes of interest (bioanthropology, archaeology, and social and cultural anthropology) for the submissions and three researchers to contact for each interest.  The following image highlights who to contact to send your research to:

suyrinfo

Subjects of interest in the SUYR! project and the contact details to send the research to. Image credit courtesy of the Universdade de Coimbra.

How to Get on Board

If you are a blogger, a microblogger (ie a Twitter user), or merely want to share your interest in the fields of archaeology and anthropology to your family and friends, then you too can join in spreading word about SUYR!  Simply copy and paste the website and share with your circle of family and friends.  The articles are freely available from the main SUYR! site.  If you are a college or university student who is interested in highlighting the various projects discussed via the project then perhaps you could even print out the pages and put them up on the community noticeboard in your department.  If you are an active researcher within the above fields then why not consider sending in your own past or current research?  This is a great opportunity to highlight the knowledge, breadth and depth, of archaeological research and the value of bioarchaeological research to the public.

Further Information

  • The archives of the SUYR! project can be found here for 2014 and here for 2015 years.  Both of the years papers detail some really interesting projects going on in the anthropology fields, particularly in bioarchaeology.  For example, Dr Charlotte Henderson kicks off the 2014 papers with an exciting and enlightening piece on the ability, and problems, of osteologists to infer occupation from skeletal remains.  Later on in the year Victoria Beauchamp and Nicola Thorpe investigate the work of The Workers’ Education Association (WEA) in England and assess the impact of using heritage as a teaching aid.  Both papers can be downloaded for free here.  In 2015 Dave Errickson (a friend and a previous guest blogger on this site) has an entry on his work digitizing forensic evidence using 3D scans and laser scanning.  The site itself is available to translate into a number of languages by simply clicking the scroll down box on the right hand side.
  • The Grupo de Estudos em Evolucao Humana (Group of Studies in Human Evolution), at the University of Coimbra, have a website highlighting the ongoing initiatives, activities and projects by the members of the group.  This includes hosting conferences, workshops and open days on any number of evolutionary topics.  You can find out more information here.

Bibliography

Campanacho, V., Pereira, T. & Nunes, M.J. 2015. Show Us Your Research! An Anthropological and Archaeological Publication for the Greater Public. Palaeopathology Newsletter. 170: 26.

Marques, C. 2015. A Palaeopathological Approach to Neoplasms: Skeletal Evidence from the Portuguese Identified Osteological Collections.  Show Us Your Research! 2015, No. 4. (Open Access).

Blogging Bioarchaeology: Advice on Best Practice, Engagement and Outreach

28 May

The latest issue of the peer-reviewed Internet Archaeology journal is titled Critical Blogging in Archaeology and features an article titled Bones, Bodies, and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology by two notable bloggers, Kristina Killgrove and Katy Meyers Emery (Emery & Killgrove 2015).  Killgrove runs the Powered by Osteons site focusing on Roman bioarchaeology, classical archaeology and bioanthropology, whilst Emery runs Bones Don’t Lie, a site focusing on mortuary archaeology, bioarchaeology and reviewing the pertinent literature.  I admit here to having an interest in the article as I am, amongst others, one of the bloggers discussed in the article who also helped to provide a quote for the article.

Regardless, I feel that it is important to raise the publishing of this article as it represents an excellent example of an overview of the pertinent issues in blogging bioarchaeology.  These include understanding the benefits, both personal and professional, of running a bioarchaeology blog, understanding the role and importance of authority in blogging archaeology (see also Richardson 2014) and advice on best practice for bioarchaeology bloggers themselves.  In a way this article specifically builds upon a small raft of recent archaeology and anthropology-blogging focused papers (de Konig 2013, Richardson 2014) by focusing only on bioarchaeology as a still nascent archaeology blogging specialism dominated by several main sites.

As Emery and Killgrove (2015) highlight, there is a remarkably small online presence of bioarchaeologists, even though there is a large public hunger for knowledge on the methods used in both the bioarchaeological and forensic sciences.  The authors also raise one of the interesting blogging demographic trends in bioarchaeology – the strong representation of females compared to males in skeletal-based specialisms, such as biological anthropology or palaeopathology. This is something that is replicated in the discipline itself across both the academic and commercial field.  I won’t go any further into the article here as it is wonderfully open access and deserve to be read in its entirety.  I particularly recommend any researchers interested in archaeological blogging to read the article as it offers sage advice that can apply to the whole field rather than just the specialism of bioarchaeology.

It’d be somewhat remiss of me if I did not mention here the other fantastic bioarchaeology bloggers and their sites also referenced in the post.  I’d highly recommend checking them out and seeing what they have to offer as each blogger bring their own unique view on bioarchaeology and tackle a wide variety of subjects within the discipline.  They are as follows:

  • Bone Broke, by Jess Beck – an excellent site to learn about the finer points of human osteology and then have the opportunity to test yourself on the bone quizzes.  Keep an eye out for the various mini series that Jess runs on the site, from anatomy vocabularies to the osteology everywhere series.  The occasional travelogue also highlights the travels that the author heads out on.
  • Powered By Osteons, by Kristina Killgrove – sick of the inaccuracies in the TV show Bones?  Head over to PbO to learn about the real methods used in the study of skeletal material in forensic circumstances.  The site includes fascinating research posts on Roman bioarchaeology, a remarkably little studied specialism on the classical world.  Furthermore you can entertain yourself by looking through Who Needs An Osteologist series to figure out which skeletal element has been misplaced.
  • Bones Don’t Lie, by Katy Meyers Emery – a regularly updated site which features a wide review of current and past academic articles focusing on mortuary and funerary archaeology.  Katy carefully dissects the context and content of the articles and highlights the most important and pertinent parts for the reader, an invaluable service in a world where many bioarchaeological articles are still locked behind a paywall, inaccessible to most.
  • Deathsplanation, by Alison Atkin – Black death research galore as Alison elucidates the finer points of bioarchaeological research as applied to historic populations devastated by this still captivating medieval epidemic.  Keep an eye out for her series on disability in archaeology and for the occasional entertaining and thought provoking art pieces.
  • Strange Remains, by Dolly Stolze – Dolly’s site focuses on the stranger side of death and human remains, whether this is the varying approach that humans have taken to body deposition or funerary treatment, or to the more somber forensic aspects of skeletal recovery and analysis.

Alternatively if you yourself are a bioarchaeologist, or have an interest in bioarchaeology, and want to build up your communication skills and outreach experience then I’d advise joining the crowd and get blogging!

Bibliography

de Koning, M. 2013. Hello World! Challenges for Blogging as Anthropological Outreach. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 19 (2): 394-397. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12040.

Emery, K. M. & Killgrove, K. 2015. Bones, Bodies, and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology. Internet Archaeology. 39. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.5. (Open Access).

Richardson, L-J. 2014. Understanding Archaeological Authority in a Digital Context. Internet Archaeology. 38. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.38.1. (Open Access).

Bits & Pieces: Open Archgaming Research, Buried, Sulawesi Art, & Desert Island Archaeologies

9 Oct

There have been a few things I’ve been meaning to highlight recently on the blog, but I thought I’d just highlight them in a single entry for your pleasure!

  • As readers of the blog may be aware I’ve never really covered archaeological gaming before.  I’ve been reading the fantastic Archaeology of Tomb Raider blog by Kelly M for a while though, and I understand that gaming is playing a fundamental role in how the general population are introduced to archaeology and cultural heritage at relatively early ages.  Gaming archaeology is fast becoming a unique way of conducting research at the intersection of gaming technology and archaeological research, often using multidisciplinary approaches.  I’ve recently discovered the delightful Archaeogaming blog, where the author has decided to be fully open about his research plans.  This includes posting copies of his original PhD research proposal and the revised edition that he has now submitted to the University of York, which has a recognised digital archaeology research cluster.  The department also offer a new MSc in Digital Archaeology, which looks pretty exciting.  The fact that Archaeogaming put up his research proposals is a great breakdown in the often secretive world of PhD applications (though of course many blogs are also breaking this down).  The posts were particularly informative for me in understanding how to structure a proposal – the content was interesting, invigorating and now I want to know what happens next!  I wish Archaogaming good luck.
    —–
  • The blog actually led me to me next port of call which is the fantastic free online text base game Buried, produced by University of York researcher Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham.  The game, produced for Tara’s MSc dissertation as a proof of concept and entered into the University of York’s 2014 Heritage Jam, offers the gamer an interactive opportunity to learn about archaeology by role-playing in a wide variety of opportunities.  As Tara states on her website: You play as a young archaeologist who has just returned from a field season and is grappling with the ups and downs of personal life, academia, archaeology, the past, the present and hopes for the future (Copplestone 2014).  The game itself is fairly short, but it is packed full of background on the process and meaning of archaeological investigation, covering a number of different theoretical underpinnings and approaches.  You can also change a wide variety of options so the game is instantly re-playable for any number of times.  I cannot recommend taking part in the game enough, it is a thoroughly rewarding and innovative experience which offers a stimulating environment  to learn both about archaeology and yourself.  Archaeogaming also a full great review of the game here, which is what initially alerted me to Buried’s existence.  Tara also has a number of different archaeology games at her main site here, it is well worth a look!

    buriedgame tara copplestone

    The opening shot of the fantastic ergodic literature style game Buried, by Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham. Not only does this game introduce to the public what post-excavation archaeology is like but it also interlays the information and choices that the player can make, making the game eminently re-playable. Click to play here. Image credit: Copplestone & Botham.

  • Meanwhile I recently had the great chance to participate in UCL researcher Lorna Richardson’s Desert Island Archaeologies project.  Lorna’s interesting project is aimed at highlighting the Top Ten archaeology books that you would take away with you if you were deserted on an island in the middle of a great vast ocean.  So far there have been 14 very interesting entries from around the world of archaeology, with people such as BAJR’s David Connolly and Microburin’s Spence Carter (Yorkshire central!) taking part in it.  As you’d probably expect by now my entry was fairly eclectic, mixing the core human osteology and bioarchaeology textbooks with some of my favourite literature (bit of García Márquez) and travel books (Can’t beat Cees Nooteboom!).  If you’re an archaeologist or at all involved in cultural heritage or history I recommend sending Lorna an email saying  you’d be interested in participating.  One of my personal favourite entries so far is the succinct archaeologist Tom Cromwell, who links to a beautiful article by Kent V. Flannery (1982) detailing the wonderful world of archaeology in a creative and eye-opening piece of writing.  The Flannery article is also the origin of the wonderful phrase that archaeology is the most fun you can have with your pants on!
    —–
  • Finally there has been some incredible news regarding the cave art (human hand stencils and animal paintings) in Sulawesi, Indonesia.  The extensive and beautiful hand and animal markings located on the Maros-Panpkep karst landscapes of Sulawesi, originally thought to date to under 10,000 years old or so,  has now been re-dated using new uranium-series dating of coralloid speleothems to around 27,000 to 40,000 years old (Aubert et al. 2014).  This is amazing news as it makes it some of the oldest cave art in the world (that is parietal art), located far outside of Western Europe, which has long been thought to be the nexus of this crucial development of art by Homo sapiens (Roebroecks 2014: 170).  The research also just goes to show the value of re-investigating old archaeological sites using new technologies and calibrations.  Indonesia is fast becoming of the most interesting archaeological landscapes.  For further information the BBC have an article here with some great photographs of the site and the Guardian article can be found here.  Nature also have a video up here, which places the artwork into the context of human artwork globally.
sulawesi

One of the panels of rock art at the site of Leang Timpuseng highlighting the dated coralloid speleotherms (that formed and acculminated after the art work was completed) and associated paintings. The kartst limestone environment of Maros-Pangkep is rich in such rock art works (Aubert et al. 2014: 224).

10/09/14 Correction

Sulawesi was incorrectly spelled on the initial blog entry.  Further to this the latest scientific articles have been added to the bibliography and detailed in the entry about the site above.

Bibliography

Aubert, M., Brumm, A., Ramli, M., Sutikna, T., Saptomo, E. W., Hakim, B., Morwood, M. J., van den Bergh, G. D., Kinsley, L. & Doesseto, A. 2014. Pleistocene Cave Art from Sulawesi. Nature. 514: 223-227.

Flannery, K. V. The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archaeology of the 1980s. American Anthropologist. 84 (2): 265-278. (Open Access).

Roebroeks, W. Art on the Move. Nature. 514 : 170-171.

BABAO Online Forum Goes Live Today

9 Sep

The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology have produced an online forum for both members and members of the public to join and discuss topics relating to biological anthropology and osteoarchaeology.  The site goes live today and it is available to join for free.  BABAO, The organisation who encourage and promotes the study of biological anthropology in understanding humanity’s past and present, is also open to all and the association acts as an advocate to encourage discussion and guidance regarding new research, investigation, and the study of human and non-human primates.

BABAO

The BABAO website header, highlighting both human and non-human primate remains. Image credit: BABAAO 2014.

This is an important step for BABAO as it is a direct attempt at reaching out to both individuals involved in the field and to members of the public, aiming to help educate and inform public debate and knowledge about these often specialist topics.  The site itself is split into different sections, with the majority of the focus on the main topics of research for BABAO members (such as forensic anthropology, human evolution, osteoarchaeology and palaeopathology).  However there are also areas (including media, publish or perish! and opportunities) where it is hoped that researchers and interested individuals can share information, tips and hints on how to prepare publications, apply for grant proposals, apply for jobs and also share favourite websites, etc.

So I heartily encourage readers of this blog to register, join up and get involved.  You can find me there under the moniker of this blog (thesebonesofmine) and I shall hope to see you there!

Further Information

  • BABAO’s online forum can be found here.  The BABAO Code of Ethics and Code of Standards for the handling, storage and analysis of human remains from archaeological sites, can be found here.
  • The association’s 16th annual conference is taking place this week on the Friday 12th to Sunday 14th of September at the University of Durham.  More information on the four sessions running at the conference (Body and Society, BioAnth and Infectious Disease, New Biomolecuar Methods, and an Open Session) can be found here at the University of Durham’s website.

Gaming Archaeology: Digging Up E.T.

1 May

Imagine finding thousands upon thousands of copies of a game thought long-lost (well at least since the 80’s).  You may think they’d be worth a fortune, you may wonder who did could fund such a scheme, or you may simply wonder why it would be worth digging or searching for the games in the first place.

Courtesy of NPR and The New Statesman I’ve found out about a pretty interesting project to recover the mythically dumped 1983 E.T. movie tie-in game cartridges from a suspected landfill site in Alamogordo, New Mexico.  Although the rumour of the Atari company dumping truck fulls of this wildly unsuccessful tie-in game was long thought to have been an urban legend, the film director Zak Penn and associated archaeologists have managed to find, excavate and recover thousands of the said game from the landfill site in the southern US state, proving that Atari really did dump their sadly unloved game en mass.

Is this really archaeology though?*  In a way it is as it fits the basic concept of recovering the material remains of past populations and cultures.  The video game cartridge itself is now a relic in the modern gaming age, an age where games can be downloaded and played almost anywhere in the world, on a wide range and ever-increasing variety of platforms.

Cartridge and retro gaming still retains a strong and vibrant audience however, and the media attention that this uncovering has gained has gone some way to prove that there is still a deep interest in what was then the emerging gaming market.  It is highly likely that the above game also represents a touch point for a certain gaming generation audience, a period where money flooded into the development for the nascent gaming industry.  Indeed, amongst a selection of my own  friends you only have to mention the 1997 Nintendo 64 James Bond game Goldeneye and you are instantly met with misty looks of nostalgia and fond memories spilling from their mouths (and mine).

My immediate thought on hearing of the uncovering of thousands of copies of the game?  Where are they going to go!  There is a persistent rumour that the games may number in the millions, but this has yet to be seen.  It is likely that there will be a vibrant market for such early video gaming memorabilia, as keen gamers, for instance, have already set up shop at the site to play the copies that are coming straight out of the ground.

Yet the story of the E.T. games, resting in their thousands unloved and out of sight in a dumping ground in New Mexico for many years also reminded me of a challenge currently facing archaeology in the UK.  This is the issue of storage space.  Currently the storage space in museums and commercial units for the produce of archaeological investigations, namely the artefacts, environmental samples and archive documents produced or excavated during a projects lifetime, is already at bursting point in many institutions and organisations throughout the UK.  Thousands, if not millions, of artefacts and environmental samples are waiting to be either recorded, preserved, stored, curated or displayed.  The planning and excavation of archaeological sites is but one facet of archaeology as a whole, but every archaeological excavation (if it is necessary) must budget and plan for the storage and accession of the artefacts uncovered and of reports, plans and documents produced before, during and after the actual act of digging.

It is not an area of simple answers, nor could I suggest one here.  It is an area that I hope to explore in future blog posts as this is a rich area for study, and one intricately linked with the Open Access movement, digital media and the changing face of heritage in the UK.

* Yes!

Update 02/05/14

It seems as if I was too hasty to think that no archaeologists were involved with the project.  Comments on this post, from the ever helpful Doug (of Doug’s Archaeology) and from John of Where The Hell Am I fame, have highlighted the fact that archaeologists have been involved from the off in helping to manage the project, and locate and excavate the E.T. games.  You can read a pretty fantastic interview her with Andrew Reinhard, the lead archaeologist for the project, which discusses the contextualisation of the project.  Team member Bill Caraher also has a blog where he has written about the Atari project, and you can read a fascinating post here discussing the often limited mention of archaeologists in mainstream media.

I often try to let a blog post slowly materialise as I think about an angle and gather sources together to help form a wider view on a particular issue, but I wrote this particular entry pretty fast after reading a few mainstream media articles highlighting the project.  As an archaeological blogger (although arguably leaning towards osteoarchaeology more) I made the relatively fatal but benign error of not digging deeper and actually discovering myself that archaeologists were involved in this fascinating project.  So I thank the commenters on this post for keeping me right and for pointing me in the direction of the archaeologists themselves.

Blogging Archaeology: Future Goals of Blogging

14 Apr

This is the fifth and final entry in a blogging carnival that Doug Rocks-Macqueen, of Doug’s Archaeology, started back in November last year.  Just another quick recap: the whole idea of this blog carnival was started by Doug after he saw that the Society for American Archaeology are having their 79th annual conference in Austin, Texas, this month (in fact only a week or two away).  Doug specifically noticed that they are including a session on the rise of blogging in archaeology and, since he cannot be there himself, he thought it was pertinent to start a blogging carnival online to get the archaeology blogosphere alive with monthly questions.  The questions were posted on his site in the first week of each month, and can still be viewed for anybody interested in taking part still.

blogging-archaeology111133333333

Are all blogs the same? The beauty of blogging lies in both versatility and the independence of the format. (Image credit, remixed with MS Paint).

Last month a total of 13 wonderful bloggers took part in February’s entry for the carnival.  The question was actually open-ended and as Doug’s states he thought he had almost killed the carnival!  But I think we can all say that February was a pretty busy month all round for most people.  My entry, which can be read here, tackled the meaning of the blog, and blogging in general, because I’d largely felt that this whole carnival has been a wonderful exercise in self-reflection.  And I have to admit I do enjoy writing about the ecology of blogging, it really is a wonderful world of diversity in the archaeology blogging area with all manner of topics tackled and approaches used. Remember that if you are an archaeology blogger (in any way whatsoever) then feel free to jump right in and join.  Answering the past blogging questions is very much welcomed at any time.  The previous months questions can be found here, jump in and join – I highly recommend it!

For this month’s topic Doug has asked about the future of blogging, of goals and aims we’d like to achieve or changes we’d like to see implemented.  45 fantastic archaeology bloggers have already replied so far and Doug has done a very nice little round-up of the final entries.  I finish as I started, as once again I am pretty late with my entry!  So let’s get this final blog arch carnival entry on the go…

Blogging the Future

This blog has recently passed 1 million views, which is pretty cool I think for something that I started in my bedroom whilst thinking about the forthcoming Masters degree, and more specifically about what I could do to try to improve my knowledge before I started the degree.  Now I am post-Masters, looking towards a few possible futures on the horizon.  My email inbox for this blog has started to ping a bit more than usual recently, with various different requests or offers starting to arrive.  Everything from students wanting to know more about the human skeleton and asking questions on essays and research, publishing houses informing me of their latest open access journals, to offers of review books for exhibitions or novels.  It is pretty interesting and I am very much enjoying helping out where I can, especially in being able to help share knowledge and advice, or to inform a reader on what collections or museums to check out for human osteological collections.  This is something that I should probably write a post about, now I come to think about it.

But I think the future for the blog is pretty obvious at the moment.  I want to do more, where and if I can.  I repeat my clarion call for guest blog entries.  I want to interview more archaeologists and bioarchaeologists, so if you are interested get in touch.  I also need to revisit a fundamental pillar of the blog and finish the Skeletal Series blog entries.  Those entries in the draft folder that don’t extend beyond a half-finished bibliography and a choice selection of key words?  I should finish those!  One of my recent previous posts, Future Steps, preempted last month’s blogging archaeology carnival question and highlights some thoughts on the future of this blog, including trying to gather together the skeletal series posts in a PDF or a printout form, and the possible use of photoessays for some future blog entries.

Other bloggers have mentioned that they see the future of blogging utilizing the integration of video blogging and podcasts into primarily written word blogs.  Whilst I can definitely see the future potential and audience for this, it is not something that I am currently considering or pursuing for a variety of reasons just yet.  What I do think is important is to approach the topic of archaeology in a variety of ways, interacting with an audience using various formats.  Bloggers, as a rule of thumb, are quite individual and diverse in their use of style, presentation and technology.  This is their strength in maintaining both their independence and in their means of communication to a diverse and open audience.

Standing Alone

Bioarchaeology and human osteology are generally well represented within the ecology of archaeology blogging, offering as it does an often intimate portrait of the human being within archaeology itself.  This, though, is a fairly recent trend, but it is certainly a trend on an upward surge at the moment.  It can be pretty hard to get noticed if you are blogging about archaeology and a specialism within archaeology, therefore I would always suggest that you try to pin point a unique selling point if possible.  Something slightly different that other bloggers have not tackled or have only briefly touched upon.

Bloggers are also essentially stand alone operations, where the blog is often tied to that one individual.  Plenty of bloggers use their real names and include photographs of themselves, while some just use their blog name as their identity.  For a long time I withheld my full name on the blog as I wanted it to truly stand alone, to be attached only to itself.  Partly this was due to just outright curiosity as to how it would be received, if at all, and to the fact that I had some privacy concerns.  Personal thoughts aside, there has been real strides with regards to the acceptance and value of blogging.  But I don’t think funding bodies or academic institutions value the blog format enough as a form of education outreach, and I hope that this is something that changes in the future.

Brief Thoughts

I’m currently re-reading The Rebel by the French philosopher Albert Camus, and in his 1951 essay Camus touches upon a point that I think is pertinent to blogging as a whole:

“In our daily trials, rebellion plays the same role as does the cogito in the category of thought: it is the first clue.  But this clue lures the individual from his solitude.  Rebellion is the common ground on which every man bases his first values.  I rebel – therefore we exist.”

Blogging archaeology is a form of the  individual freedom of expression, one that is not typically constricted or gagged by contract or institution.  As such it is both an addition to the individual’s expression of educational outreach, but importantly it is also a subversion of the normal mode of delivery for such information and news.  Perhaps especially so when blogging bioarchaeology as many of the most widely read bloggers are affiliated with academic institutions.  Bloggers can talk to the audience directly – they bypass the formal apparatus normally associated with academia and often reach a far wider audience by doing so.  It is mass communication, although it is purely up to the blogger themselves as to how they promote their blogs and interact with their audience.

It is also acknowledgement of the sharing of information of which only a few are privy, or have the access to.  In this way it the rebellion of the individual.  Jess Beck, over at Bone Broke, highlights the fact that blogging allows her to maintain her interest in bioarchaeology and provide content to others who are interested in osteology and palaeopathology.  In a way blogging validates our passion and cements the feeling that we exist, our passion exist and the audience for the information exists.  As such by blogging we are offering first hand accounts from specialists to an interested audience.  Especially at a time when public outreach and engagement is a foundation that is fundamentally needed to provide the validation of the value and worth of our fields in the face of ongoing cuts and funding issues.

Bioarchaeology and human osteology blogs differ in their approach to topics, but all largely adhere in discussing the latest research published in pay-walled journals, often offering summaries or alternative sources to access the information.  By the very vitality of the format, blogging can also challenge the very structure and foundation of formalised academic institutions.  However, there must be careful considerations of how far we either stray or maintain the relationships between the two forms of information dispersal.  As Doug himself notes it is the very freedom of blogging that makes it so special, that if it were mainstreamed to fit the academic mould then the magic from blogging would probably be gone.  It is an analysis that I can definitely agree with, but I do also think that there is some wiggle room for communication between the two.  Speaking of blogging generally, I do believe that there must be dialogue, there must be critical analysis, there must be a frankness and an openness in the way we (the bloggers) produce content.  But this does not mean that we can not be funny or make jokes, as many bloggers do to great effect.

This also leads me onto my next brief point, the demography of bloggers themselves.  In the online bioarchaeological world the bloggers themselves are largely western, English-speaking individuals that dominate the discussion and the main attention of the audience.  In the future I’d like to see further diversity in the representation of bioarchaeology bloggers worldwide (1).  Language is of course a problem – English is the lingua franca of the world, but there is immense scope for the views of the many bioarchaeologists and human osteologists worldwide.  Blogging is, after all, largely a free format in which to produce content.  Identity is also an important topic to discuss when considering the future of blogging as a majority of bioarchaeology bloggers tie the blog name and identity to their own name, twitter account and/or professional career.  Whilst this is to be expected in a particularly competitive field, I am wary of doing this myself.  This blog, after all, is just one facet of my personal being- it is not the whole.

Although I have raised the idea that blogging is rebellion, it is also trapped within a conditioning of legitimacy.  Particularly in that of academic institution affiliation offered as a proxy for the legitimacy of the information presented and discussed.  As far as I am aware I am one of the few bioarchaeological bloggers not currently a doctoral student, a researcher attached to or teaching at a university, or a commercial unit employee.  I do, of course, have the academic background, experience and knowledge to understand the technical terminology within bioarchaeology, and I am actively applying for archaeological jobs and looking at further research.

But I think it may also actively discourage amateur archaeologists or interested members of the public from engaging with blogs or make them think twice on starting a blog themselves.  So I think we have a slight disconnect here between what we think we represent, to what we are and to how others may perceive us.  Market saturation and the dominance of fields are definitely things that should be considered and discussed when trying to understand blogging ecology.  Diversity, for me, is the key to a healthy and developing blogosphere and I encourage debate and critical analysis.

Archaeology is a powerful tool in helping to understand both the human past and to engage critically with our own cultural perceptions (Joyce 2008, Pluciennik 2005).  As such I will continue to blog about archaeology and bioarchaeology as they are subjects that are close to my heart both professionally and personally.  Blogging can (and has) made a difference both inside and outside of academia and, as an active blogger, I would encourage others from around the world to start their own archaeology blogging journey to see where it takes you.

A Fond Farewell

And so it is with a heavy that I bid farewell to the blogging archaeology carnival as hosted by the fantastic digital curator Doug Rocks-Macqueen.  I shall certainly miss the monthly chances to write an introspective post on blogging from the perspective of an archaeology blogger, but I shall miss more the opportunity afforded by the carnival to meet new archaeology bloggers online, to hear views and opinions I had not thought of or considered.  This, for me, has been the true beauty of the blogging archaeology carnival and I for one hope it returns, in some form, in the near future.  So thank you to all the bloggers who have taken part – it has been a joy to read your entries and to be able to focus some thoughts of my own in my entries.

The final review for the blogging archaeology carnival can be found here on Doug’s fantastic website, as can all the bloggers who have taken part in the last session of the carnival.

Notes

(1).  Of course there may well be a wide range of foreign bioarchaeology blogs that I am simply unaware of and cannot read because of the language used.  If you know any, please leave a comment below as I’d be interested to hear about them!

Bibliography

Camus, A. 2013. The Rebel. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Joyce, R. A. 2008. Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender and Archaeology. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Pluciennik, M. 2005. Social Evolution, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology Series. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

White, T. D. & Folkens, P. A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

 

Blog Mention: American Journal of Human Biology

18 Feb

This blog has been mentioned in a recent edition of the American Journal of Human Biology in a review article on bioarchaeology and public outreach.  A hat tip to Alison of Deathsplanation for alerting me to the mention of the blog on Kristina Killgrove’s site Powered By Osteons.

Here is a quick quote of Kristina’s thoughts after reading the article:

“It could be my utter lack of sleep over the last couple weeks owing to my newborn, but it was hard not to take this article a bit personally — and my taking it personally is made all the more weird by the fact that although PbO and other blogs were mentioned in the article, their authors were not credited in either the article or the bibliography. What, precisely, are the authors looking for in public engagement in bioarchaeology? (And why aren’t these two authors themselves doing it rather than writing an armchair view of public outreach?) I’m a bit mystified.  I do agree with them, however, that whatever it is, bioarchaeologists need to be doing more of it… if possible (there are sometimes insurmountable barriers to public outreach in bioarchaeology, and the authors fail to discuss this).”

Read more of Kristina’s excellent response here.

Here is the part were my blog, Kristina’s Powered By Osteons and Katy Meyers Bones Don’t Lie are mentioned:

BlogblogamericanjournalofhumanbiologymentionTBOM

Excerpt from Stojanowski & Duncan’s (2014: 5) review article on bioarchaeology and outreach specifically mentioning this blog and others, please click to enlarge the image.

The great irony is that I cannot access this article that my blog has been named in.  (Of course I used the Open Access Button to highlight the fact that the article is pay-walled).  Also if this post is a bit frazzled, it is because I’m tired after working a late shift in my administration job.

Update 20/02/14

The brilliant Bodies and Academia has made me aware (below in the comments) of a free online version of the article on academia.edu, posted courtesy of the second author Duncan, W.  Read the open accessibly article here!

Read more (or not):

Stojanowski, C. & Duncan, W. 2014. Engaging Bodies in the Public Imagination: Bioarchaeology as Social Science, Science, and HumanitiesAmerican Journal of Human Biology. In Press. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.22522. (Email me for a copy).

Coursera MOOCs blocked in Sudan, Cuba and Iran

29 Jan

I have to say I am loving the Human Evolution: Past and Future MOOC (massive open online course) as it continues into the 2nd week.  I am not currently at university or in a position to access journal articles easily so I really value the fact that the team behind the MOOC and Coursera have put together such an informative and up to date course.  Could you imagine if you were taking part in that course, or any of the hundreds of other free online courses offered by Coursera, and woke up one day to find that your access to the course had been shut off?  Unfortunately that is now the reality for any one taking a Coursera MOOC in Iran, Cuba or Sudan.

In a blog entry dated to the 28th of January 2014 at 8.22pm Coursera declared that the US government had enacted a sanction on the US based course provider effectively blocking any access to courses in the above three countries.  Syria was also blocked but that has since been lifted.

Here is part of the transcript:

Providing access to education for everyone has always been at the core of Coursera’s mission, and it is with deep regret that we have had to make a change to our accessibility in some countries.

Certain United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Under the law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries, with the exception of Syria (see below).

Our global community is incredibly valuable to us and we remain committed to providing quality to education to all. During this time, we empathize with the frustrations of students who are affected by this change and we have made it a top priority to make rapid progress toward a solution” (Read the full entry here).

There are also worries that people living along the borders of these countries will also be affected by the ban.  Although Coursera is based in America there are a high number of its academic staff and organisation partners based all over the world.  This has affected many academic institutions and individuals.

I dearly hope this is temporary.  To my mind it seems a bit of a step backwards to limit the accessibility of free online academic courses.  I have blogged on related topics before about the value of MOOCs, of Iran’s often restrictive attitude to education, and I’ve also highlighted just how little a proportion of the world’s population have access to the internet itself.  I have also blogged before about my worries for net neutrality in a quickly changing world.

It has to be said that there are sadly a number of countries that ban or severely limit access to the world wide web, with China having a particularly strict firewall.  Some countries have a very limited internet capability while others simply have a very mobile population.

There are a number of programs and software installations that can be used to circumvent the IP address ban.  These can include VPN (Virtual Private Networks) or use of the free Tor software (see comments below though), a program which allows anonymity and censorship resistance and is widely used by the public, clandestine humanitarian centers and undercover agents.  There are a number of other methods that can be used as well – see here.  Be aware that the above methods of internet anonymity may be illegal in certain countries and is no way encouraged.

I will try to keep abreast of this development in the accessibility of Coursera MOOCs and I will update this entry as necessary and appropriate.

Open Access Button & r/Scholar

20 Jan

A friend (1) has just informed me of the fantastic Open Access Button plugin tool, a scheme started by medical students who were frustrated by research pay walls online.

All you have to do is install the link on your toolbar and each time you come across a paper or article you cannot access you simply click the link.  A side panel appears where you fill the boxes with the article URL, the digital object identifier (DOI), add a quick article description and add a reason why you need to access the research and then submit it.  This then lets users, the public and professionals, know where research is being pay wall blocked and adds the link to a geographic map of the world informing other users of problems.  It is hoped that the button will show the impact of academic pay walls on research dissemination and produce data on the worldwide distribution of access to research papers.

OAB

The Open Access Button logo (Image credit: David Carroll & Joseph McArthur/OAB).

Also available is the fantastic Reddit scholar thread where you can request any article needed that is pay walled and another Reddit user will provide you with the article, usually within a very small time frame.  This is a fantastic use of the combination of supply and demand for academic access to research articles by individuals who are dedicated to sharing resources.

I’ve installed the open access plugin and it shall be used when I cannot access pay wall blocked articles to learn about the latest updates in human osteology and bioarchaeology.  At the current moment I am finding a lot of articles I try to read are often blocked by pay walls, leaving only the abstract to tantalize me with the forbidden fruits of academic research.  This is frustrating as I am trying to find articles relating to physical impairment in the past and I am finding that the knowledge is out there but it is locked beyond my means to access it.

Update 20/01/14

I have just used the button to report an article I could not access and, quite wonderfully, the plugin suggested several other articles to consider and other sites where I may find the article that I was originally looking for.

Notes

(1.) My friend is one of three authors of the fantastic Scatterfeed blog, a site dedicated to science and nature.  It is well worth checking the site.

Further Information

  • Open Access Button blog site can be found here.
  • The Open Access Button main site can be found here.
  • The r/Scholar Reddit forum can be found here.