AIA News

September 30, 2012

Letter from AIA President Elizabeth Bartman on Open Access

September 2012


By AIA President Elizabeth Bartman                                             

In an editorial in Archaeology magazine (May/June 2012), I made a statement that I want to clarify, about the AIA’s position toward open access.  I talked about several bills that are currently working their way through Congress that concern research projects funded by federal dollars.  The bill that caught our attention recommends that researchers funded by federal grants submit reports to peer-reviewed journals and, within six months of publication, make these reports available online and for free. This is the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2012 (the complete seven page text of this bill is available here:

On the face of it, the bill may seem sensible and fair. Research projects funded by federal dollars should be made available to the public at large, and since the public has already funded that research it should not have to pay any more money to be able to read about it.

And the AIA is not opposed to open access as a concept—indeed, the AIA and its publications are already committed to sponsoring as much open access as is financially sustainable and ethically reasonable; there is already much important information (including text content and images) freely accessible through the web sites of the AIA, Archaeology magazine, and the American Journal of Archaeology.

The AIA does have concerns, however.  Our primary objection to the bill is to its mandate that the published research reports be made available online and free six months after publication. This time frame is too short: the AJA depends on subscriptions, especially institutional, for its financial survival. If libraries could get access to its articles free within six months they would rightly cancel their subscriptions and wait.  Free online access would also force us to increase subscription prices to the extent that we lose revenue from reprints or access to our archive. 

Another objection to the proposed bill is to the online publishing of the published research reports. Federal grants usually do not cover publication costs; they normally cover only the acquisition of raw data. Published reports add interpretation and expertise, both the result of years of contemplation and the combined efforts of many scholars, not to mention the involved and expensive publication process itself. None of this is usually paid for by Federal grants.  Nor do these grants cover our costs, especially editorial and production.

We support the concept of open access and we will encourage and facilitate ongoing discussions with our professional members about what open access entails. But perhaps the public should get access to what it has actually paid for: if raw data (e.g., the photographs of objects) or finished article, both would be available through open access. Many excavations already do publish their raw data on project websites and authors make their articles available online, and in doing so they are all in compliance with current regulations set down by funding agencies like the NSF and NEH. We would support legislation that continues this process and we would even advocate for it.

In analyzing this issue, I have been fortunate to have the advice of several thoughtful AIA members who joined a task force I created last spring to consider how open access can function within the existing structure and finances of the Institute.  As digital initiatives become even more dominant, I expect further developments. Stay tuned! I’ll be reporting back on this subject as we move forward.


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