Vol. XV, No. 3
CSA Newsletter Logo
Winter, 2003

Comprehensiveness for All:
The OASIS Project and Research Values in the Digital Age

J.P. Clarke, C.S. Hardman and W.G. Kilbride

For all the variations and disagreements among archaeologists, the characteristics of high quality research are widely recognised: innovation, economy of argument, an empirical basis, and thoroughness are important indicators of good research. There seems to be a danger that technologists will overlook these fundamental values, so it is hardly surprising that leading advocates of information technology emphasise the need to carry the values and processes of first-rate research into the digital age. Internet Archaeology (http://intarch.ac.uk), for example, pays particular attention to peer review and strict editorial control. Similarly, despite many discussions about archiving and disseminating archaeological fieldwork, no one has contended that excavators should shirk the responsibility of writing up their work. Computers may have fudged the distinction between excavation and post-excavation and between publication and archive, but the work still needs to be done. Research methods may have changed but research values have not.

There is one area where the rapid expansion of information technology may have a profound impact: the ability to make research to be up-to-date and comprehensive. One ongoing project at the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) - the "Online Access to the Index of Archaeological Investigations" (OASIS) project - is precisely the sort of project that may have such an impact.

Students and scholars will be familiar with the tedious but essential task of locating every article or book written on a given topic to ensure that they have understood what previous generations of scholarship have contributed. For archaeology, this often means finding out whether sites in an area have been excavated or studied before and establishing whether early conclusions are still valid. So labour intensive is the work of collating the references to some subjects that there are many venerable and acclaimed publications that never went beyond data collection and presentation. Of course, the speed of publishing and disseminating results previously may have complicated the task since it might be several years before conclusions would reach the scholarly community in monograph or journal.

In the future, and increasingly in the present, the characteristics of the research process may have a different shape. The change is the direct result of information technologies. Data gathering, for example, can now be done with relative ease. Sophisticated citation indexing and alerting services mean that it is no longer necessary to spend hours hunting for bibliographic references to obscure publications. Digitisation initiatives mean that it is not always necessary to travel to distant libraries to read the only copy of the essential publication on a given topic, or to wait for the item to be returned to the library. Gazetteers of sites and monuments, museum catalogues and handlists of archival holdings now proliferate on the Internet, so it is hard to imagine anyone being satisfied by works that simply heap these together on paper without a clear critical and scholarly purpose.

Thus, though comprehensive knowledge of one's subject matter remains a core value of the academic community, the means by which that knowledge is acquired and the speed with which that knowledge becomes out-of-date have changed. The real trick to effective scholarship is changing from knowing all the references on a topic to spotting important ones quickly enough.

Over the last two years, the ADS has been engaged in a number of projects that aim to improve the flow of information into the academic community, especially in terms of the number of small and medium-sized commercially-funded archaeological projects that are often unknown to the academic community. Projects have included the Archway Project, a union catalogue of archaeology journal holdings among UK university libraries, and a table of contents service for the most popular journals (http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/ARCHway.html). It will soon also include a pilot project to digitise the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, one of the longest running archaeology journals in Britain.

In addition, the last few months have seen the rapid development of a new system to improve the flow of information in archaeology between field units, local government archaeology officers, and the academic community. This project - the OASIS project - started as an attempt to extend and provide electronic access to the Excavation Index for England, an extensive index to all archaeological projects undertaken in England that is maintained by the National Monuments Record for England. The first phase of this project was completed in 2001, when the enhanced Index was added to the ADS catalogue ArchSearch (http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue). Since then, attention has focussed on mechanisms to keep this index update.

OASIS expanded its aims in response to a long-recognised problem: the poor and inefficient information flow between field workers, local government archaeologists, national heritage agencies and the rest of the community. In particular, fieldworkers would spend considerable time writing up their fieldwork (invariably on word processors) then send that information to the relevant local government agency where it would sit on a shelf until the local government officer had time to key the information into the (invariably computerised) local record. Thereafter, staff employed by national agencies would visit the local government office where they would re-enter the data into national record, which in turn was distributed to researchers as hefty published volumes.

There were a number of places where this information flow could be improved, and all sides were willing to make the improvements. For example, if the field unit were to submit their material in electronic format, the local government officer could avoid laboriously re-keying the information. If the information were released electronically, then the research community would be able to search the information much more flexibly. The "volumes" could be searched as one and updated or extended as and when the information was available rather than when a publisher could distribute the information by manual means. For this reason, the ADS, in collaboration with a number of partners, have been working to create a single, flexible data capture tool that can supply information to all those that need it, but in such a way as to prevent any increase in workload all round.

The first attempt to produce a common data entry form was largely successful, but it also showed that some aspects of the laborious and apparently redundant process of repeated data entry served an important purpose. By keying information into their local records, local government archaeologists were also taking time to consider the information in front of them and were thus validating the records supplied. Similarly, on entering the data into the national index the national heritage agencies were able to impose their own technical standards on the data. Thus, the apparent inefficiencies in the information flows concealed the validation and endorsement of data sets.

Recognising these important tasks as vital elements of reporting archaeological research, the Oasis project has split the laborious and mechanical from the analytical and statutory functions. Consequently, recent work in the Oasis project has focussed on the validation process. Once entered, data now sits in a secured area where different stakeholders have the opportunity to review it. Passwords and logins allow the originators of the data to amend entries, allow local government officers to review the authenticity of the claims made, and allow the national monuments record to ensure the meeting of data standards. Only once the information has been approved by each of these will it be released on line through the ADS.

The process of editing and reviewing records is currently being subjected to trial implementation. Volunteers in a number of agencies have committed to trying out the data supply mechanism over a six-month period that comes to an end in February. It will be some time before we can demonstrate whether the system really is as viable and extensible as early trials suggest, but it certainly seems as though Oasis has produced a tool set that may go a long way toward resolving some of the information log jams that hinder research. A single unified index, rapidly updated through a flexible data-gathering tool is now a realistic prospect.

What is striking is the potential for Oasis and projects like it to change scholarship. On first inspection, the validation and standardisation tasks are analogous to the peer review process of conventional publication. Like many e-publishing initiatives the Oasis project team have re-visited the established good practice of conventional publication.

The longer-term implications for research may be more radical, however. If it really does become possible to publish on line summary details of all the fieldwork in England every 6 months in a growing and constantly updated index, then the credit scholars derive for their data gathering will clearly have to be revised. Whereas previous generations would have taken years to gather all the references to research at a given location and would have congratulated themselves on the achievement of such a laborious task, in the future (and increasingly in the present) this will be the work of a single day or less. Comprehensive referencing will not be a virtue to which scholars aspire, it will be a sine qua non. It will no longer be the first stage of a doctoral thesis; it is likely to be the first stop in an undergraduate paper. The days of the descriptive index submitted without interpretive scrutiny are surely numbered.

The speed with which these information sources change may also have an implication for how scholarship is performed. It is difficult to establish at present the time lag between completed fieldwork and academic research picking up on it. Big projects obviously take time, and good or well-connected scholars work hard to ensure that they know where to find out about the most recent work. However, by publishing small sites with little immediate impact -- that is the vast majority of sites -- on a rapid basis, scholars may become more rapid in their assimilation of recent fieldwork. Thus, it may be possible to revise synthetic summaries with much greater frequency than hitherto. This is not the result of information technology itself. What the technology offers is a conduit to bring fieldwork to the attention of scholars much more easily.

Thus, the Oasis project shows us that the values of conventional scholarship remain alive and well in the digital age: peer review and comprehensive data gathering are essential. By improving the information flow between fieldworkers and the academic community, Oasis should give students a clearer and earlier insight into current research. Comprehensiveness for all will not undermine the values of the research community but may make us better scholars.

For more information about the OASIS project, visit the project web pages at: http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/project/oasis/

To search the Excavation Index, visit: http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/collections/blurbs/304.cfm

The OASIS Project was originally funded by the Research Support Libraries Programme, and is now supported from English Heritage.

-- J.P. Clarke
    C.S. Hardman
    W.G. Kilbride

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