Blogging Archaeology Carnival for SAA 2014

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In the lead-up to the 2014 Society for American Archaeology meetings and the session on “blogging archaeology,” a “blogging carnival” has been organized by Doug. Everyone is associating their posts with the hashtag #blogarch to track it all.

This month’s question is: Why do you blog, and blog about archaeology?

Why I Write Online

Obviously, the most important thing a researcher can do, besides the research itself, is to make others aware of their results, methods, and ideas. Journal publication is the sine qua non of this communications process, since Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and Journal des Scavans began publishing in 1665. To share scientific results, is to publish in a journal. Or, more rarely, write a book.

Blogging

I actually don’t “blog” anymore, in the formal sense. I have two “fossil” blogs, one personal and one professional. The “current” personal blog started in February of 2004, after I lost a year’s worth of (not very good) material on a Radio Userland blog from 2003. The personal blog mixed a combination of writings on current events, politics (through several election cycles), cooking, and wine. One of the best things about that blog was the 2005 Fifty Book Challenge, originally started by (now Professor) Will Baude (blogging at the time at Crescat Sententia). I ended up reading, and writing about, 74 total books, of which I wrote up 65 (I didn’t count cheesy fiction or some short books). It was an exercise in constantly reading and writing about what I’d read, and it was quite valuable.

But in those days, I largely blogged as a primitive form of “social media,” to share the type of thing with friends that now I’d largely post on Facebook. And thus, my personal blogging tapered off, and it’s rarely updated.

I started a research blog, but entries were sparse and I rarely wrote. The machinery of Wordpress was ill suited to the kind of thing I wanted to do, which really turned out to be having my lab notes and project notes online.

So I scrapped the research blog on Wordpress, and although it still technically exists, I moved to a variety of wiki platforms. For a couple of years, I ran Instiki locally on my laptop, and kept it sync’d and backed up through Dropbox, and while it was incredibly easy and handy for offline use and writing on airplanes, it wasn’t about communicating with the world.

This year, I sat down and restarted a lab notebook, inspired by the uber-open-notebooker Carl Boettiger. I put together a notebook inspired by his architecture, but simpler and with just the features I needed. I document how it works here, and it’s all available in Github if anybody wants a template to use.

Open Notebook Science

So I don’t really blog. Instead, I keep a lab notebook, and I keep it here, for everyone to read. Sometimes there is a post which I have locally on my laptop, and isn’t finished yet, but otherwise, it’s all here (or in some github repository).

As to the why, although journal publication is still the gold standard for scientific communications, there are things that journals aren’t good at.

  1. Communicating fragmentary ideas or exploring their implementation
  2. Showing the process by which an idea is explored
  3. Creating fortuitous collaborations

Blogs, and online lab notebooks, are really “for” these purposes. I want to expose the train of thought, the explorations, because other people have many of the same problems, and might have answers, or directions. I also want to stop feeling possessive about ideas and the intermediate artifacts of research. My value is the ideas I come up with and the skill with which I can implement them. Hiding that under a rock until it’s perfectly finished risks a lot, with very little reward.

Ultimately, I do science in the open because lots of things I work on may not come to fruition, but I still want a record of my thinking. And because I might get hit by a bus, and this might be the last bit of science I get to share with everyone.

A Note About Archaeology

I’m going to writing a lot of lab notes about our upcoming SAA paper, and I’ll be tagging those posts with #blogarch so they show up in the blogging carnival. This is work in progress. It’s going to look like simulations and code and statistics and not much like “archaeology,” at least until the paper itself comes together. Mostly I work on models and quantitative issues, so it might not look like “blogging archaeology” to some people, at least for awhile. But it’s worth trying to share the journey.

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