Stewardship and equity within digital archaeological research infrastructures

Holly Wright and Julian Richards, Archaeology Data Services

Keywords: infrastructures; preservation; stewardship; equity; dissemination; re-use; ARIADNEplus; SEADDA

Within archaeology, there is continued emphasis on technological and methodological innovation, rather than on the complex social factors that contribute to their success or failure. Digital research infrastructures can act as catalysts to bring together different communities of expertise and interest, but can also make explicit areas of disagreement and inequity. The collaborative work required to build or maintain an digital research infrastructure in the long-term is often as valuable as the infrastructure itself, particularly with regard to collaboration around advocacy. It can serve to improve the quality of the digital resources within the infrastructure and the underlying research, while also creating more resilient stakeholder communities, which, in turn, help to make the resources within the infrastructure more sustainable. Infrastructures can facilitate collaborative archaeology, but collaboration is not necessarily an end unto itself; infrastructures and collaboration can often form a virtuous circle.

Digital research infrastructures may be created to incorporate resources around a single project or topic, or they may incorporate many, perhaps thousands, of archaeological interventions or subjects. Large scale, digital research infrastructures, combining data from disparate archaeological sources, can be part of a scholarly eco-system, facilitating those who would advocate for a more collaborative archaeology by focusing on two pressing issues: stewardship and equity. Stewardship is often used as an overarching practical and general term to describe issues around data preservation and dissemination, but it is used less often in discussions around responsibility. Data ownership and data openness are currently a main focus within digital research infrastructures, but the questions of who should be responsible, and why, from a best practice standpoint, are rarely at the fore. The rise of the open data movement has begun to reshape practice for individual researchers and research projects, and the idea that research data should be made open once the researcher has had sufficient time to publish is becoming more accepted, but within archaeology, who should hold the data in the long-term and how it should be disseminated does not receive the same attention and discussion.

This is partly a symptom of archaeological data types being unusually diverse, necessitating difficult decisions around selection and retention, but also reflects a continued valuing of ownership over stewardship. Researchers, research projects, and organizations usually have the best of intentions for their data, but rarely ask hard questions about their own stewardship capacity: whether they are truly best placed to care for the data in the long term.

In addition, archaeologists are operating in a research environment that makes an assumption of data persistence: that once made freely accessible online, digital resources will continue to be available for use and reuse. In practice, this is the exception rather than the rule. Research infrastructures for archaeology are still typically funded on a project by-project basis, or through national or regional initiatives, which are subject to changes in political priorities. The project-by-project model does not always lend itself to building lasting collaborations that facilitate stewardship. Funding schemes often stipulate working with different partners with different strengths, and may limit the countries or types of partners that may be involved, resulting in pressure to constantly change the nature of our collaborations. This can both drive and hamper innovation, as new collaborative partnerships may generate new solutions and new connections, but this preference for constant change may also prevent successful collaborations from continuing from one project to the next, making the building of consensus around stewardship more challenging.

Despite these difficulties, funders and organizations are increasingly focused on sustainability planning. This is positive, but often unrealistic. Funding priorities tend to favor innovation over maintaining or upgrading existing infrastructures and securing funding from non-traditional sources is difficult. Archaeologists are continually encouraged to find ways to make their work marketable within commercial frameworks and this is invariably part of any sustainability plan, but rarely produces significant revenue. Successful models for the long-term stewardship of archaeological data remain limited.

Related to stewardship, and also in need of more attention, is equity. Conversations about equity usually focus on equity of access by user communities to resources held by digital research infrastructures. While that issue is very important, there is also the issue of equity of access for data providers. The adoption of digital methods has resulted in the creation of primary data in digital form, derived through the documentation of a physical resource that may be destroyed as a result of its investigation. As the data created to document archaeological interventions are increasingly “born digital,” the well-known issues around the fragility and obsolescence of digital resources become more pressing. A variety of digital research infrastructures with a long-term remit have been developed at the regional, national, and international levels and work to serve their communities, but still only incorporate a small proportion of the digital archaeological data that exists. In fact, most archaeological projects and practitioners lack the resources to engage with best practice or participate in digital research infrastructures, as support for stewardship of their data is often lacking or non-existent. This means some archaeological research data is at risk in all countries, regions, and communities, but in most countries, all data is at risk.

This lack of equity has become more visible through the work of international digital research infrastructures, where researchers contributing data are better able to see the differences in technical and knowledge-based capacity between partners, representing both a major challenge and a collaborative opportunity. It has also surfaced a secondary challenge, which is lack of equity around knowledge and resources barring participation in infrastructure projects at all, excluding the potential partners who would most benefit from involvement in projects and funding. Meanwhile, expectations around innovation continue to raise the bar to entry, making it ever more difficult to join the collaborative conversation as time goes on.

This paper will discuss observations on stewardship derived from the work of Archaeology Data Service (ADS), an archive for archaeological data based in the United Kingdom, and observations on equity derived from participation in Advanced Research Infrastructure for Archaeological Dataset Networking in Europe (ARIADNE), a project funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme (ARIADNE 2017), to create a European infrastructure for archaeological data. These observation have directly informed the direction of the next phase of ARIADNE (ARIADNEplus) and the creation of Saving European Archaeology from the Digital Dark Age (SEADDA), a new COST Action designed to compliment ARKWORK.