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Open Source Software Adds to Collaboration, Transparency and Reproducibility in Archaeology

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Night at Cigli - Izmir, Turkey, September 10, 2010 | © Courtesy of Ceyhun (Jay) Isik.

A recent empirical study by Néhémie Strupler and Toby C. Wilkinson demonstrates that openly accessible digital tools, such as open-source Git and R platforms, can increase the transparency of archaeological fieldwork, while adding methodological rigor to its procedures.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


While archaeology as a science is associated with limitations to the open dissemination, controlled reproduction and independent validation of its findings, the principles of Open Science, as Strupler and Wilkinson argue in their research article published in October 2017 in the Open Access journal Open Archaeology, can contribute to the mitigation of these methodology shortcomings this discipline has. Given that archaeological studies frequently reuse previous findings, engage in comparative research and rely on cross-validation by other scholars operating in this field of inquiry, closed access to extant literature creates barriers to the advancement of archaeology.

Nevertheless, archeologists have been reluctant to adopt Open Access and Open Data, due to their concerns over intellectual property rights, low incentives for primary data sharing and limited author attribution possibilities. Moreover, in this discipline Open Access has been making limited inroads, because it increases the degree of peer and public scrutiny that publications attract, may demand additional due diligence concerning research ethics, e.g., in relation to heritage protection, and can trigger undesired publicity, if findings relate to politically sensitive topics. However, under the impact of governmental policies and funder mandates, archaeological researchers increasingly opt for Open Access and Open Data, while making efforts to establish good practice standards, develop analytical reproducibility procedures for their respective findings and keep track of multiple-format data that fieldwork generates for subsequent storage, reuse and sharing.

Digital technologies that are particularly useful for these purposes are handheld device-based field data entry systems, e.g., OpenDataKit (ODK) software, and distributed version-control data management platforms, e.g., Git and GitLab repositories, which facilitate project management and collaboration. These digital solutions benefit archaeological research practice, also because they contribute to its methodological transparency and reproducibility, as they enable maintaining collaborative data repositories and make research procedures explicit for the purposes of data analysis, mistake correction, and output visualization, such as with the aid of R, an open source programming platform used for data manipulation and analysis. Given that archeology-relevant digitization solutions, such as ODK Collect and AlpineQuest, can be installed on off-the-shelf Android devices, operate without constant Wi-Fi connection in field conditions, and contain user-friendly data capture interfaces, such as data-entry forms, they increase the transparency of archaeological research, while improving the quality of its results.

Furthermore, once fieldwork data are digitally codified and stored, they can be more easily utilized by primary researchers and their colleagues, which especially suites collaborative projects. Yet, archaeological surveys also produce unstructured data, such as logs and handbooks, that cannot necessarily be included into peer-reviewed publications, but can be of value for the research community, which can be accommodated by Open Access data repositories.

Thus, the versioning, attribution and collaboration capabilities of Open Access repositories, such as those based on open source platforms, e.g., Git, enable research projects in the field of archaeology to translate research questions into high-quality scientific outputs. This is illustrated by Strupler and Wilkinson’s archeological survey project in Mavişehir (formerly Panormos), Turkey. Open source tools add dynamic data analysis, data sharing protocols and transparent data collection and information release procedures to scientific practice in the field of archaeology, which brings methodological benefits, despite the risks that using Open Access data repositories may involve.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: Night at Cigli – Izmir, Turkey, September 10, 2010 | © Courtesy of Ceyhun (Jay) Isik.

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