On grey literature

Posted April 14th, 2010 by Andrea Vianello

Nature has published a news article on archaeological “grey” literature (i.e. unpublished scientific literature often written by contract archaeologists), focussing especially on the UK and the USA. The reason that prompted the article is however a bit dubious: a new book by a UK scholar that has “discovered” the many reports produced by contract archaeological units. It seems important to me to stress that it looks like a moot point: if academics are talking about it and a book based on such reports could be produced, then the literature must be certainly known to them and be available. Indeed, in addition to visit separate archaeological consultancies, the ADS has a section with 4671 reports at the time I am writing this, and more are being added every month. A quick search on Intute shows that the section is catalogued in Intute (disclosure: I catalogued it). From the same article in Nature, it is also possible to gather that in the USA accessing such reports is not much complicated. So why so much fuss about it? It seems that some UK archaeologists (especially among those affiliated with a university) cannot be bothered in considering the work of contract archaeologists, which is entirely their loss.

If we expand our perspective to look at what happens in Europe (just because I am more familiar with such region) we can see that the division between academia and the rest is also strongly rooted in some traditions and as unjustified as in the UK. However, from my direct experience I can say that archaeologists used to work (also) on regions outside the UK are well used at difficulties in finding data and most research projects (including PhDs) do take that in consideration as a time constraint. The point is that archaeologists do look for their data in libraries; archives; contract units; governmental units; and even among other colleagues and amateur archaeologists. This is typically evident in the bibliography of books and papers. I have always told my students that they should check the most recent publications in the bibliography to discover how truly updated a book is, and of course the variety of sources used to gather the data interpreted or presented in a book attempting a generalisation or broader interpretation is also a good indicator of the quality of the book. The presence of a few foreign language books is also usually welcome. Reports of excavations are clearly somewhat different, most data will come from the excavations being published, but for the rest, the year of the most recent book used, the variety of sources used to gather and check data and the presence or absence of foreign literature are often better indicators of quality than the validity of theoretical models. Remember, a theoretical model and resulting interpretations cannot be better than the data run through the model itself.

After several years reviewing archaeological websites of academic relevance, most recently for Intute, allow me to say one more thing: the Web has also become a source of solid good data. Most people still rely on Wikipedia or the first results provided by their search engine of choice, and unsurprisingly the quality of what they see might be very poor (I personally do not believe in Wikipedia as model for an encyclopaedia, no offence intended), but there is so much more. Hopefully, most “grey” literature produced in Britain will be available on the Web, and tapping into its resources will be easier than ever. The UK is better positioned than other countries when it comes to availability, scope and depth of the archaeological literature being produced here. Archaeologists cannot be excused for being lazy, and I fear that the article in Nature really exposes laziness more than a problem. The last word is about the contract archaeological units (or consultancies): I have completed my MA and PhD in a university that had a very active consultancy, and we (everyone in the Department) used to say that the consultancy was the only place where “real” archaeology (i.e. from digging to interpreting) was being done. Whilst everybody in the academic sector focused on tiny ultra-specialised segments of the archaeological practice, contract archaeologists have been doing what we were talking about. Commercial archaeology may be not ideal for all, but it certainly cannot be ignored, and I can say that many archaeologists have never ignored it.