5.1 Online or on paper?

The advances in technology that make articles such as this one a possibility have added less to the presentation of survey data than might have been expected. Apart from the occasional inclusion of moving pictures and sound, essentially we still present our data in words, numbers and pictures. Whether publishing on paper or online, the primary aim is clear communication of the arguments and the data. Precisely because of the much wider potential and range of possibilities of online publication, these rules should, if anything, be applied more strictly than in print. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility.

Maps, diagrams and charts are highly sophisticated elements of a presentation (Tufte 1983, 181). They should not simply be used to show off the quantity of data collected, or to break the flow of a long section of text. It is perhaps their apparent simplicity that leads to abuses such as unnecessary decoration. This not only confuses the reader but can actually distort the data it was designed to present (Tufte 1983, 57-9).

Images and pictures present data just as much as words and diagrams, even though their content may be sparser. Drawings (sections, plans, artefacts) might easily be perceived as facsimiles of the original, but a level of interpretation is inevitable in their production. Even reconstruction drawings, most obviously interpretations, need to maintain a high level of data lest they become mere decoration (James 1997, 22-48). Photographs can contain data, though these too run the risk of being mere decoration. A panoramic photograph, for example, can demonstrate the relationships between different localities, or evoke a sense of being in a landscape.

Whether they are being presented on the page or on a screen, the same basic questions of style, size and layout apply to these texts, graphics and images. With new and flexible methods of disseminating information, why is the format of presentation so often limited to linear texts with poorly integrated graphics? Why should texts and figure lists be so determinedly linear? Why should illustrations be incorporated with the text as if the two elements still required very different printing techniques, when more multifaceted, integrated and interactive approaches are now possible?

There is now good evidence that when different types of information are presented together and integrated, the reader has a much improved understanding of both map and text (Schwartz et al. 1998, 87). Even with the establishment of Internet Archaeology, however, only a few archaeological authors have chosen to take this path (e.g. Holtorf 1999; Huggett and Guo-Yuan 2000).

The close integration of complementary data in an article or report has always been difficult with traditional methods of presentation. The best that can be achieved in a single volume is a comprehensive set of appendices. In an online article such as this one, the appendices can be replaced by the complete project database, allowing the integration of detailed field data on demand. The reader can drill down from the article on screen directly into the project archive. A paper book, for all its ease of browsing and appealing materiality, could never achieve such interactivity and integration.


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Last updated: Thur July 5 2007