School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. L.M.Shillito@ed.ac.uk
Cite this as: Shillito, L. M. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology 39. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.5.com1
When I was asked to do this review, I immediately agreed. I am something of a peer review veteran, possibly because I am bad at saying no to requests and have developed a reputation for speedy turnaround. This, however, is the first time I have conducted an open review. Open review is something I am very keen on, and I have always told editors in the past that they can reveal my name to authors if requested. I firmly believe that a reviewer should be willing to put their name to a critique, and that a two-way process of communication is the best way to improve our outputs. The hardest thing about this review is that it is not a review in the traditional sense, but more of a commentary, so much of what follows is a series of thoughts that I have had when thinking about my own blog, that also came up when reading Meyers Emery and Killgrove's article.
Meyers Emery and Killgrove provide an overview of blogging in bioarchaeology, how it can be used in outreach and public engagement, the difficulties and benefits of blogging, with some ideas for best practice. Many of the things they discuss are applicable to academic blogging in general, rather than just bioarchaeology. This is perhaps one of the critiques I have of the article, that it would be better to think about blogging and academia in a wider sense before framing bioarchaeology as a case study. There is a whole body of literature on social media and public outreach, and any subject-specific case study should be situated within this. I think this is difficult to do, as we are archaeologists rather than digital communication specialists, but it is important if we want to think critically about our blogs as tools for engagement and outreach. My own initial dips into the literature suggest that the impacts of blogging as a public relations tool might be relatively modest (Kent 2008). The format is inherently limited, in that the more specialised the topic, the less widely read it will be, and that you will only tend to reach an audience that is actively looking for you, and likely shares your opinion.
The lessons to be learned by Meyers Emery's and Killgrove's successful blogs are lessons that are applicable beyond their specialist area. Is it something about their subject matter, the skill of the bloggers, or both? One thing that came to mind is the question of dissemination. No matter how well written and accessible it is, a blog needs to get 'out there'. Meyers Emery is often asked by other researchers to write about their articles so that they are more widely disseminated. This is an enviable audience, and I would be interested in hearing more about how such an audience can be built.
This leads on to the question of audience. The paper focuses a lot on the importance of bringing bioarchaeology to a wider audience, but there is no real data on who this audience is. This is something that I also wonder about for my own blog. The idea of a 'general public' is problematic (discussed recently by Perry 2014), and without understanding this we run the risk of 'communicating blindly to an audience we don't understand' (Richardson 2014, 294). Although we all aim to reach out to a wider (i.e. non-academic) audience, how do we do this, besides writing in a more accessible way? Again, dissemination is key, and an example given by Killgrove suggests that sharing on Wikipedia was one of the major factors that has increased the profile of her blog. The anecdotal evidence on emails received by the authors suggests a range of audiences, but it would be interesting and very useful to see real statistics on this. I would also like to see more on the participation aspects – do the blogs discussed have any examples of how participation and discussion have helped understand the audience and the impact of the blogs?
Another thought (and again, it is one I have with my own blogging), is what is our purpose? We want to educate the public, but which public, and to what ends? As Meyers Emery and Killgrove state, the public has a fascination with human remains, yet at the same time they are trying to 'de-sensationalise' the subject. On the one hand we could argue bioarchaeology is using its more gruesome aspects to draw people in, but at the same time trying to explain that it is more than this. How do we measure whether this has been effective? The example of the Nazi War Diggers program being pulled indicates that blogging can have significant influence, though there is no data on whether the lobbying that resulted from the blog post was driven by the public rather than professionals and academics.
The observations that bioarchaeology bloggers tend to be women, and also early-career academics, is interesting. Both of these factors I think suggest that a key driver behind blogging is 'making a name' in a competitive market, and disseminating research more widely. Although it is admirable that we do this to educate the public, I think that overstating this as a driver denies the personal motivation behind blogging. Early-career academics cannot afford to spend time on things for which there is no benefit, and it is OK to admit that public engagement can be a mutually beneficial endeavour. Public engagement is now something (in the UK at least) that is fast becoming a requirement within academia, as a central part of the Research Excellence Framework, and for obtaining Research Council funding. Blogs like PbO and BDL have the potential to show how blogging can be used as a real public engagement tool; it is critical that we have real data that we can use to demonstrate the impact.
Archaeology Center, Stanford University, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
Cite this as: Haddow, S. D. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology, http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.5.com1
In this article, Katy Meyers Emery and Kristina Killgrove survey the current state of bioarchaeology-related blogs: who are the people blogging, what are they blogging about and why do they bother? Their findings are thorough and well-referenced, and their observations, based on many years of blogging experience, along with their suggestions for the future of bioarchaeology blogging are insightful. Only the most old-fashioned, tech-phobic and probably tenured individual could come away from this piece still not recognising the value inherent in blogging. As such, I have only a few minor criticisms, while offering a number of additional observations, some based on my own experiences.
While archaeology blogs covering an ever-expanding range of topics have proliferated in recent years, Meyers Emery and Killgrove rightly observe that blogs dealing specifically with bioarchaeological issues still seem under-represented. Given the amount of public interest in forensic-themed television shows, as well as news stories and documentaries involving archaeological skeletal remains, why aren't there more bioarchaeologists attempting to bridge the gap between media representations of our work and our own academic output, which is usually concealed from the public behind journal paywalls and a curtain of dry language and technical jargon? With the increasing tendency of universities and other research bodies to issue press releases accompanying new research findings, in tandem with the proliferation of science news aggregators such as LiveScience, Heritage Daily and the Archaeology News Network (to name but a few), it has never been easier for interested members of the public to find up-to-date information on bioarchaeology-related topics. Despite this, it is surprising how often coverage of such topics are confused, misinterpreted or just plain wrong. The authors contend that more bioarchaeology bloggers are required to in order to counter these misrepresentations, but where are they?
The authors outline three potential constraints that might account for the apparent shortage of bioarchaeology bloggers: content, practical, and effort/reward. While practical constraints such as time involved and technical skill, along with academic 'return on investment' (effort/reward) can apply to any form of academic blogging, the constraint most relevant to bioarchaeology blogging relates to content. As Meyers Emery and Killgrove point out, many of the topics dealt with by bioarchaeologists necessarily involve aspects of death: violence, murder, disease and other potentially upsetting subjects. As such, bloggers may refrain from writing about such matters for fear of putting off squeamish members of the public. I would argue, however, that in a Western world where the realities of death and dying are increasingly kept at a safe distance via hospitals and funeral homes, it is precisely these 'morbid' themes that the public is attracted to. This attraction might also explain the popularity of non-bioarchaeology 'deathxperts' such as Bess Lovejoy, Caitlin Doughty and Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy.
Another potential content constraint not fully explored by the authors is the increased sensitivity surrounding the collection and display of human remains, especially, but not limited to, those of indigenous communities — peoples with whom the discipline of physical anthropology has had a long and often ignoble relationship. Thus, some bloggers might be reluctant to post pictures or stories of research involving a particular set of archaeological skeletal remains for fear of offending descendent groups. Such sensitivities are valid and it is right that we as bioarchaeologists should respect other's attitudes and beliefs when discussing the remains of once-living human beings.
Other content constraints that apply equally to general archaeology bloggers are embargoes placed on the discussion or dissemination of ongoing research results, either by project directors or government authorities. As a bioarchaeologist working in Egypt, for example, I am forbidden by the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities from discussing new archaeological findings in public without their prior approval. These embargoes are typically enforced by project directors who fear having their excavation permits revoked. As such, I have never blogged about my current work in Egypt or Sudan. Until quite recently, however, publication bans on fieldwork did not exist in Turkey and I was able to post weekly updates on our work in the human remains laboratory at Çatalhöyük during the summer excavation season. Unfortunately, recent actions against foreign missions in Turkey taken by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism led project director Ian Hodder to issue a ban on any form of social media (including blogging) on site last summer, and I could no longer write about our work without government approval.
I agree with the authors here that Stojanowski and Duncan's (2014) assessment of bioarchaeology blogs as a forum primarily for other specialists and students is inaccurate and, more importantly, misses the point. Academic blogs of any variety will inevitably attract fellow travellers, but this does not necessitate the exclusion of interested members of the public. A well-written blog can appeal to both specialist and non-specialist alike. However, as many bloggers readily admit in this article, public outreach and engagement is only one aspect of why we blog. Other reasons include the need for a less formal space to develop and share ideas, and a desire to gain visibility in an increasingly competitive academic job market. These are equally valid motives for blogging, yet sometimes it seems as if bloggers downplay them for fear of appearing selfish and instead over-emphasise public outreach and engagement because it is consistent with the oft-stated (and entirely necessary) goal of making anthropology accessible to a broader audience. It does seem at times, however, that anthropology/archaeology/bioarchaeology bloggers often spend more time fretting about how and why we blog rather than just getting on with it! Blogging about blogging can hardly be of interest to anyone but other bloggers and, in this sense, there is an element of 'navel-gazing' in these exercises. Of course there is nothing wrong with self-reflection, but in my experience, such posts have been the least popular on my own blog.
Without question, blogs with large audiences such as PbO and BDL do a great service to the discipline by presenting bioarchaeological research to non-specialists in accessible language, while at the same time correcting inaccuracies encountered in media presentations of recent archaeological discoveries. I am not convinced, however, that redressing misrepresentations of bioarchaeological research in the media should be the primary goal of every bioarchaeology blogger as the authors advocate here. While that is certainly important, there is room for a wide range of topics and approaches, as they acknowledge in section 3.4. There are a variety of motivations for blogging and, as the authors would surely agree, bioarchaeologists should feel free to write about whatever interests them, whether it is a full spectrum approach to the discipline or limited to one's own specialised subject matter, however arcane. If bioarchaeologists truly want to engage with the public, however, we should perhaps aim to do more than simply 'counteract misconceptions about skeletons and burials'. To be fair, both Meyers Emery and Killgrove do not limit themselves to these rather modest aims on their own blogs.
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|Very interesting to read these comments, which repeatedly call for (presumably quantitative) proof that blogs have an impact. First, I would point out that most academics have never had *any* proof of what our impact is. In my field (History) we do not do citation counts. And citation only means that somebody has decided to frame their own work on the basis of yours; it is not an indication of how many people have read your work. So blogging is innovative in that it can quantify impact ("hits") in a way print publication couldn't. At least in the form published here, Meyers Emery and Killgrove provide extensive quantitative data of readership.|
Second, what constitutes "impact" for the general public won't necessarily be the same as what constitutes impact for academics. For my money, "impact" can be not simply the initial "Wow!" upon first reading, but the infusion of habits of critical thinking that help create an educated public more willing to ask good questions the next time scientific data is published. Not all impact needs to be immediate.
Third, because so much of this bioarcheological work is moving into deep history (the Middle Ages and earlier), these blogs do very important work in educating the general public to think historically. As the authors note, so much excellent work is hidden behind journal paywalls that leave the non-university-connected in the dark about happenings in the field. In fact, we need historians to engage in similar kinds of blogging--in part to connect scientific findings with the narratives we historians create from documentary sources, and in part to communicate more clearly "habits of mind" that contribute to good historical thinking: how to assess and weigh evidence, how to think across time and space, etc.
There is much more to discuss here as well (e.g., the "Content Constraints" identified in the essay), especially with regard to blogging as a tool for building an academic profile. But I applaud Dr. Killgrove and Ms. Meyers Emery for laying out some key terms of debate.
Professor of History
Arizona State University
|It's excellent to see some of the issues that have been major themes in the wider world of archaeology blogging being taken up for the specific field of bioarchaeology. As the authors point out, bioarchaeology touches on sensitive topics, and one potential constraint on blogging on the subject are concerns about falling foul of sensitivities on emotionally or ethically charged issues. As Monica Green comments above, this is an aspect of bioarchaeology blogging that merits further expansion.|
The specific constraints applicable to discussing human remains seem definitely factor in the wider discourse on the curation of human remains, so it seems likely it would also be a dampening factor in blogging about bones. I would also add to the constraining factors institutional attitudes towards human tissue research which might be applicable. One can look to the controversy over the display of 'real' human remains in museums for a clear sign that bioarchaeology is not always a research stream institutions wish to advertise.
I personally would love to see a wider discussion of the value of communicating bioarchaeology research, and the development of an ethical framework for doing just that - one that would avoid triggering a negative reaction in either the public or institutionally. I'm not sure how it could be done, but I applaud the authors on what is surely a useful first step in this direction.
*My opinions are mine alone and do not reflect those of my employer.**
**You see why we need to have this discussion.